I was holding a bag of Italian sliced bread and I just couldn’t understand where the strong smell of alcohol was coming from.
And it was strong!
Oh, gosh! It was like someone had dropped a full bottle of one of those national drinks which are simply a disguise for pure ethanol. And then, a second later the realisation hit me even harder than the smell: it was the bread, the pre-packaged, sliced bread in the bag which I had just opened for breakfast, which smelled worse than a distillery.
I couldn’t quite get it. Why would the bread smell of alcohol?! It was still very much in date. We had bought it the day before from a small supermarket just around the corner. We had been buying the same type of bread for a few months now and it had never smelled like that.
I grasped for an explanation, no matter how absurd it was. Had the shop kept the bread close to their alcohol display and somehow the bread had imbibed the alcoholic vapours through the factory-sealed bottle caps? As the shop had been closed for a day due to a national holiday right before we purchased the bread, had the bread gone off in the heat of its plastic bag and started turning into alcohol by some strange biological reaction?
Nothing made sense, until I turned the bag round in my hands and read the small print on its back. It simply said in Italian: ‘Trattato con alcool etilico.’ Or in plain English: ‘Treated with ethyl alcohol.’
‘Who in their right mind treats their bread with alcohol?!’, was all I could say. Actually, I didn’t make an effort to sound this polite whilst it was all still happening.
Half an hour spent feverishly looking for information online gave me the answers.
It turned out that to block the growth of moulds and yeasts in pre-packaged sliced bread (also called ‘sandwich bread’), Italian large bread companies spray the loaves with ethyl alcohol. According to Morato Pane – one of the large bread manufacturers in the country:
‘Alcohol treatment is only superficial, the quantities used are minimal. (…) Alcohol is sprayed on the bread before it is packaged, but once the package is opened it partially evaporates and disappears. (…)’
You can read their explanation in full here. Update: As of 20th January 2017, this link (http://moratopane.com/en/preservation-of-bread-why-is-ethyl-alcohol-used/) doesn’t seem to be working and the page explaining the use of ethyl alcohol on bread seems to have been removed from the company’s website. At the original time of posting the article, the above text was copied verbatim from the company’s website .
Apparently, in their combat with mould growth on pre-packaged bread, Italian manufacturers opted for ethyl alcohol so as to avoid using the preservative E282 (the use of which is the norm in England, for example). Prolonged consumption of E282 or calcium propionate, allegedly, leads to a whole list of scary sounding and very varied symptoms in some people, such as extreme fatigue, eczema, headaches and even depression and adult acne.
No wonder then I was often feeling down and sluggish when we lived in England. As a Bulgarian, bread is very important to me. Traditionally bread is served in Bulgaria with every meal (yes, even with chips!), so it was a staple food at our English table, too. As my then boyfriend (now husband) and I would do a big weekly shop, we got used to buying pre-packaged sliced bread, as it was so convenient for storing and for toasties and sandwiches in the morning and come lunch. Also, it was very time-efficient to buy this type of bread, instead of searching for an artisan bakery. There wasn’t one in our neck of the London woods and going to the West End just for that was not viable for us.
We would treat ourselves to some lovely loaves each time we would go to a farmer’s market and I still have some very fond memories of the offerings of a bread company called Flour Power (great name, no?!). On a day-to-day basis though convenience ruled as I was always so time-poor and constantly running after deadlines whilst feeling rather tired to the point of exhaustion.
So, yep, I get it. They wanted to avoid E282 in Italian pre-packaged bread. In 1986 two Italian scientists – Bonetto and Bortoli – developed an alternative mould-combating process eliminating the need to use said preservative. Instead, the new technique involved spraying the loaves with ethyl alcohol which, on one hand, is food grade and, on the other hand, evaporates when the bag is open and when the bread slices are toasted.
The bread manufacturers using this method are quick to point out that all products treated this way are perfectly safe. Did I say ‘products’? Yes, because when I started reading labels carefully, I realised that it is not just pre-packaged sliced bread which gets sprayed with ethyl alcohol in Italy. The same treatment is applied also to pre-packaged chilled doughs (for example, filo and puff pastry) plus tortilla wraps and flatbreads (or ‘piadina‘ as they are known here).
To be completely honest, the more I read about it, the more uneasy I felt. I understood the need to avoid E282, but (and no matter how many times I read that it is safe) I couldn’t quite accept the idea to serve my little daughter bread which had been sprayed on the surface with (albeit a negligible amount of) alcohol.
Yes, I get it that it evaporates during the toasting process, but as my experience showed, as (most likely) the bread had not been stored correctly, it ended up smelling worse than a distillery and was unfit for purpose, even though it was still in date. By the way, pre-packaged sliced bread in Italy lasts for months and it is very cheap, normally costing around an euro or less per pack of 400 gr.
The solution for us was to go back to buying bread from our local bakery. It makes a great variety of loaves and rolls and unlike many of the other small shops in the vicinity, service there is always with a smile.
We had been great fans of the bakery and its produce in the first months after we had moved to Italy, but then convenience had won again and we had started buying pre-packaged bread from the supermarket where we do our weekly shop.
Well, since then, it has been the bakery for us all the way. As the bread made there doesn’t contain preservatives, it goes hard and dry rather quickly – a couple of days at most. Hence, we pop in if not every day, then every other day and have learnt to buy a small quantity of freshly made bread (just what we need for a day, day and a half), instead on stocking up ahead for the whole week and then end up with a huge number of uneaten rolls.
So, yes, it has been a bit of a learning curve.
Bread is such a simple everyday thing, something we are so used to, that it is easy to be swayed astray and start to compromise on its quality, without realising that there are hidden components in it which can turn it from a giving life and strength food into the enemy on our tables.
What has your experience been with bread at home and abroad?! Let me know in the comments below.