Sourdough taste test: can supermarkets do artisan bread?

We’ve come a long way since Poilâne’s £10 loaf caused us to spit out our Mother’s Pride in 2002. But can the supermarkets really produce decent pain au levain?

The past, it is said, is another country. Nowhere is this more true than in Britain’s relationship with bread. In 2002, the launch of Parisian bakery Poilâne’s pain au levain in London was met with outrage and sniggering amusement. Priced at almost £10 a loaf, this sourdough, made with a starter that was then 70 years old, seemed utterly fantastical.

But no one is laughing now. Sales of white, sliced factory bread are reported to be in steep decline, and you can buy a sourdough loaf in Asda for £1.40. If we are not quite a nation of sourdough addicts – it remains, for most, a posh weekend treat – we have definitely embraced the idea of slow-proved, natural loaves fermented with live starters that teem with billions of wild yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria. Visit benchmark bakeries such as St John in London, Hart’s in Bristol or Price’s in Ludlow, Shropshire, and you will encounter revelatory sourdoughs with chewy crusts, airy, elastic interiors and profound, complex flavours – breads that would score eight or nine out of 10 in this test. Bakers skilfully manipulate the precise sourness in their breads, but many of us now crave the distinctive lactic tang of San Francisco-style sourdoughs.

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