Writing my post about bacon last week led me to thinking about bread, as the perfection of a bacon butty depends not only the filling; the quality of the bread is vital too.

My preference is for a good quality multi seeded, sliced wholemeal, but I’ll not turn up my nose at a tasty, crusty baguette. What is key is that it not be cakey or woolly, nor sweetened.

Bread in the US is always a mystery to me.   My recent experience is that in order to get an edible loaf one has to seek out ‘artisan’ made bread and pay 6 bucks a loaf for the privilege.  What I don’t really understand is that lots of people originally from Germany or Italy have emigrated to America over the decades, but they didn’t seem to take any of their bakers with them.

Bread and grain has been a staple in the European diet for centuries; poor harvest have led to civil unrest and famine.  The word is wound into English to indicate both the foodstuff, but the person who provides it, as in bread winner.  Bread and butter is the minimum a person can expect and on which fancier things might be built.

Yet there can be a disconnect between that historical importance and current mores among those who believe they have a wheat ‘intolerance’, and forswear its consumption while encouraging others to do the same.  With the exception of those people who suffer from Coeliac Disease, this always strikes me as an indulgence available only to those living in wealthy societies.

A few weeks ago I heard a radio programme about the relief effort run by the UNHCR in Bosnia during the war.  During the siege of Sarajevo their absolute priority was to keep the city’s bakery open as it had both the obvious benefit of providing food, but also a strong impact on moral.  Freshly produced bread is the minimum that a community is entitled to expect.

When I lived in Moscow I developed quite a taste for black rye bread, largely because it would stay fresh longer than anything else I could find.  I remember taking some UK visitors to the Bolshoi who commented with incredulity that at the theatre it was possible to have caviar, but only on stale bread.

I used to have Russian lessons on a Sunday morning, and would sometimes be still half asleep when Volodya, my teacher arrived.  As I would rarely have done the homework he has set me the previous week, it became a game between us to see how quickly I could divert him from grammar exercises and instead prompt him to talk about current affairs, his university, or his specialist study of Russian etymology.  I was, at the very least, enhancing my passive vocabulary.

One of his particular areas of interest was the widespread use of bread imagery in the Russian language.  As I had neither the vocabulary nor the grammar to tell him the same was true in English, I just let him talk.  Bread and salt are the symbols of hospitality, both necessary and highly prized; bread is at the head of everything.  One week he even persuaded me to try kvass, a traditional slightly alcoholic ‘soft’ drink  made from fermented bread, as he had been bemoaning its decline in popularity against the influx of Coca Cola and similar products of multinational behemoths making their presences felt.

In the spirit of cultural exchange I got him to taste my personally imported Marmite, on toast.  I think it would be fair to say he liked it even less than I liked the kvass.

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