Water, flour, a pinch of salt. Those are the only three ingredients that should make up bread.
But not for most of the pre-packaged bread that most Kenyans buy that has 10 to 30 ingredients including preservatives, stabilisers and more sugar than is unnecessary.
We are talking about traditional loaf as it was made over 6,000 years ago in Egypt.
With those simple ingredients, you get airy, nutritious, luscious loaves of bread.
But with the ever evolving world of food came the over-processing - foods pumped with preservatives and stabilisers so they can last longer, look more aesthetically pleasing and excess flavourings, sugar and (or) salt to ‘enhance’ the flavour.
A popular breakfast staple across many cultures the world over, bread has been one of the main victims of these processes.
However, as a healthy eating trend that has gripped society continues, people are now opting to go back to the traditional ways of making bread.
“There is a shift from the fluffy white sweet bread to the traditional hearty bread,” says Jyoti Patel, bakery and preparation technical and production manager at ArtCaffe.
In Nairobi, many outlets have popped up, all selling traditional artisanal bread that comes in over 20 different varieties and is made in ‘original’ bread-making process.
“All our breads are handmade and they take quite a bit of time because we follow the traditional fermentation process. Some of our breads take up to 24 hours to ferment,” says Jyoti.
Most of these breads are not made using industrial yeast, but instead bacteria (natural yeast) from the air is used to create a leaven. Basically, when flour is mixed with water and left in the air for a while, it collects the natural yeast.
The reaction with the elements creates air pockets in the flour mixture, resulting the bread rising.
“All our breads, except for the brioches, are sourdough based breads which is really just a different way to say that we use our home-made natural liquid yeast rather than chemical yeast. With the liquid yeast, we will also let our breads proof much longer than with chemical yeast. This will allow the bread dough to develop at its own tempo and create many flavours,” explains Francois Watine, the country director Brioche Kenya.
Similarly, Le Grenier à Pain, a French bakery, and Tiramisu, both in Nairobi use the natural leaven over industrial yeast, a method that has been adopted in bakeries globally due to the indication of not only being a healthier option, but also the best way to build flavour in bread.
“Bread making is ingenious technology for the conversion grass seeds into nutritious and delicious food,” says Michael Pollan in his Netflix Documentary ‘‘Cooked’’ where in the episode titled Air, he takes an in depth look at bread-making.
Coming from the most widely grown singular crop globally, bread is a staple in many homes and countries, often accompanying the three meals of the day.
In Kenya, we adopted a more English style of consuming our bread, which is at breakfast or with four o’clock tea.
“In Kenya, bread is mainly had with a very sweet cup of mixed tea,” says Yan Welffens, the managing director, Le Grenier à Pain.
The trend is changing albeit slowly as the variety grows.
“We now have sourdough, rye, baguettes, sweet and even savoury breads,” he says.
“All of which can accompany different meals such as to complement a soup or a cheese platter, as a snack…the options are endless.” The art of bread making is one that intimidates even the crème de la crème of chefs.
“It is all about the temperature and timing,” explains Yan.
“And love. One must bake with love,” says Jyoti as she speaks passionately on each loaf.
The starter (leaven), explains Jyoti is made in advance with some aged for years. This natural fermentation process also makes it easier for the digestion of bread.
Primarily, over 90 per cent of breads at these artisanal bakeries are sugar-free. However, some, including the brioches at Brioche contain additional ingredients.
“We of course do brioches that is a special type of bread with milk and butter that makes it very tasty and soft,” says Francois.
The sweet breads at Le Grenier including the chocolate mini loaf and the cranberry mini loaf have some sweetness to them.
The chicken curry loaf by Le Grenier or the Spinach and Feta loaf are examples of the savoury options available.
With alternatives including rye, buckwheat and wholemeal used, the local capacity for the grain has been growing. Farmers are now growing rye, previously not a local grain, which in turn reduces cost of products and eases access to the raw product.
“Bread requires a civilisation. You need people to grow the grain, harvest the grain, mill the grain and shape the dough. It’s a cooperative venture,” states Michael in his documentary.
Each bread has a different shape and cut at the top. This, the different chefs explain, is mainly aesthetic and controls how the bread breaks out.
“We use razors to make the cuts on each loaf. The baguettes are done in a classic French style,” explains Harveen Jandu, director of Tiramisu. On the technical part, Jyoti states that it also helps differentiate the bread.
The break out, how the bread cracks, is essential in allowing the heat into the centre of the bread for even cooking.
The bread acts as a pressure cooker, cooking from the inside out and forming a crispy exterior.
A fresh loaf of baked bread, when knocked at the base sounds hollow. It will have a soft interior and a crispy crust.
Traditional loaves keep for four to five days as they have no preservatives in them. According to Yan, Francois and Jyoti, the best way to store them for longer is in a sealed bag in the freezer, where you take them out and toast or warm in an oven as needed.
“Do not use a microwave. It makes the bread elastic and it loses that freshness,” he says. “It is best to just store it in a paper (not plastic) bag or in a cloth to allow the bread to breathe.”
“To keep a natural bread as fresh as possible, ask for it not to be sliced in advance and, at home, only slice what you need. By doing this, only one side of the bread will be exposed to the ambient air while the rest of the bread is “protected” by the bread’s crust. It will then keep it much longer fresh. Our organic tourte bread, for example, can then stay fresh for up to four days without any chemicals in it, just by slicing why you need and leave the rest untouched. Our motto is, if it is your “daily bread” it might as well be good for your health!” advises Francois.
Even as the traditional breads gain popularity, Kenyans are still conservative with the cereal whole meal breads, rye blends (a mix of a small percentage of rye and a high percentage of wheat flour) and golden loaves are still more popular than the full sourdough or the dense full rye.
“The most popular are campagne bread (a mix of wheat flour and rye flour), multicereals bread (a unique dough mixed with a combination of grains that we roast ourselves),” says Francois.