January 20, 2022

English Bread And Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David

At almost 500 pages, Elizabeth David’s English Bread And Yeast Cookery is quite a read. It’s also quite mis-titled, but more of that later. But it is a cookbook, so why would one want to read it from cover to cover? Surely reference is its prime function? The answer simply is that this cookbook is written by Elizabeth David and the writing is exquisite, the erudition thoroughly impressive and the advice probably faultless. This last point has to be qualified with “probably”, since it is highly unlikely that anyone except Elizabeth David herself might put every one of these recipes to any sort of practical test. Even she did not do all of them, but when she has not already tried out a recipe, she actually tells the reader in her text and admits she is speculating.
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This is a text littered with items grabbed from historical cookbooks where the writer has merely copied what went before, sometimes despite its advice being demonstrably nonsensical. It is also littered with gems of verbosity from the past, where writers might offer such advice as “agitate the receptacle aggressively” rather than “beat it”. And some of the older recipes seemed to have been designed for armies, so great are the quantities and might start with and instruction such as “take a bushel of flour”.

Written in the 1970s, this text was obviously already familiar with supermarkets, but not with fast food in quantities as it currently surrounds us. This allows a contemporary reader to reflect on just how much the average diet might have changed in the last fifty years. Elizabeth David is, for example, not fond of restaurant pizza, which she seems to judge as having the same qualities as hardboard panelling. Precisely what she would have made of O’Muffins or Macbuns or similar I have no idea, but I bet I could guess.
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But pizza recipes in the book on English bread? Well, this is part of the problem with the book’s title because not only does it regularly visit Scotland, Wales or Ireland, it also gets on a ferry to France, Austria, Italy or even Russia or the United States and elsewhere. It seems that the 1970s was more willing than now to admit international influences and sharing, without ever once using vacuous and meaningless terms like “fusion” or “world food”. If it’s not from the world, where on earth is it from? And as for “fusion”, this particular reviewer regards much of it as a con, leading to confusion.
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The author spends much time in space explaining the details, even the intricacies of flours, grains, milling, grinding and sifting. There is a superb historical section that dips into the techniques, technology and technicalities of breadmaking. And in doing so, Elizabeth David explodes many myths which have remained mythical until today. She points out that much of brown bread on sale is coloured with molasses, not whole wheat grain, and that many recipes that specify whole grains often extract the germ and pre-cook it before adding it back to the flour. She also describes how commercial bread was in her time often aerated or pumped with extra water or even chalk to add volume, bulk and profit. Here Elizabeth David looks in immense detail at conventional yeast risen bread, flat breads, sweet breads, (not one word!), muffins, pikelets, crumpets, fermented butter cakes, griddle breads, sourdough, soda bread and many other delectable concoctions of flour, water and rising agent.
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In the process, she dispels many myths, such as the oft quoted need to throw away half of a sourdough starter, advice I have read many times, many times indeed. Personally, I have in the past tried to follow such recipes, but when it came to “divide it into two and throw half away”, I was always stumped into inaction, because I never knew which half should be discarded. If it’s the case that the sourdough starter’s volume would be too big otherwise, then “make less” ought to be the instruction. Isn’t it obvious?

But then there are a lot of myths, many of them sourced in religion about bread. Man may not live by bread alone, but maybe it is all right for women. Bread of heaven, but not from my oven… There are many more, some of which made it into these pages. But with breadmaking, there is room for myth, since the process is often wholly unpredictable, so quantity, so temperature, or so procedurally sensitive that it is impossible to predict the results which will be produced even by following exactly the same recipe, a point that Elizabeth David regularly makes throughout the text.

And, of course, that is precisely why the mass-produced loaf was baked on an industrial scale, in order to try to achieve the regularity and uniformity that the modern consumer sees to crave. But no two vegetables are exactly the same shape and the shape has nothing to with the taste. Elizabeth David’s English Bread And Yeast Cookery offers the perfect cure to this disease of expected uniformity. Mix it, wait, cook it and see. Do it again, and it will probably be different. Now isn’t that a recipe for an interesting life! It is most certainly an interesting book, but don’t try to eat it all at once.