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Bread really is a matter of taste, but once you’ve eaten a lot of bread in France and Italy much of what you find here is pretty disappointing and the now-traditional British sliced white loaf is quite disgusting.
I heard recently that the French obsession with bread is a major factor in keeping their intake of dietary fibre high and therefore - despite a very rich diet - keeping them much healthier than the British. I hadn’t realised how much fibre there is in white bread.
Even before I heard this, I’ve believed for a long time that at every meal there should be bread on the table from before the first course is served until the last diner levers him- or herself off his or her chair.
You might be excused for removing it when the dessert is served - provided you serve the cheese before the dessert, in French style (you do, don’t you?) - but not before, because bread is essential for mopping up surplus sauce and salad dressing.
On our first visit to Bruges, Wife Number Two and I were sitting alongside an English couple on a restaurant terrace. Towards the end of the main course - salmon fillet in a typically Belgian sauce-for-gluttons based on gallons of thick cream - we were enthusiastically soaking up the remains with our bread. The lady (who, it turned out, had been brought on a business trip by her brother, never having been ‘abroad’ before) said in a stage whisper: ‘Of course, if we was foreign, we’d mop up our gravy with our bread, wouldn’t we?’. Since this was my first trip abroad, I greatly enjoyed engaging her in conversation so as to reveal that I was not ’foreign’.
Basket or board?
If the meal leaves enough room on the table, I prefer to have a bread-board and knife on the table rather than a basket of pre-cut bread. It may not be as refined and elegant, but the bread stays crisper and fresher right through the meal.
Finding good bread
Lately I’ve found that you can get more convincing Italian bread than French bread in the UK. In fact, based on my limited experience of a week in Tuscany, I think it may well be more convincing than the Italian bread you get in some parts of Italy - when we were in Tuscany there seemed to be a craze for pane senza sale- bread without salt - and while I hate over-salty bread I’m convinced that the wheat tastes infinitely better in the presence of an appropriate amount of our most basic flavouring. If this is some sort of misguided health thing on the part of the Italians, I hope they know that, while too much salt is bad for your blood-pressure, too little can be equally damaging to other bodily parameters.
At the time of writing the big supermarket chains are all selling part-baked Continental breads, and the best I’ve found are the ciabatta(pronounced ‘cha-ba-ta’ - not ‘chee-a-barta’, by the way) and sfilatino from - you guessed it - Sainsbury’s (I do not consider it part of my rôle as a totally self-indulgent author to conduct impartial surveys: I’m just telling you what I like). I keep plenty of both in the freezer and bake it from frozen in my fan oven at 225ºC for 15 minutes as late as possible. It just needs five or ten minutes to cool to pleasantly-warm before you tear or hack your way into it - otherwise it’s damp and steamy.
They also do baguettes and petits pains, but while these are quite pleasant they simply don’t taste or feel like real French bread. Interestingly, the Co-op supermarket in our little-known village of Carlton-in-Lindrick, Notts, sells Cuisine de France bread, which is very tasty and quite French in flavour.
Good bread really is worth searching for. Road-test any bakers in your locality who bake on the premises, and explore supermarkets and delicatessens. My local city-centre deli gets daily deliveries from an authentic Italian baker on the outskirts of Derby, whose bread is truly excellent. At weekends there are huge round loaves with a deep criss-cross Pattern of cuts in the top; when pulled apart, these reveal a very open texture dotted with chunks of black olive. Again, I often freeze this, even cutting his small loaves into halves: one of these can be defrosted in seven minutes in the microwave and crisped with five minutes in a fiercely hot oven whenever fresh bread is needed (I stand it cut-end-down on an old plate so that even the first slice is moist). I shudder to think how much of my electricity bill goes on cooking and crisping bread.
Then, of course, you might try baking your own - there’s some information on the Home-baked Bread page dated the 9 January 2007. But if you want to get into sourdough baking, have a look at The Sourdough Project for my first adventures and Sourdough bread 2012-13 for the latest stuff following a day at The School of Artisan Food.
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.