As quarantine blues reach an all-time high, one trend that has emerged during the current global Covid-19 pandemic is the act of baking bread. If you’ve somehow missed the surfeit of social media posts of people showing off their freshly baked loaves, a cursory glance at Google trends will tell you that since the end of March, when India went into lockdown, there’s been a sharp spike in searches for all kinds of recipes, but the one that tops the list is banana bread.
And it’s not just India. ‘How to bake bread without yeast’, ‘banana bread demo’, ‘sourdough recipe’ and ‘how to make a bread roll’ have become global preoccupations, to the point where preparing one’s own bread seems less like an activity born out of boredom and more like a mini-movement.
It’s as if, laughs a Delhi-based teacher, while one curve is being flattened, another is rising.
With India’s stringent lockdown, the supply of bread has been shaky across the country. When Goa’s beloved poders are not sounding their bicycle horns alerting villagers to a fresh batch of poi, or the fragrance from the local bakery suddenly disappears, it’s naturally a cause for concern.
Right after the nationwide lockdown was announced, Bengaluru’s bakeries suffered a 30 per cent drop in bread production due to shortage and lack of access to raw materials, non-operational flour mills, disruption of wheat supply from north India and lack of manpower. Most units that did manage to function faced the difficulty of rising demand, coupled with the difficulty of procuring fresh yeast.
Supply was uneven in Chennai, too, but franchise bakeries like French Loaf took on the task of supplying bread, along with other essentials like eggs and milk. Mumbai’s local paowalas’ network has been largely unaffected, but its largest sliced-bread supplier, Western India Bakers Pvt Ltd (Wibs), does have supply-related concerns, and they’re not related to manpower or raw material, but packaging material.
Wibs continues to produce 3,000 loaves per hour, but has been worried about running out of wrapping paper, which it sources from outside Maharashtra. In Kolkata, most large automated bakery units have been non-functional since the lockdown, and it is small-scale or home-run bakeries that have come to the rescue.
Most artisanal bakers in the capital have shut shop, says Ebenezer Giftalin, who runs his own bakery venture from his home and had customers place orders before the lockdown was implemented. The Delhi baker has continued to receive enquiries throughout the lockdown period, apart from many queries on how to bake one’s own bread. “Since the lockdown, I have had hour-long chats with total strangers on Instagram about starters and sourdough recipes,” he tells ThePrint. With most bakeries shut or working in limited capacities, he says, people are bound to try their hand at bread-making.
A sense of comfort and control
Apart from tackling the lack of availability or reduced supply of bread, the phenomenon of baking the essential also has a psychological underpinning to it.
“Baking bread is like one of those mythical things that you feel is difficult to do, until you realise it takes just three ingredients [flour, water and yeast] to transform a lump of dough into a beautiful loaf,” says Delhi-based footwear designer Nayantara Sood. “It’s sort of life affirming. The more you do it, the more hacks you figure out, little things you can do differently — proportions of water, milk, herbs, fruit and seeds you can play with.” Giftalin agrees, saying the process of baking bread is almost designed to be addictive.
“In uncertain times, many will try and establish some kind of control to cope — food is a common aspect of our lives we take control from,” counsellor and psychotherapist Katerina Georgiou was quoted as saying in a 6 April Grazia piece. She explained that baking is a mindful activity that requires focus and a routine. It also involves engaging our five senses, which is important to feel grounded when anxious, as many have been during this pandemic.
Delhi-based podcaster Ameya Nagarajan, who has been regularly sharing images of her own experiments with banana bread on social media, echoes this. “My theory is that right now, you feel like your survival is threatened, and if you can do stuff like make bread or rotis, you feel like you can survive. It’s comforting to feel like you can rely on yourself.”
According to her, apart from the fact that this quarantine seems like an ideal time to take on a big and seemingly scary project like learning how to bake bread, the validation that comes from being able to make something basic and comforting also feels like an achievement.
It’s also a great family activity, points out Sood. Her daughter is five and a half years old and absolutely loves to knead dough. “There’s flour everywhere, the kitchen becomes a sticky mess, but she loves it. She’s also always the first to get a slice straight from the oven.”
Quarantine is a time to stay healthy
It might seem like a trend right now, but, for some, like Sood, the impetus to bake bread at home stems from health concerns. “We completely stopped buying commercial bread years ago,” she says, explaining that her first bread experiment was The New York Times’ famous ‘No Knead’ recipe in 2018.
“Before the lockdown, a lot of people were gluten intolerant, and now suddenly everyone is on the bread bandwagon,” she says. “Because the beauty of baking your own bread at home is that you let it rise, you don’t add improvers. Most bakeries don’t have that time, so most bread you buy has improvers. That changes the activation of gluten, so with commercial bread, the breakdown of gluten ends up happening in your stomach rather than during fermentation.”
Sood’s family has found multiple uses for bread apart from toast and sandwiches. They use bread crumbs to accompany cooked salmon or to blend with soup, or simply saute them with herbs to add to pasta.
Giftalin also likes the versatility of cooking with bread, and he’s constantly pushing the idea of different ways to pair it with meat, sharing the results on his Instagram account. The home-baker who specialises in sourdough started his commercial venture about one and a half years ago, after he quit his job and was contemplating moving back to his hometown of Bengaluru. “I said, lets see if I can stretch out what I’m doing,” he recalls, and within two weeks of operating, he was already receiving orders from outside his circle of friends. Now, he supplies regularly across Delhi-NCR.
For Eeshaan Kashyap, chef and vice-president, Pass Code Hospitality, the lockdown has been a time to relax and flaunt his baking skills, be it making brioche, focaccia or cinnamon rolls, and to share recipes with his Instagram followers.
“You have everything at home to bake bread,” he says. “Atta and maida are staples in everyone’s home, and even if one doesn’t have yeast, one could use fermentation agents like dahi, or just ferment atta and water at room temperature. Those who are gluten intolerant can use polenta. I have friends who are making pita pockets and Turkish bread with starters using Eno (antacid).”
Kashyap even took to Instagram to share a zero-waste recipe on how to prepare bread with nothing but left-over rice, chives and salt.
View this post on Instagram
𝐙𝐞𝐫𝐨 𝐰𝐚𝐬𝐭𝐞 𝐁𝐫𝐞𝐚𝐝 𝐑𝐞𝐜𝐢𝐩𝐞 . Bread made with left over rice, chives and salt. The one thing I have learnt during the lockdown is using every ingredients Dish and using ways to innovate them. . This bread came out great with a hard salty crust. The rice and the greens in the bread helps it to ferment further and make the dough very airy and soft from the inside. . It’s literally a one mix dough and needs no attention at all. 𝐑𝐞𝐜𝐢𝐩𝐞 in (grams) 2 days old boiled rice (red or white) – 250 Chives – 200 Salt – 35 Sugar brown – 114 yeast / curd / starter – 120 Olive oil – 20 ml water – 680 ml Flour – 1530 Mix them all and let it rest for an hour and form a sticky dough. Bake at 200 degrees for 20 mins .
He believes it’s a great substitute for rotis as well, an Indian staple many are struggling to master while in lockdown. “Do it once and you’ll never forget the sense of achievement,” he says, adding that the happiness you get once you bake your first loaf is quite special.