Our common food is no longer our daily bread, apparently; I’m not sure whether we should be alarmed by this. It depends who they’re polling, I suppose. Personally, I eat bread all the time. I eat it when I should, nibbling on the impeccable bread selection which precedes the stately procession of the tasting menu at The Sportsman; I eat it when I shouldn’t, using a stale end to transfer the last smears of carbonara sauce into an already full stomach. When I need food, I eat bread. Nothing calms the stomach like a cheese-and-cucumber sandwich from the petrol station shop. Now it seems this puts me in a minority. As I said, though, it depends who they’re polling.
It could be pernicious clean-eaters eschewing bread for its gluten; it could be people getting all their carbs from elsewhere, from porridges and pastas and potatoes; it could even be those so in love with bread they buy one impeccable loaf a week, and save it for their Sunday. Good bread – real bread, or as it used to be called, ‘bread’ – is expensive, as it should be. Good ingredients are expensive, good labour is expensive, time is expensive. If good food is out of the reach of many, then there are many other things which should be changed, rather than degrading the staff (and indeed the stuff) of life to the point where it barely nourishes. Nearly half of everything baked in the UK is thrown away, for example, a shocking waste which would be considered a crime in other cultures.
Bread in Islam is considered a symbolic food, a synecdochic representation of all nourishment as it comes from God, as it is also, I suppose, in Christianity (our daily bread being hopefully not just bread); they tend to take this more seriously, though. Walk old streets in Morocco and you will see stray khobz stuffed between buildings and in cracks in walls, saved from the street and awaiting charitable redistribution; like the feet of angels, it can not touch the base earth. More prosaically, Istanbul, for all its problems, feeds its populace from subsidised and strictly regulated bakeries, as London used to do. Buy bread from anywhere in the city and it will match in price and quality. The responsibility of government to ensure the poor do not starve has been steadily shrugged off in the so-called developed world.
Even with good flour, bread doesn’t cost that much to make, if you make it yourself, but it is hard, and it takes a long time, which is why we’ve always got bakers to do it, a strange group of people who scuttle about at all hours, covered in flour and little bits of dough. I like making bread, but I lack the skill and the patience to do it every day. I certainly can’t make as much as I like to eat, at least when it comes to sourdough. This sort-of focaccia is a good alternative when I want something fresh-baked, though. The initial rise is so accelerated it seems you’re watching it in time-lapse, and it tastes good, too.
1 tin of chickpeas
1 tsp honey
160g cold water
1 packet dry yeast / 15g fresh
260g strong white flour
15g extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp caraway or cumin seeds
Empty the tin of chickpeas into a saucepan and bring to a boil, then blitz smooth with the honey and cold water. Let it cool to blood temperature, then blitz in the yeast. Tip the whole mush into a bowl.
Pour the flour over in a layer, then sprinkle over the salt, drizzle over the oil, and, I don’t know, throw in the spices. Leave in a warm place. In about 20 minutes it should have risen significantly; there will be deep cracks in the flour layer with chickpea porridge bursting through.
Beat everything together with a wooden spoon, and use this same implement to knead it – it’s too sticky to do by hand. Just use the spoon to drag up one side of the mix and fold it back down into the middle, a few times until it starts to resist and feel alive. Put the dough in a greased skillet or baking tray to prove for an hour. Heat the oven as high as it’ll go.
When the hour is up, bake the loaf for half an hour, turning and perhaps drizzling with more oil halfway through; it won’t rise a huge amount in the oven, but it will be soft and springy and golden, and, of course, sound hollow when you tap the bottom. Let it cool for 5 minutes before tucking in, for appearance’s sake.