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best of the valley 2013

In Defense of Gluten: I love good bread!

In Defense of Gluten: I love good bread!

Whole, Healthy & Hearty

By Verena Johanna Smith

For a while I have wanted and needed to comment on the current anti-gluten craze.


Back in the UK I used to cherish making my own sourdough bread. I used to grind my own local wheat and rye; (great natural living exercise….)

I prepared a starter from a little bit of a starter a friend had smuggled in to the UK from Russia — I then added a little yogurt and flour and let it ferment for many days — That was the beginning of my own wonderful tradition. I had my own starter!

Once a week I would make three loaves of bread in my old bread pans I had bought at a “jumble sale”. I made my dough mixture in the morning — let it sit by the Rayburn stove all day — or in colder times over night — then remix the starter with added flour and let it rise over many hours — eventually I would fill the bread pans three quarters full, waited for the dough to rise and gingerly transported the loaves into the Rayburn and bake them for over an hour. I always saved a little jar of starter for the next batch.

I was feeding my family — three of my kids and friends and neighbors. We all loved it. My kids would sometimes look at Mother’s Pride, famous British white bread loaves and want it like cake! That romance never lasted long.

When I first came to the US, in 1985, I brought a little of my starter (yes maybe a little more than 3 ounces..) and my bread tins.

Lucky me, the other day; as I was gathering my own thoughts about the whole issue of people eating potato flour, corn flour and all sorts of flavoring and spicing and glue like substances to hold the “bread” together, instead of eating “real” BREAD, my dear friend and master baker Johnathan Stevens wrote an article. He eloquently expresses my exact feelings. We shall look at issues around the gluten sensitivity that seems so pervasive now and I invite you to dig around for information on the web — educate yourself — I have added resources at the end.

* Gluten sensitivity or allergy — is actually hard to define because of all the other factors/ingredients that may be the true cause –

* 1 out of 133 people actually have Celiac disease in the US.

* Many issues in digestion come from bad food combining (combining protein with grains — like eating sandwiches), gulping air, drinking sweetened drinks with meals and enduring high stress while we eat.

* High consumption of sucrose and fructose — as sugar promotes inflammation and candidiasis (yeast).

* Question the source of ingredients of baked goods you eat.

* Whole wheat or other ancient grain sourdough bread has already done a lot of the digesting of wheat and gluten for you- by itself — it is part of the process of preparing it!

* Artisan bakery bread does not have harmful toxic additives or added drugs that make you crave more and get fat…It is just honest bread

I invite you to dig around for information — educate yourself — I have added resources at the end of the article. Check for yourself — eat some really good bread — combine well — see how you feel — Satisfied?


In Defense of Gluten

Jonathan Stevens

Hungry Ghost Bread, Northampton, MA

Of course, it’s easy for me to love gluten, I’m a bread baker. Without the remarkable qualities of these long strands that give structure to a loaf, we’d only have crackers: there would be nothing to trap the gasses of fermenting dough. Bread is, above all, a fermented food: natural leavening (or “sourdough”) gives bread flavor & loft, and also pre-digests it, breaks down the phytic acids to allow our bodies access to nutrients and minerals. Sourdough is not a “style” of bread, it IS bread.

Yes, gluten is sticky stuff: if improperly treated, it sticks to your intestines. If approached with the scientific wisdom of our ancestors, it will bind us to the landscape and each other. Bread is the plate, the fork, the napkin of every meal. The “magic” of beneficial bacteria is all around us: the proofing dough is a host, snaring it the way a field of rye fixes nitrogen. Bakers are really just wild yeast farmers. We have co-evolved with this bubbling grain mixture, its gluten strands crucial to housing the process. Take away any side of this equation and the pyramid collapses.

Just as the Aztecs knew to treat corn with limestone for tortillas, so we (some of us!) continue our ancient treatment of grain. The “romance” of a given sourdough is not necessarily its provenance (that your grandmother used it), but that we are carrying on the same tradition, with “invisible” teammates, all prehistoric & only hours old. They provide the key -the gluten is unlocked, the wheat is a door-but you have to be smart enough to walk through it yourself.

While the Progressive Era banished filthy working conditions & non-edible additives (such as sawdust & bone meal) in bakeries across the America, the rush to provide “clean”, untouched and quick loaves to a burgeoning urban population, the essential step of fermentation was also lost. It must have been too uncontrollable, too “natural” for such a rational historical moment. While that was a serious misstep, not all modern innovations are a bad idea. Refrigeration allows for a prolonged fermentation -called “retardation”- that allows for the development of useful lactic and acetic acids, (as well as allowing for bakers to get some sleep!).

Almost every day someone strolls into my bakery and asks for “gluten-free bread”. To many of us, it’s an oxymoron-like wanting rock music sans guitar or drum. Modern wheat may be less nutritious, designed more for combines than stomachs, but the real digestive culprit here is packaged yeast and the quick-rise plastic-packaged “sanitary” sandwich loaves.

Unfortunately, home-made whole-wheat bread is no panacea, either. The dirty little secret is that most store-bought whole wheat flour is weeks old (from the milling date) and is already rancid. Unless you’re using fresh-milled flour and natural leavening, my whitest loaf will still be better for you than that noble brick.

As a former home-baker, I’ve learned that baking in a commercial kitchen is not only a lot easier (even with a wood-fired oven) but it’s really the deeper tradition: for fuel efficiency, for controlled fermentation, for the sheer joy of sharing the warmth & smells, baker’s ovens are the hearth (or in Latin, focus) of any neighborhood or village.

The centuries -and more- of experimentation, innovation and collaboration it took to select grasses with large-enough seed heads, to develop methods of threshing and winnowing and storing, the mill engineering that harnessed the power of water and the masons that channeled fire through stone, down to the biochemistry of inoculating dough with wild yeasts: this is not merely a metaphor for western civilization, it is, in my bread-centric view, western civilization itself.

So, be wary of fads that reject foundational foods. In fact, the more we embrace bread, the better it will feed us: supporting local farmers to include grains in their rotations, supporting local bakers in milling and charging what they need to, learning about heritage wheats (such as spelt or Khorasan or Red Fife) -these will deliver a healthier local economy, a burgeoning public sphere -and vibrant bodies.

Wheat is under siege right now from nutritional ignorance, poor usage, climate change and market manipulation. The present crisis in the price of berries (the seed) is due in part to last summer’s terrible weather & to demand from the chicken industry in China.

We’re successfully reviving the grain economy here in the Northeast, but it needs far more support from bakers and eaters, both. Bakers need to be open to using different flours, to educate their clientele, and to shift the bottom line. Customers need to be willing to pay for the poetry of seeing the local farmer make his (or her) deliveries, of knowing they are feeding their neighbors as well as themselves.

We don’t need to build an ersatz loaf full of binders and additives. We certainly don’t need GMO wheat, either. We simply need to re-introduce the growers and buyers around each side of the oven, to refresh the starter, to become true companions (“bread-breakers”) in creating food that has dignity and life-force inside it.


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