The ale-barm method: Worthy of revival or just barmy bread?
This week The Food Programme is all about yeast, the mysterious fungi that play an essential yet often overlooked part of our food production. The programme explores yeast in brewing and baking, and reveals how the original method of making yeast bread in Britain was a by-product of ale-making. When traditional ale is made, a yeasty froth appears on top of the fermenting liquid, the wort. This used to be scooped off, washed and added to bread dough in order to leaven it. Bread made this way is sweet tasting, and the leavening yeast used to be called 'barm'. Its unpredictability gives us the word 'barmy'. This short picture-film explains the process:
In the 19th century, the process was refined and industrialised, manufacturing it on a large scale which we know today as 'yeast', and used world-wide as THE method to leaven bread. The barm method appears to be an ancient method developed by Gaelic peoples in the mists of time, and was quite different to that used in Europe, which is to leaven bread with a sourdough or leaven (the French call it 'levain'). When the Romans first conquered Gaul, modern day France, they were astonished by the light sweet bread made by the Celtic inhabitants. Barm bread survived with the Celtic peoples in Britain, Scotland and Éire, but was not common in Europe, being condemned during the 'Enlightenment' as 'unwholesome'. In England noblemen's bread, manchet was always made with the barm method, whereas the commoners' bread maslin was a sourdough. Barm bread survived until World War Two and even later in the North of England largely as barm cakes. Curiously, the old method of making a sponge, or thick batter of flour and water with the barm was still used with the new industrially produced yeast, and was re-introduced to Europe from Vienna where the first yeast factories were established. This became popular in France as a 'poolish', the favoured method of making crusty bread such as a baguette. It is interesting that the old method survived the invasions of Romans, Saxons and Normans. It couldn't be ignored really as it made the sweetest lightest bread in the right hands. As with all of these archaic breads, it was highly digestible and nutritious because the ferments were never pure strains like they are today, but included lactic bacteria which also gave the bread good flavour.
Barm bread is so worthy of revival because it is a characteristic ancient bread of Britain, a true heritage. Even today it hasn't been forgotten as some will still add ale to bread dough to give it the ancient flavour, so appreciated in Britain and distinct from other bread cultures. It's just a shame that the process was bastardised by industrialisation to produce the unwholesome yeast breads of today. Nevertheless, there are bakers using the new organic yeast which is virtually the same, and employing long ferments to ensure the bread has flavour, character and is digestible.
Are you a keen home baker? Have you tried sourdough starters or making ale-barm bread? Share your experiences of making unusual breads.
John Downes is a baker and food writer who pioneered the sourdough 'revolution' in Australia in the 1970s. He is interviewed in this week's The Food Programme. Picture-film made by George Casey.