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Over the years, food aficionado Keith Bohanna noticed that two things were better in other European countries than in Ireland: the coffee and the bread.
Nowadays, Irish cafés have Continental-quality coffee, he says. The bread, though? It’s lagging.
So in January, he and six bakers set up Real Bread Ireland, with a mission to praise and promote the old-fashioned way of baking nutritious bread.
Bohanna isn’t a baker. He’s a digital strategist and bread-eater based in Kilkenny. Despite his rural roots, though, his idea is spreading.
Less than a year after it started, Real Bread Ireland has almost 50 members. On Wednesday night, they plan to celebrate what they’ve accomplished so far with the Real Bread Gathering event in the Bernard Shaw on Richmond Street.
They expect to have bakers and eaters and a panel of bread fans discussing the movement.
Speakers are scheduled to include Bohanna, Seamus Sheridan of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers on South Anne Street, and William Despard of Bretzel Bakery on Lennox Street.
Author and baker Andrew Whitley is due to fly in to talk at the event too. He’s an experienced real-bread campaigner in the UK, where the movement has been ticking along for about seven years.
What Is Real bread?
Real bread is simply made with flour, water, fermentation and other natural ingredients.
It is mixed, kneaded and baked without adding any chemicals to speed up the process. This is much more time consuming than baking using an automated system. It is free of artificial additives, such as flour improvers and dough conditioners.
To make an industrial sliced pan as cheaply as possible, the baking process has to be automated, says Despard, of Bretzel Bakery. And the only way to ensure that the ingredients will go through the machine every time is to control them with chemicals.
“If you don’t have the chemicals to control the process, then the actual bread-making could jam up the machine,” he says.
His bakery uses as little yeast as possible or – in the case of sourdoughs – none at all. Bretzel regularly assesses the amount of yeast it uses, and Despard says he is pleased that usage is going down, despite turnover rising.
There’s a huge relationship between digestibility and the amount of time the bread gets to ferment, he says. By leaving out yeast and chemicals, the bread is given plenty of time to ferment.
In an industrial bakery, bread is often baked in about a half hour. But a traditional sourdough from Bretzel can take up to 36 hours to arrive at perfection.
Originally intended to bring some “Continental magic” to Dublin’s sandwiches, sourdoughs are now the mainstay of Bretzel’s business. The bakery supplies them to restaurants and cafes around the city.
“What we do with all our breads is give them time,” says Despard. “We won’t automate if it changes the process.”
A handful of Dublin’s bakers are part of the Real Bread Ireland network: Bretzel, Fallon & Byrne, Bread Naturally in Raheny and Tartine Organic Bakery in Swords.
“I think it is very important to let people know that bread can be lovely. It’s not just the dreadful packaged stuff you get in the supermarket,” says Simon May, of Bread Naturally.
May opened Bread Naturally on the Main Street in Raheny just ten months ago and is surprised at the warm welcome he’s received. As he sees it, people are happy to have a local bakery, and demand is high for the real bread that he sells.
Despard tried to set up a similar network for real-bread enthusiasts about nine years ago. The group grew to twelve members, but then it stumbled and lost momentum. “Mostly because there wasn’t the same public appetite for it,” he says.
But Real Bread Ireland is proving more popular, and he puts this down to a stronger demand for real bread – and the power of social media.
“The whole highly processed food industry doesn’t have to be as bad as it is,” he says. “And the general public have to demand it [changes].”
Without exception, all the bakeries that have joined the network are struggling to meet demand, says Bohanna.
In 2000, Despard had a team of four bakers. Now, he has ten working through the night to prepare a variety of breads. Bretzel just invested more than €500,000 in a second bakery in Harold’s Cross, and this allows it to deliver fresh bread to more than 150 customers around Dublin each morning, he says.
Looking for Work?
Booming bakeries is great news. But right now it’s hard to find bakers.
At the moment, Real Bread Ireland is focused on helping bakeries find the skilled hands they need. To this end, it’s planning to help set-up a private bakery school.
Bohanna says he was surprised at how many of the bakers involved in the network are interested in sharing their secrets by showing other people how to bake bread. He compares this supportive camaraderie to that in the craft-beer world.
In March, around 20 of the network’s bakers will come together at University College Dublin and University College Cork to look at the breads of the 1800s.
They will rediscover old recipes and the grains that were used. Bohanna sees this as an opportunity for knowledge to be shared.
A Birthday Celebration
On Lennox Street, the scarlet-fronted Bretzel Bakery has been making bread using traditional methods since 1870.
Originally an engineer, 15 years ago Despard decided he was in need of a career change. He says he yearned to do something “more worthwhile and interesting”. So he bought Bretzel.
To celebrate his fifteenth year at Bretzel, Despard is sponsoring the Real Bread Gathering in the Bernard Shaw. “It’s a small investment by ourselves, but it’s only a drop in the ocean if it’s to be sustainable,” he says.
He hopes the real-bread movement here can follow in the footsteps of the UK’s Real Bread Campaign, which has built up significant influence. It has had successes in terms of ingredient labelling, and it recently won a case taken against the supermarket chain Iceland for misleading advertising.
Despard laughs, thinking of bread adverts here. “Six-year-olds dancing around in an old-fashioned kitchen in some TV studio in Ireland and giving the impression that it’s the most natural thing on earth to be eating an industrial sliced pan,” he chuckles.
In the UK, the Real Bread Campaign managed to get some funding from the national lottery and from there they set up an office and employed three staff. He believes this is a model that could be followed over here.
Having cemented links with the UK group, Despard paid for Andrew Whitley to travel to Dublin for tonight’s event. “I’d like him to share how they actually got from a bunch of bread heads wanting to do something meaningful to actually doing it,” he says.
The Real Bread Gathering is on Wednesday, 2 December in the Bernard Shaw, at 7 pm. It’s free, but you need to reserve tickets here if you want to attend.
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