by Zillah Scott on 6th Dec. 2011
A few years ago we were contemplating a period of austerity in our lives. As the keeper of the household purse I spent some time considering the amount we spent on food, and how it could be reduced. My first thought, and one that I imagine occurs to many in this situation, was to lower quality and put ethics to one side. To drop the veg box, to buy non-organic milk, to get coffee which wasn't fair trade. But this sat so ill with all that I believe about the food we eat - that it should be fair, that it shouldn't damage the environment, that it should be healthy - that I decided to think again. The conclusion that I came to was that we had to make every (or almost every) mouthful count.
This meant that foods which are basically empty calories had very little place in our kitchen. White rice and flour products, sugar, cake baking, all became real treats. I took the same view with bread. When money is tight I need every bit of food which goes onto my family's table to nourish them. White bread, even delicious just-baked sourdough, has a high GI, reflecting the fact that the body turns it easily into blood sugar. This leaves me hungry again pretty soon. White bread is also without all those nutrients which wholemeal bread can give to your body.
To get the best from those nutrients your body needs some help. Grain and grass eating animals have various strategies for dealing with the fact that grasses and their seeds are not actually very digestible. Cows have multiple stomachs and rabbits have a method which, to spare delicate constitutions, I won't got into here. Suffice to say, the grass they eat gets digested twice. Humans need the bread-making method to help them to digest and assimilate the valuable nutrients, and that is where sourdough comes in. The action of acid and the lacto-bacilli effectively performs a partial digestion on the flour, meaning that our mammallian digestive system can extract what we need it to from the bread. With yeasted white bread the work of digesting the bread can actually mean an overall loss of nutrition.
So although it might seem a little counter-intuitive to say that high-quality, artisan bread is austerity bread, I have found this to be the case. When every penny of the food budget needs to be counted, every mouthful that money pays for must do its work. And I have found is that this is a pretty good situation to be in - naturally leavened bread tastes great, wholegrain breads have a depth and range of flavour white breads find it hard to match, when you learn how to cook good brown rice it tastes wonderful. There's still a place for cake in our lives, but now it's the treat it really ought to be.