Guten Morgen/Good Morning
It is an honor to have been invited here today to talk to you about bread. As a Canadian born, self taught, female baker living in London, it is daunting to speak to a room full of people who arguably bake the widest variety of some of the best bread in the world. Even if my mother who is German taught me how to bake and fed me saurteig graubrot pretty much the whole of my childhood, it is still daunting.
My name is Jane Mason and I founded Virtuous Bread. I was invited to speak about what bread means to me but before I do that, I have to digress. I was recently in Armenia, doing research on bread there and I interviewed the head of the National Museum. I asked her the same question –
“What does bread mean to you, as an Armenian?”
She looked at me and then put her hands to her eyes. She looked at me again and a completely overwhelmed expression came her face. “This is too profound a question,” she said, “to answer you this moment.” She sat back in her chair and looked at me again as if I had gone mad, expecting her to be able to answer such a question. “I will have to think about it very deeply and write to you.” I am serious, bread was so meaningful to her that she was speechless just trying to formulate her answer to the question.
Whilst bread may not always render me speechless, it certainly holds a significant place in my life. It many ways it has defined and continues to define my life as it defines the life of my mother and defined the life of my grandmother – and probably her ancestors too. In fact, bread defines the lives of many of the inhabitants on the planet and has done so for a very long time even though we may not think about it that way consciously any more. Baking and breaking bread is an ancient ritual that we can date back categorically to the 6th millenia BCE. We did it then and we do it now.
Bread is flour, water, salt and yeast which, alone, cannot sustain us. They need to be combined in order to feed us. In that way bread is an excellent metaphor for humanity. We live together or we die together and “together” is the operative word. Alone we will face no conflict and we will achieve very little. Alone, this flour will not change the world. In fact, it won’t change at all. In pairs we have the possibility to progress a little. Add yeast and very little changes. The yeast and the flour simply coexist and eventually, actually, the yeast will die. Add the water, however and you literally create life – still a bit dull though, and so we add that salt to make something of wholesome and delicious perfection. It is at this point that we are faced with choices. Do we add anything else? Fat, for example or sugar? Enzymes or preservatives? Extra gluten and rising agents? Well, that all depends on what bread means to us.
My bread journey starts with my mother who left Germany in 1950 and moved to Canada. She remembers crying every day because she could not get bread. She did not define white sliced bread in a bag as bread. And I will come back to that point because I agree. So she learned to bake and she baked our bread until a German baker opened up in our city. It is a 90 minute round trip and she still makes it at the age of 82. She drives there and buys a 10 kg loaf which she cuts up and puts in the freezer in 1 kg chunks. My brother and I took half moon shaped sandwiches to school rather than square ones and our bread was grey rather than white. I baked bread rather than cakes for school bake sales and end of term parties, and when I travelled I wanted nothing more than to eat and learn about the local bread.
Yet, I did not become a professional baker until much later in life because I got side tracked by a career in Strategy Consulting which took me around the world for 15 years. Over that time I baked with an American baker of Cuban bread in Tampa, a Cambodian baker of French bread in Cambodia, a Canadian baker of French bread in Canada, a Swedish baker, a South African baker – lots of bakers all over the world. Incidentally, I have never baked with a German baker because, and here I do apologise, no German baker would even meet with me for a chat let alone allow me into your bakeries to even look at the dough or sweep the floor. I was once even told that sourdough was too sensitive for a non German to understand. So I relied on my German genes to teach me how to handle saurteig and listened carefully as German customers spoke to their bakers so I could pick up tips which you may find obvious but which are not obvious outside of Germany. I added these to my baking knowledge and continued to develop my own style.
I did not enter the bread world full time until early 2010 when I set up Virtuous Bread which is dedicated to making it fun and easy for people all over the world to make and find and learn about good bread and in so doing to forge the link between bread and virtue. I bake, teach, write and speak. I teach people how to set up home baking businesses and bake bread, on a voluntary basis, with prisoners, school children and the elderly. I also bake bread with senior executives as a team building experience. I do this to teach a new skill, build self esteem, and enable people to make a positive contribution to their communities, something that is profoundly important to us humans. And that tells you, in a nutshell, what bread means to me: it is a catalyst for individual and social change, a way to transform to world for the better. It is not a product, it’s a service.
I could not possibly address you, coming from London, without referencing the war as the English are wont to do. I have this fridge magnet that I bought in some museum somewhere and it says “The key to victory is in the kitchen. Eat less bread.” Of course what it meant at the time was “cut down on what you eat so we all have something” – it was a way of asking people to limit their consumption of scarce resources so everyone could benefit. And whilst we are at a very different point in history, I find the message current and valid: we should all eat less bread and we should all eat better bread. The modern message is: The key to victory is in the kitchen. Eat good bread.
Good bread is the end service, if you will, of a good process. This process includes – and I look forward to arguing this point – responsible farming, stone milling, an element of hand baking, and local delivery/collection with minimal packaging. If you eat good bread you eat less bread which means you don’t over consume at any point along the bread value chain. You are healthier which means you are happier and make a more positive contribution to your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, and community. You pull fewer resources from the health service and are less likely to erupt in road rage, experience depression or even become forgetful. If you eat good bread you will walk to your local bakery to get it and engage the baker in a discussion, thus enriching both of your lives. If you eat good bread you are consuming a service that has not been unnecessarily packaged and does not contain highly refined, unnecessary products in it. And if you eat good bread you will never get fat and never feel bloated, thus, in the end, actually saving the entire bread industry in the face of claims that bread is making people fat and ill. It is not bread that is making people fat and ill, it is bread-like substance that is being confused with bread that is giving all bread a bad name – and I have the data to prove that. So I challenge you – all of you – up your game. If you are in this industry to make a cheap product with a view to getting rich and making other people rich, a product that has at best short term financial benefits for you and your shareholders you are helping nobody in the long term.
Look at your hands. Really look at them. Look at the hands of your neighbors. Look at the callouses and the muscles. Look at how they are different. Appreciate that with those hands you make a unique product that utterly reflects your individuality and humanity. Bread is one of the only foodstuffs that is handled as much as it is. You put yourself – physically put yourself – into your bread. If you ate garlic or have a hangover, it’s in the bread. Somehow if you are angry or depressed it is in the bread too. When you share your bread you have an opportunity to share yourself – physically and – I am sorry to use this word – spiritually. What you believe about yourself, dreams, aspirations, values and world view goes into your bread. It reflects you completely and utterly. And so I ask you – what does your bread say about you?
I understand that it is not everyone’s ambition to change the world. Truly I do. But I also believe that even if you don’t have the ambition to change the world for the better, you probably do not have the ambition to wreck it either. But if you make cheap products that are harmful to individuals and the environment, if you pursue money for its own end, if your aim is to pile it high and sell it cheap and if your goals are short term and completely profit orientated, you may well be wrecking it involuntarily. And in a world where about 25-30 companies control the global food value chain this is a systemic problem that we need to fight at all levels. At the level of the government – to regulate and educate; at the level of the company – to make different choices about our collective future, and at the level of the individual, to lead by example.
You can change the world for the better through bread – and it starts right here.
Thank you very much.