Why don't you make something gluten free? I get a lot of questions about whether or not our bread contains gluten. Gluten's been getting a pretty bad rap nowadays. We bakers weathered the storm of the no-carb fad, shaking ourselves off only to get slammed anew by the seeming epidemic of gluten intolerance. Many folks, spooked by the same nutritional-information apparatus that gave us Fat Free Everything twenty years ago, have a general impression that gluten, whatever it is, must be a Bad Thing, and that if bakers would just not put it in their bread we'd all be better off. So, at the risk of upsetting a lot of people who blame gluten for a myriad of health problems ranging from mild discomfort to the extreme (miscarriage, autism), I'm going to get on my soapbox and say my piece in defense of the basic ingredient of my craft---the magical wheat plant.
First, a little history. It's thought that the cultivation of wheat began in Turkey, 11,000 years ago, though the cultivation of barley probably predates that. The first breads were actually unleavened, pastes made by Neolithic people from pulverizing wild grass seeds and sun drying them to form the first flatbreads. Leavened bread was invented (or discovered) by the Egyptians, who had already figured out the fermentation of grains for the purpose of beer-making; and found that same wild yeast could create a leavened loaf. Beer and bread are ancient buddies. The wild yeast (what we refer to as "sourdough") organisms break down the starches and proteins in the wheat flour, producing carbon dioxide gas that makes bread rise. The rest is history: bakers have been producing countless variations on this concept ever since, from the simplest recipe containing only wheat, water, and salt, to every imaginable combination of grain and enrichment.
I could wax poetic over the properties of bread for hours (especially if you buy me a beer), but let's skip to the gluten part. What is this stuff, anyway? Glutenin and gliadin, the two proteins predominant in wheat, link together during mixing to become the chains of proteins we call gluten. This combination has the special properties of strength and elasticity necessary to support the structure created by the expansion of yeast-produced gas----or in other words those big holes and airy crumb of your favorite baguette. Which is why, as anyone who has tried can attest, it's really hard to get a good texture in a wheat-free bread. Recipes typically include everything and the kitchen sink: potato starch, cornflour, tapioca starch, eggwhites, cellulose, Xanthan gum. I had to look up Xanthan gum, which, according to Wikipedia, is a "highly efficient laxative." My knee-jerk reaction: could this recipe really be healthier than flour, salt and water?
Complicated recipes with mysterious ingredients are the hallmark of our modern nutritionist culture, and a sign of our disconnect from ancient food traditions. I believe when we're told something has to be created in a laboratory and added to food, because it's "good for you," we should question. By the same token I distrust removing something that is naturally part of a food, especially one the ancient Greeks were making and probably digesting just fine.
If gluten isn't really bad for you, then why do I feel so much better when I don't eat bread? I do believe people when they say changing their diet makes them feel better. I also think we should take a closer look at some of the reasons. How is our bread now different from those loaves made in ancient Greece? I may be ignorant of the science involved, but I don't see how we can figure that gluten is the guilty party when so few of the other critical elements have been addressed. For instance, the way we farm: where and how was the wheat produced? Was it doused with herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, or bleached before getting to the shelf? What about additives and preservatives? And what about the baking method? Here's an interesting perspective from a second-generation Australian baker who points out a correlation between gluten intolerance and the additives and yeast formulations introduced in the 1950's that allowed bakers to speed up the traditionally slow fermentation process to produce bread in half the time. Bread production went from 8 hours minimum, to 4 or even less. He claims the longer fermentation is necessary to break down the complex proteins into more digestible nutrients. Artisan bakers also know a longer fermentation time makes for tastier bread, developing flavor, color and texture.
A last thought: other possibilities aside, physical and emotional well-being are inextricably linked, and often our food choices represent the ways we find to control our lives when we feel helpless. Cutting certain food categories out of one's diet usually makes one eat less overall, which also can feel good. Cutting carbohydrates and sugars can help the body regulate its insulin response, which can also be related to stress. And there's always good old fashioned weight loss mania, which will take any form given to it by those that profit from the culture of body-image.
There's a West African word, "Sankofa," that literally translates "Go back and take it." It's often represented by a symbol of a bird taking an egg from its back, signifying the importance of taking what is good from the past to guide one's progress in the present. It's a concept that resonates very strongly with the craft of baking, which in concord with the Slow Food movement has been turning back to the age-old, time-consuming, supremely-rewarding methods of creating that symbol of ultimate comfort: fresh-baked bread.