Thursday, October 16, 2008

English Bread and Yeast Cookery, by Elizabeth David

The first half of Elizabeth David’s 1977 classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery is a history and background of bread. The second half is composed of recipes, most it seems culled from Mrs David’s voluminous reading on the subject. I didn’t bother to read the second part, although skimming through its pages it appears to continue in the same style as the first part: a mix of history, commentary, interesting ephemera and personal experiences when making the bread.

Why, one wonders, did Britain have such a bad food culture? (One wonders if things have improved watching some of Jamie Oliver’s TV specials on the parlous state of the contemporary British diet.) Remember that essay Orwell wrote admitting there was a lot of bad food in Britain, but arguing that the best food to be found was in home cooking?

With no decent food culture in Britain, Elizabeth David had to find her own way to something decent to eat– by travel and research. What prompted Mrs David to write this tome was the prevalence of white factory bread, made in an alarmingly quick time with the help of various additives. In British bread, as in the US, vitamins that are stripped from the flour in the milling process have to put back into the bread. Amazingly, by law chalk had to be added to white bread in order to increase its calcium component. These sorts of foods, where the vitamins are added back in after being stripped out, are called fortified.

Elizabeth David covers a lot of unthought of topics in this book, which gives it its original and refreshing flavour. She seems to have a passion for ordinary household utensils. In a section on measuring jugs she calls plastic one hideous!

This may lead you to think that she’s an insufferable snob, but that’s not true. She comes across more as a smart shopper and savvy household cook who won’t be hoodwinked. She readily dispenses advice on where to buy cheap rock salt and how to avoid being ripped off. Mixed in with her archaeology of medieval ovens and excavated clay pots, is a rock solid common sense. In short, you get the impression that she cares very deeply about the simple things in life that the rest of us take for granted.

If the aim of this book is to get you wanting to cook your own bread, then I think it is a success. The many descriptions of breads and breadmaking throughout history left this reader eager to try making his own bread.

The book also is extremely thorough, going into minute detail about different flours, milling, baking, the importance of fats and salt, and finally the composition of the wheat and yeast. It’s an unusual and original book, a sort of history written by a smart and energetic household cook, that still appears to be a bible amongst food lover today.

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