It’s time to toast all that is good about bread – I mean REAL bread!

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Today marks the start of Real Bread Week, an annual, international celebration of properly produced bread and the people who make it.

The main aims of the campaign are to encourage people to buy bread from local, independent bakeries and to bake it at home. Like any good product, well made bread is all about the ingredients.

A few years ago I noticed I got cramps anytime I ate commercially made bread. When I baked my own with organic stone ground flour, there were no side effects. I spent a lot of time, and money, sourcing flour from a mill in Wales and having it shipped here. It was a great relief to me, and my pocket, when I found the same flour in the Asian supermarket in Belfast. Most supermarkets now stock carefully sourced flour. Dove’s Farm based in Devon in England have an impressive range of organic flours and gluten free alternatives.

Bread, in its essence is flour, mixed with water, salt and yeast and given time to ferment and prove. It was made this way until 1961 when the Chorleywood Process was introduced by the British Baking Industries Research Association, based in Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. Instead of using high protein flour and yeast to slowly make bread, they added emulsifiers and enzymes to low protein flour, along with fast working machinery, to speed up the process. The time of making, kneading, proving and baking bread was cut down to three and a half hours, where originally it could be up to 24 hours. The quality of the bread deteriorated as a consequence.

My late, great baking friend David Semple illustrated this a few years ago at the Balmoral Show. He took a generic pan loaf and subsequently beat it with a rolling pin to a tiny lump. While it was funny and got a laugh, he was making a serious point. There are many phenomenally good bakeries in Northern Ireland baking bread that would stand up to this good pounding and that’s the type of bread we should be concentrating on.

Like many people in this country, I was lucky to be raised on our wonderful soda bread and farls. Bread like this is easy to make and doesn’t require yeast or for it to be kneaded and allowed to prove. Buttermilk, an acid, is used alongside alkaline baking soda to form carbon dioxide which naturally raises the dough.

My first recipe is for wheaten bread and a loaf I bake regularly. It’s simple as long as you start it in a hot oven, to get a crust, and then lower the heat to ensure its cooked through. It has treacle and butter in the mix and smells heavenly when baked.

One of the first yeast breads I made was an Italian foccacia. It has olive oil, white wine, flour, yeast and salt. You can add olives, onions, garlic, herbs – the world is your oyster. I adapted my original recipe and replaced the white wine with Long Meadow oak aged cider and the olive oil with Broighter Gold rapeseed oil to give it a more local feel.

I’ve included a recipe for it and one for breadsticks. These sticks are normally made with simple leftover pizza dough but my version uses plain flour, butter, milk and soft cheese instead. Dart Mountain cheese based in the Sperrins have recently introduced a delicious soft goat’s cheese to their range called Carraig Ban and it works perfectly in this recipe.

David Semple finished his demonstration at Balmoral with a beautiful poem, the perfect sentiment for Real Bread Week.

Be gentle when you touch bread.

Let it not lie uncared for – unwanted

So often bread is taken for granted

There is so much beauty in bread

Beauty in the sun and soil

Beauty of patient toil

Winds and rain have caressed it

Christ so often blessed it

Be gentle when you touch bread

Let it not lie uncared for – unwanted