I’m fortunate enough to be closely related to someone (my mum) who is something of an authority on the state of scholarship around bread and baking, and she recommended Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery as remaining one of the best secondary sources, more than forty years after its publication. My interest in the book is of course very specific: I wished to plunder it for useful details regarding the practicalities and social role of baking that I could draw on in designing the baking practices of a secondary world I’m constructing. I’m also interested in its contents in their own right, however, both as someone who finds the history of food culture interesting, and as someone who loves food. It’s been a few years since I baked bread, but I might have another crack at it now—David’s book has been pretty inspiring, in fact. People who write about food in such a way as to make me feel hungry are relatively rare (Rachel Roddy deserves a shout-out here), and I feel a good deal of admiration for them as writers.
Elizabeth David developed her career as a food writer at a time when British food culture was at a low point, thanks to the progressive industrialisation of food production and distribution. British cuisine had already been badly diminished by the early commercialisation of its agriculture, and the consequent loss of many of its rural traditions—compare the situation in France, where the peasant class remained economically and politically powerful. At the time that David became interested in food, during her travels around the Mediterranean basin, few British people took an interest in food in the way that ‘foodies’ do today, and ingredients were roundly abused in domestic and commercial kitchens alike. She didn’t turn her attention as a writer to bread until the 1970s, but it’s clear from the book that her interest as a cook had been ongoing for decades. Of all areas of British food, few had suffered such a disastrous impact from industrialisation as bread, and David sets out to address this systematically: she looks at the history of baking, the development of modern industrial methods, the various traditions of professional and domestic bread-making that preceded them, the agricultural and milling processes that underpin baking, and the practical matters of baking and developing flavour in bread. In these efforts she is both a scholar and an advocate. She discusses the rise of the wholefoods movement, and the development of a health-based movement for the use of wholemeal, but she isn’t a zealot for wholemeal bread herself: instead she appreciates the virtues of many different kinds of meal, and many different kinds of loaf.
David’s writing is clear, authoritative, sometimes humorous, and always extremely readable—and she does not mince her words, particularly when discussing the characteristics of factory-made British bread. For my purposes, that of a writer wishing to write convincingly about bakers in a pre-industrial society, English Bread and Yeast Cookery is a treasure trove. Here are descriptions, often in extensive extracts from historical sources, of the processes of baking in traditional, wood-fired brick ovens; here are discussions of the effects that various choices in method and technique will have on the flavour and texture of a finished loaf; and here are in-depth examinations of the social history of bread, the relationships between its types or forms, and the places and people in which it found its final destination. This book is a rarity, both a practical, day-to-day cookbook, and a solid piece of historical research: I could hardly recommend it strongly enough to anyone that bakes or eats bread.