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A brief history of Bread

 

 

 

A loaf of bread - that humble item on every shopping list, is too often taken for granted.

  Man has been making bread for at least 8000 years, in the days when the tools to hoe, cut and grind were all made of stone.   The crushed flour mixed with water and cooked on a flat stone over a fire gave a bread that was very different from the sliced white loaf of today.   It was hard on the teeth (as seen from human remains) and an example of bread from 4000 years ago can be found at the British Museum.

 According to the legend, a young Egyptian once forgot to cook his dough and left it long enough to ferment before eventually baking what became the first leavened bread.   The Egyptians were expert wheat growers and sold their excess to the Greeks, who developed bread making skills.

 The Romans learnt from the Greeks and even started a college for bakers.  It is said that there were 258 bakers’ shops in Rome by the year 100bc.   In the preserved Pompeian bakery, loaves had been stamped with the maker’s initials, and there was a public oven where the populace could bake their home-made bread.   When Cassius came to Britain with his conquering army, it is said that he had his bread sent all the way from Rome, rather than eat the local produce.   The Romans imported the hard wheat which would not grow in the northern latitudes and brought us the rotary mill stone and watermill.   As with roads, sanitation and central heating, much baking knowledge was lost when the roman empire collapsed.

 The staple food crops of the Saxon were rye, barley, oats, millet, beans and peas.   Bread made from wheat was a luxury. 

 When the Normans came a few centuries later, their greater use of yeast in beer and brewing revived the yeasted loaf, although local soft wheat did not rise very well.   The large round flat loaves were frequently used as plates, called trenchers.   A good trencherman could eat his dinner and his trencher.   Was this the origin of the Scandinavian open sandwich?   The cakes or loaves eaten by the agricultural population were usually made from a coarse meal of rye, sometimes mixed with barley, oats, wheat or beans.

 Millers were often accused of taking more than their fair share of the flour, so bakers too, were accused of stealing dough.   A case is recorded of a baker who cut a hole in his kneading board, though which his boy could steal bits of dough whilst the customer looked on in ignorance.   

 Honest bakers formed themselves into a guild: “the fraternity of st clement of the mystery of bakers”.    This conducted spot checks for the weight, quality and price of bread.   The unpleasant and humiliating penalties for selling underweight loaves led bakers to protect themselves by baking an extra ‘make-weight’ loaf to every dozen - hence the baker’s dozen.   The guild also set conditions for apprentices, one of which was that they were not to be served salmon (then a cheap and common fish) more than twice weekly.   The apprentices took seven years to learn the mystery which was largely concerned with the maintenance of the foaming yeast culture or barm.   Remember this next time you reach for the sachet of dried yeast or run to the supermarket for a pack of pre-packed fresh yeast to put in the bread making machine!

 English bread was generally made of mixed grains until well into the Victorian age.   Barley and rye breads took longer to digest and were favoured by labourers, whilst the rich enjoyed expensive white wheat bread.  

 In the 19th century, imported wheat became plentiful and was milled in the ports for distribution by rail to the growing urban population, to the detriment of rural wind and water mills.   Parliament put such heavy taxes on imported wheat that the price of bread rose to as much as 2/6 a loaf when some wages were only three shillings a week.    People revolted against these corn laws with the result that they were repealed in 1846.

 The 20th century saw the mass production of bread, with some of the sliced white loaves of the later decades bearing little resemblance to the tasty hand-crafted product.   The turn of the 21st century has seen the rise of the domestic bread making machine - a clean effortless way to enjoy fresh wholesome bread baked to one’s own taste.   It seems ironic that after so many centuries in which the wealthier citizens demonstrated their status by buying the whitest wheat bread from someone else’s oven, the same sector of society now seek out mixed grain wholemeal flours to bake in their own kitchens!

 Tony Yoward


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