When the eminent Victorian thinker John Ruskin remarked “there is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper”, he wasn’t talking about modern supermarket loaves. Yet his sentiment fits them neatly.
The Real Bread Campaign has just catalogued how all the major grocery chains are marketing bread products as ‘sourdough’ even though they are manufactured by a fundamentally different process – one that uses baker’s yeast, chemical raising agents, at least one additive, or a combination of the above.
Such quick-cut ‘sourdough’ products – ‘sour faux’ or ‘pseudough’, as real bread enthusiasts call them – do not deliver the health and organoleptic benefits associated with true sourdough. It is created by a time-honoured method that involves a long fermentation, which imparts its distinctive flavour and consistency and enhances its keeping quality and digestibility.
The Campaign’s investigation underlines how widely and shamelessly the term ‘sourdough’ is traduced on supermarket shelves.
The government has a perfect opportunity to tighten the definition by including such a proposal in its imminent public consultation on bread composition, marketing and labelling legislation. It must do so, or sourdough will become as meaningless as ‘natural’.
In the modern world we have become too inured to the abuse and appropriation of craft terms – not only to the erosion of once-venerated craft standards, but also to our pockets. As the Real Bread Campaign points out, some sourfaux lines are being sold for at least twice the price of comparable supermarket bread products.
While retailers are charging customers an unjustified premium, they are simultaneously undercutting small, independent, local bakeries that honourably and painstakingly turn out the real thing.
Of course Ruskin, who despised people who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, rounded off his famous quote by saying that “people who consider price alone are this man’s [the retailer’s] lawful prey”.
But few customers will pay £3 or more at an artisan bakery when they can buy something that looks the same for £2 in the supermarket, if the difference between the two products is not clear to them. Even Ruskin would not blame them for that.