An apprentice holding what may well be a version of the famed pain Poilâne graces the cover of Peter Reinhart’s 2001 book called The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Lionel Poilâne was the Parisian boulanger whose two-kilogram sourdough country bread (miche) gained cult status and was rumoured to have been flown in daily to Cape Town at one stage. This bread is made from 85% extraction “grey” flour, and may well be the bread that made the world sit up and notice (once more – because actually artisanal bread is a story as old as the Bible) the growing market for modern day artisanal bread. – Hennie Fisher

Peter Reinhart, a full-time instructor at Johnson & Wales University, Providence Rhode Island in the US, believes there are two types of bakers, which he compares with motorbike riders: some like to tinker with their bikes to make sure they are tooled just right, while others just like to ride and feel the wind against their cheeks. He went on to distinguish between technical bakers who usually work for large companies, deal with troubleshooting problems, and guarantee consistency in operations in order to produce thousands of loaves a day. Then there are the “wind-on-cheek” bakers with small shops who rhapsodize about their loaves. This analogy will probably also be found in South Africa; we have supermarket bread, pre-sliced in conveniently re-sealable packaging perfect for making cucumber sandwiches, and then we also have crusty loaves wrapped in brown paper with designer labels.

Robust looking, not uniform in shape, with a thick crust and an open coarse texture, is how National Sales Executive Paul Kyriakides of Bidvest Bakery Solutions defines artisanal bread. “Something not conducive to slicing on conventional machines, but rather bread that one would pull away from the loaf in crusty chunks.” David Carroll, owner and manager of Cereal & Malt, and previously with Albany and Sunbake, understands artisanal baking as bread usually made by highly skilled individuals who understand the relationship between the product and the consumer.  Helene Stolze, Chief Executive Officer at Bake It Easy – specialists in frozen dough – views artisan bakers as highly skilled bakers who apply their knowledge to better their products in order to create a distinctive brand around their own name, as opposed to the name of the bread. Much like Knysna artisanal baker Markus Farbinger from the Ile de Pain bakery, who is considered by many as South Africa’s master artisanal baker. It would appear that there is a steady growth in the local artisanal bread industry with new bakeries opening all around the country and being talked about.

Baker Michelle Cronje-Cibulka of the Pretoria-based Afro-Boer, herself a product of the Farbinger house, believes that people are returning to simpler living at the end of the Industrial Age, connecting with the produce and foods of their roots, and that this change has led to the return of the artisanal baker. This fiercely passionate baker wants to see an artisanal bread baking tradition in South Africa with strong ethnic roots that celebrates our cultural differences and incorporate the different, lesser known bread of country homes and farmyards. Fritz Schoon, another protégé of Markus Farbinger and owner De Oude Bank Bakkerij in Stellenbosch, believes that much more attention needs to be given to the ingredients used to produce bread. He believes that today’s wheat is grown for yield and not for its nutrient value, and as an artisanal baker, feels compelled to speak out about the quality of ingredients more than production or manufacturing.

To the question whether artisanal bakeries have a role to play in South Africa, David Carroll believes that SMEs and cottage industries will always thrive. “Look how successful the ‘Tuisnywerheid’ business model has been, as well as the numerous craft markets that flourish around the country. They provide ‘uniqueness’ (on different sensory levels) that commercial bakers just cannot provide. The business might not ‘shoot the lights out’, but should provide employment to a half-dozen or more people and make a contribution to the South African economy”. He cautioned against product information: “the primary purpose of (technological) additives is to maintain the consumer appeal of the bread during its expected shelf-life. These may include dough conditioners, preservatives, emulsifiers and specialised enzyme preparations. Consider the logistical complexities of getting the bread from the large bakery to the retail depot, then the retailer and finally to the consumer. It is important to maintain the appearance of ‘freshness’ during this first critical period of its shelf-life”. The baking industry is as much about getting the product to the consumer as about actual production, according to Professor John Taylor, grain specialist at the Department of Food Science of the University of Pretoria.

Paul Vet (currently with Barentz Ingredients and a seasoned food industry specialist with years of experience as Technical Director with Tiger Brands amongst others) said the big change came in 1961 when a new baking process cut down production time from 4 hours to 2 hours, doubling the number of loaves that could be manufactured in the same factory. Paul Kyriakides referred to this process as “no time dough”. But shelf life and volume were the biggest factors that influenced the changes. “As long as the additives are not harmful to our health, and all ingredients are declared on the label, and the consumer is informed of what he/she is consuming, there is no reason not to use additives. Pricing of bread has been an issue, and people always went where they could buy a standard loaf at the best price”.

But trends change and people now want bread that is of high quality, has good nutritional value, and price is most definitely not the only determining factor anymore, according to Hanjo de Vries from Austrian Premix. He believes the big issue (and not only in the local market) is producers or companies that mislead the consumer with “false advertising” and labelling of products. South Africa came a long way over the last five years to change that, and people are increasingly better informed about what they want to buy.

The fact is that the artisanal baker may well be incorporating one or more of these additives in his formulation. It is not uncommon for the craftsman to use proprietary mixes prepared by specialist blenders. In fact, according to Paul Kyriakides, Bidvest Bakery Solutions recently launched a comprehensive range of Essential artisan bread premixes for both craft and industrial bakeries, and in response to this growing trend they offer training at eight SETA-accredited Centres for Training Excellence around the country. Even the bread baking equipment industry has seen a tremendous spike in interest for small baking equipment according to Andre Roseleur of Bake-Sure, a company dealing in industrial baking equipment.

According to David Carroll other staples such as maize, rice, pasta, and potatoes require cooking, while bread is the prefect lunchtime option, being a convenient staple and good source of energy for South Africa’s 13.5 million full-time working population, . So, whether artisanal or commercial, bread is definitely our daily food and should be celebrated in every way.