I’m one of those people who will pay £3.50 (or even more) for a sourdough loaf, providing it’s a really good one. In that case, the elevated price is justified. As Good Food’s sourdough supremo, Barney Desmazery, puts it, ‘Real sourdough takes a lot longer, and a lot more skill to produce.’
But many think this makes me a fool, as they expect no loaf to cost more than £2, ever. I’ve tried to evangelise to them the benefits of real sourdough: the slightly acidic, fermented tang that makes the crumb lively; the crunchy crust that yields a treacly nuttiness as you chew it; the heft that sates the appetite, yet proves surprisingly digestible; the natural moistness that helps it keep well.
But, they’re not convinced. They say they can’t tell the difference between my £3 loaf and others that look similar, yet cost much less. ‘Maybe we’re just not as fussy as you,’ they say, the inference being that sourdough is an obsession of the neurotic rich. Or, they cast up to me a negative ‘posh bread’ experience, along the lines of, ‘I paid £4 for a small loaf in Bakery X, and it was rubbish.’
The thing is, they could have a point – the term ‘sourdough’ has no legal definition, so currently, it’s a bit of a free-for-all. The Real Bread Campaign, however, is crystal-clear on what constitutes authentic sourdough bread– it should be made from just four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and a live sourdough starter. But some big industrial bakers (and even some ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’ bakeries) are using shortcuts to achieve an acidified flavour fast, such as adding chemical flavouring, commercial dried sourdough powder, or ingredients like vinegar and yogurt. Even some smaller bakeries, that do indeed use a pukka sourdough starter, are adding some additional baker’s yeast so they can turn out voluminous loaves faster.
We buy these breads in good faith, believing that they’re authentic sourdough, when to the bread purist, they’re ‘sourfaux’. No artisan baker wants their lovingly crafted sourdough loaves sitting on a shelf, sweating away in plastic, which is why there’s so little sourdough in supermarkets. But at least pre-packs must carry an ingredients list, so you can see whether the contents were made from just the three traditional sourdough ingredients, or pimped up with further additions.
‘I’ve seen packets of “sourdough” mix in supermarkets that contained a long list of ingredients I’ve never heard of, and I’ve bought so-called sourdough from supermarkets as dense and pappy as sliced white,’ says Barney. Supermarket in-store bakeries are even more opaque: they only have to provide a list of allergens for the public to consult, not a full ingredients list.
But, resisting sourdough temptation is hardest when we find ourselves in the toasty trap of a seductive bakery, or at a food market stall eyeing up the bronzed contours of rustic-looking loaves. Here, I must concede to the sourdough doubters, information is sorely lacking. We’re expected to buy solely on trust. I hate to heap more work on our hard-pressed sourdough heroes, but if I were one, I’d let my customers know. I’d have a folder that any customer could read, listing the ingredients in each product and explaining in detail the method.
This might not convert those who believe bread should always be cheap, but those prepared to pay more could be sure they’re not just forking out an unjustified premium for ‘pseudough’.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman
Why our food choices have become boring
Every high street needs a refill shop
Banning eating on public transport is misguided
For health’s sake, please eat when you drink
The humble potato deserves more respect
Do you prefer sourdough bread? Leave a comment below...
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.