Before I graduated from bake shop service to the switchboard at head office during my university holiday summer earning periods, I remember hefting large wooden shelves of mass-produced bread from the delivery trucks to the shop.
That was when I realized what my mother meant when she sent me out to buy either a “plain” loaf or a “pan” loaf. The plain loaves, with their dark, chewy crusts top and bottom and their white, doughy sides, had been baked together and had to be peeled apart. The pan loaves had each inhabited their individual pan space and had almost no crust.
It was not until I went on cheap, out-of-season student skiing trips to continental Europe that I learned that bread could be a delight in itself, not just a vehicle for sandwiches. I remember vividly the joy of an Austrian gasthof breakfast consisting of heaps of fresh bread rolls with flaky, tender crusts and delicious, melting crumb, accompanied by gallons of strong (also fresh) coffee.
Over the years I learned about croissants, brioche, foccacia, pita, naan and other regional breads, but I think it is comparatively recently that such delicacies have managed to penetrate the mass bakery market, both in Britain and North America.
As farmers’ markets have proliferated on this Island, with them have come the artisanal foodstuffs that bear little resemblance to the industrial foods whose production is governed by shelf life and bulk profit margins. The queues at the bakery stalls attest to the delight with which we are re-discovering how good bread can be.
Along with the revival in traditional breads has come more interest in nutrition, particularly in the light of growing gluten intolerance and concerns about the impact of excess carbohydrates on the diabetes epidemic.
When I looked into the gluten question, I was told that the wheat flour intolerance that results in celiac disease can be traced to a genetic mutation that occurred in medieval Scotland. With fewer people around than today, I guess the transmission of mutated genes would affect a greater proportion of a population, which is a polite way of hinting that some progenitors spread their genes more liberally than others.
But the growth of gluten intolerance probably has more to do with over-processing and mass production of products made with wheat flours than with inherited susceptibilities.
Breaking down the grain and grinding up the outer shell, or bran, makes it harder for the body to assimilate the carbohydrates. If we eat true whole grains, bran intact, we make it easier on our bodies.
In the U.S., “whole wheat” means exactly what it says.
In Canada, flours without whole grains can be called whole wheat and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency sees no reason to make any changes.
Read the ingredients to see if you have whole grain or merely whole wheat.
Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at: marjorieandal