I don’t know about you, but for me there’s nothing that says “home” like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the house. When my mother baked, the loaves would be barely out the oven and I’d be there, ready to cut a huge slice, slather it with butter, and top with cheese.
So powerful is the aroma of fresh bread that supermarkets either strategically place bakery counters near the front of their premises or pump in artificial “fresh bread” fragrance, in an effort to make customers stay longer and buy more.
Bread comes in many varieties across the Caribbean, from the coconut-milk-infused coco bread of Jamaica to the long and pointy mastiff bread of Dominica and the moreish hops rolls of Trinidad. Bread is something we consume daily, though our bread market is dominated by the commercial sandwich loaf — the pre-sliced soft bread that is more convenient because it lasts longer. But in recent years, bread — particularly white bread — has got a bad rap. In the quest for a healthy lifestyle, some give up bread in favour of a high-protein, low-carb diet, while others are shunning bread because they suffer from wheat intolerance.
People who are wheat-intolerant often suffer from bloating, diarrhoea, vomiting, and stomach pain after eating bread or any wheat products. While I’m not wheat-intolerant, I started noticing that eating some kinds of commercial bread left me feeling bloated. This didn’t happen if I ate homemade bread or sourdough bread. At its most basic, bread is made of water, flour, salt, and leavening, but as commercial bread needs to stay longer on the shelves, enzymes and conditioners are usually added. After some research, I put my bloating down to the preservatives and other additives — so I cut back and started looking for alternatives.
In Britain, where I lived at the time, there was a resurgence in the artisan bread movement, and people were urged to either support smaller bakeries that employ traditional breadmaking methods and use no artificial ingredients, or learn to bake their own bread. Of course, being the adventure foodie, baking for myself was the more attractive option.
Having learned the basics from my mother, I went to a few demonstrations and bought several key books to bring my baking skills up to scratch. Baking takes time. Between kneading, proving, and baking, it can take two hours or more to get just two loaves of bread — but the positives of baking make it absolutely worth it.
The best thing about baking is that you control what goes into your bread. I recommend buying the best quality flour, and experimenting with different varieties. It’s not difficult to find flours like spelt, rye, and amaranth, which can be used with or as alternative to plain white flour.
In her book Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, the US writer Maria Speck makes the case for using Old World staples such as farro, barley, polenta, and wheat berries as part of our diets today. Speck says people are turning to these grains for health reasons, but also because they taste good. “Consumers are also learning to appreciate and enjoy the subtle flavours and rich textures whole grains add to their diet,” she tells me.
Speck, who is currently writing her second book, Simply Ancient Grains, explains that in the US people are seeking out freshly milled flour from local farms, as farmers have started to grow grains again in areas where they had long been abandoned. In the absence of such premium flour, Speck recommends using the best whole wheat flour available. “Whole wheat flour is a great choice,” she says, “because it has a gluten structure which helps in baking. Other whole grain flours you can add are rye, barley, corn, and millet flour, or even whole millet seeds. Each grain brings its distinct aroma and character. But they have less or no gluten, so I recommend to only use up to twenty-five per cent of total flour in a recipe to allow your bread to rise well,” she adds.
“If you are new to whole grains, I recommend using one third and up to one half of whole wheat flour in your favourite bread recipe. If you want to use one hundred per cent whole wheat flour, adjustments need to be made — for example, by using more liquid and by introducing a resting period to allow the bran to soften.”
Many people have no desire to bake, but they do want to eat healthy bread. In that case, seeking out good artisan bread is your best bet. An unscientific survey of foodie friends across the Caribbean revealed that more and more supermarkets are stocking specialty breads like cassava, rye, and sourdough. They are usually more expensive than the typical sandwich loaf, because of the time and process involved in making them.
In Woodbrook, a neighbourhood in west Port of Spain, a little shop called Zabouca Breads has been baking some of the best artisan bread in Trinidad. The man behind the operation, US-trained baker Chris Marshall, is passionate about delivering wholesome goodness to his customers via this hand-crafted bread.
In an interview with the T&T Guardian newspaper, Marshall explained that his breads are fermented naturally using poolish, levain, and biga, the fermentation starters of cultivated wild yeast. The doughs are then rested for twelve hours before being hand-shaped and baked in a special steam-injected oven “My bread takes a while to reach the consumer, because we are looking for a particular taste,” Marshall said.
The bread at Zabouca is more expensive than regular bread, but given the attention Marshall pays to using the best organic ingredients, and the time he takes to develop the fullest flavour in each loaf, it’s most definitely worth it.
As we all seek ways to make our lives healthier and keep our tastebuds alive, we can do no worse than making sure our dietary staples — like bread — are of good quality. If you’ve wanted to try your hand at baking, don’t be put off by the mess and the time-consuming process. You’ll feel rewarded when you’re biting into a warm, tasty slice slathered with butter and topped with your favourite cheese.