Our daily bread
David Nelson, a Barcelona native and carpenter by trade, has a gentle demeanour and friendly face, but get him talking about the dire state of bread and bakers in the city, and he becomes a firebrand. ‘‘It makes me so mad to see the stuff that’s being sold as bread these days.’’
He’s not alone. One of the commonest complaints heard from foreigners here is that it’s impossible to get good bread here. ‘‘It's embarrassing,’’ David admitted. ‘‘I’ve lived abroad a lot, in Denmark and Iceland, and you can easily get decent bread there of all kinds. Visitors come here and think, is this what the Spanish call bread?’’
It wasn’t always like this. Just a few decades ago, each barrio and each village had its local bakery, making bread fresh every day for the local population, with great variation between regional varieties, and even within each pueblo. A French consul travelling in Spain in the 18th century wrote: ‘‘It’s incomprehensible that in a country that eats so miserably, they can make such exquisite bread. From the Pyrenees to the Guadalquivir I have tried hundreds of different breads, each with their different personality and all of exceptional quality.’’
Even as recently as 1999, a study claimed there were 315 types of bread in Spain, such as the hard, compact albardilla and cateto from Malaga, the crusty pan de cinta from Aragon and Catalunya’s own llonguet—a large crusty bun, ideal for sandwiches. So what’s happened? Part of the blame must lie with the depopulation of rural communities leading to the closing of small, local artesanal bakeries. But the main problem is that breadmaking is just following the general trend in the food industry towards centralisation and mass production. Most of the bread for sale today has been mass produced centrally. Even the seemingly fresh-baked baguettes in your neighbourhood bakery may well have been half-baked first in a central warehouse, frozen, then shipped to the bakery to be finished off, making consumers think they’re getting a fresh-baked product.
The makers of mass-produced bread are cutting costs by cutting time. Traditional bread needs a long fermentation process. Industrial bread is made with industrial yeasts that have been selected for fast fermentation. A slow fermentation produces complex aromas and enzymes important to the final taste and digestibility of the bread. In industrially produced bread these have to be added artificially along with other additives necessary to help the bread withstand the effects of mechanical production, transportation and storage, such as emulsifiers, stabilisers and preservatives.
Does any of this matter? Well, all the additives used have been approved for consumption and many are actually derivatives of natural products such as vitamin C. However, many people these days would prefer not to have additives in their food, not just because of health concerns but because they reflect an increase in production and consumption, and represent increased use of transportation and packaging, which could all have detrimental environmental effects. The fact that mass-produced pre-cooked baguettes, for instance, go stale in a very short time also represents a huge amount of waste. More importantly many people, like David Nelson, think that this bread just doesn’t taste good.
But rather than just complain, Nelson and his partner Gudrún-Margrét put their money where their mouths were and opened the BarcelonaReykjavik (Gudrún-Margrét is from Iceland) organic bakery in the Raval. All of the ingredients used in their breads, cakes and pastries are totally organic, with fruit and vegetables from an organic cooperative in Lleida and herbs from Herbes del Moli in Alicante. The main flour they use is organic spelt flour, grown in Asturias, and milled in Albacete. Asturias is the only place where spelt is grown in Spain in any quantity. There’s a long history of spelt farming in the area because it suits the nutrient-poor soil in this mountainous region.
Spelt is an ancient form of wheat and is more nutritious and easier to digest than normal bread wheat: ‘‘We find some customers who have a bit of trouble digesting wheat can tolerate our spelt bread,’’ said Nelson.
It’s harder to work with, though, and spelt bread dough needs a longer fermentation period, but all this pays off in the final result—a dense, chewy and intensely flavourful bread that keeps well. Rather than using industrial yeasts, Nelson makes a sourdough-style ‘starter’ or masa madre of pea flour, corn flour, wheat flour and honey, which is fed with clean water (no chlorine or calcium) and stone-ground spelt flour for two days. This starter dough is then used to make their breads for that week.
BarcelonaReykjavik’s roll call of breads is ever changing, but their bestsellers are a tin-shaped poppy-seed loaf, a walnut bread and various loaves filled with juicy vegetables such as onion, carrot or courgette. All are dense but moist with flavourful crusts. They also make real butter brioches and chocolate-intense brownies.
BarcelonaReykjavik has been going for less than a year, but there are bakers in Barcelona with decades of tradition who are still making bread the old way. Forn Fortino is about 100 years old and is now run by the son and grandson of the first Fortino the baker. The original stone oven built into the walls is still heated by a wood fire—apparently the only one left in the city. The oven is fired twice a day to heat up the stones. These then release heat slowly into the oven, keeping an even temperature for long, slow baking, producing tasty bread with a good chewy crust.
They bake all kinds of breads from a traditional white pagès to a hundred percent rye bread made with wholemeal rye flour, starter and linseeds, which is good for people with intolerance to wheat and yeast, as well as a spelt loaf made with wholemeal ecological spelt flour and linseeds. Almost all the breads they make contain some seeds and spices to aid digestion, and reduce the bloating and gases that high fibre bread can sometimes cause.
Of course, the best way to make sure the bread you eat has been baked with all the care and attention it deserves is to do it yourself. BarcelonaReykjavik can sell you any of the ingredients used in their breads—from the flours to the nuts, seeds and herbs, and they’ll even give you a bit of starter, too. Forn Fortino will also help replicate their breads at home and will sell you the necessary ingredients in the quantities needed, by weight. As Nelson said, ‘‘There’s nothing nicer than having your hands stuck in good, clean dough!’’
April 2007 article
Doctor Dou 12, Tel. 93 302 0921
The new kid on the block, but leading
the way in 100 percent organic baking.
Travessera de Gràcia 145, Tel. 93 237 3873, www.fornfortino.com
The last remaining working wood-fired bread oven in town.
Forn Mistral Ronda
Sant Antoni 96, Tel. 93 301 8037, www.fornmistral.com
Makes a ‘medieval’ bread with spelt flour, as well as German-style rye loaves and some ecological breads.
Forn Jaume Montserrat
Rambla del Prat 21, Tel. 93 218 0546
Tiny bakery owned by the Montserrat family since 1911. Their multiseed loaf is chewy and delicious, while their buttery chocolate croissants drip with chocolate paste.
Recipe: BarcelonaReykjavik-style antique spelt bread
33g 'masa madre' sourdough starter
100g 100 percent spelt flour
300g 86 percent white spelt flour
400ml water at 37ºC
(Ingredients available from BarcelonaReykjavik)
Start making your dough the day before you want to bake it. Mix the ingredients with a spoon and leave in a warm place for 12 to 15 hours. Then add a further 600g of 86 percent white spelt flour, 300ml water and 22g unrefined salt. Mix and leave to rest for half an hour. Knead the dough lightly until the mix starts to get hard like old chewing gum. Shape the dough into the form you want (one 1kg loaf, two 500g loaves, or ten 100g rolls). Leave for half an hour. Wet the surface of the dough with water and put a cut in the top to prevent cracking and aid rising. Bake in an oven preheated to 220ºC. Steam every five minutes (spray the oven walls with a little water) for the first 15 minutes. The rolls should take about 33 minutes, smaller loaves 44 minutes and the large loaf 55 minutes. The temperature at the centre of the loaf should reach 98ºC.