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Bread, History

Even before agriculture, early man probably chewed the seeds of grasses like millet, barley and wheat. Later he learned to crush the grains to make flour. The Egyptians were certainly doing this before 3000BC; they were also adding water to barley and wheat to make flat cakes, which would be baked in clay ovens, or just hardened by the sun.Bread baked in this way is heavy, as there is no yeast or other rising agent to make it airy. But it can be made quickly, as no kneading or waiting for the yeast to work means you can have this bread on the table in under an hour.

The Egyptians discovered that sour-dough contained yeast, and managed to isolate the yeast plant and become the first people to produce yeast-raised bread. Their bakers also experimented by adding the likes of honey, sweet herbs, saffron and cinnamon to their doughs.

By Roman times bread was so basic to most people's diets that the word was a synonym for food. (e.g. "man doth not live by bread alone" Deuteronomy 8:4; "give us our daily bread" Matthew 6:11). At one point in Roman history as many as sixty-two kinds of bread were being baked - and wealthy politicians won and maintained favour of the populace with bribes of "bread and games". Most of the grain for this bread came from Egypt and North Africa, who had built a system of over 2,000 miles of aqueducts to support their agricultural system.

In Britain, unleavened bread was certainly made before the iron age, but would have been very primitive and made from unsieved grains - it may well have needed honey (along with sieved parsnips the only sweetener of the time) or fat to hold it together as it was cooked on hot stones at the edge of a fire.

Celtic invaders introduced clay ovens and probably used spelt as their wheat. At about this time, horse-hair sieves were introduced via the Celts of Gaul.

Leaven-bread probably came about by accident, when uncooked bread was left lying around in hot weather until it began to ferment - when cooked it would have had a lighter and more spongy texture than usual. It is also possible they added beer froth to their bread to make it lighter (see - "Culinary arts" by C. Singer).

With the arrival of the Romans, oats, rye and barley became predominant - barley also being used for beer brewing. Wheat was not often used in northern climes, as it didn't grow well in colder climates; indeed more robust types of wheat weren't commonly available until the 19th century.

The Romans preferred white flour and went to great lengths to grind it finely, often adding chalk to improve the colour. They also made bread flavoured with anise or cumin and enriched some with the addition of milk, eggs and butter.

Saxon invaders brought their own favourite grains, but barley remained the favoured grain for bread; and the Normans brought their own refinements, their gentry using slabs of bread as a trencher - at the end of the meal the diner would eat this bread if he felt so inclined - in a more humble home he certainly did so.

Bread , pottage and ale were the three great dietary staples until the end of the middle ages. The ingredients of the pottage depending on the wealth of the consumer.

If crops failed poorer families had to rely on "horse-bread" - peas and beans were the official ingredients.

The movement for white bread gained momentum in Elizabeth 1 reign, because of its pleasing colour and the fact that it was easier to digest - but for many years it was beyond the reaches of the lower classes. Extreme whitenesswas often achieved by adding alum (aluminium powder) and chalk to the flour, and it was many years before this practice was stamped out.

Fine bread during this period was called "Wastel"; slightly less sieved "Cochet", and whole meal "Bis" or "Treet".

Bread was always inseparable to meat in the way it would still form the base of thick stews, in the way the bread-trencher had done - the difference being the whole would now be enclosed in a bowl.

Over two hundred years ago Tobias Smollett wrote his last novel "Humphry Clinker" in which he writes a letter from the fictional Matthew Bramble about the perils of London bread -

"The bread I eat in London is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste, and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration; but they prefer it to wholesome bread, because it is whiter than the meal of corn; thus the sacrifice their taste and their health, and the lives of their tender infants, to a most absurd gratification of a mis-judging eye; and the miller, or the baker, is obliged to poison them and their families, in order to live by his profession"

A new device which linked bread with meat was the sandwich, said to have been invented in about 1760 by John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, so he could eat meals without having to leave the gaming board.

Water-power vastly improved the quality, and lowered the cost of flour at around this time, and as the grains were ground at a relatively low temperature on stone most of the vitamins were retained. With the advent of steel grinders in Victorian times, prices fell still further - but the heat generated by these grinders unfortunately destroyed many of the vitamins.

Without shopping carefully, this is the position we find ourselves in today!

Wheat only became the predominant bread-making flour when new strains were developed in the 19th century able to tolerate the conditions of Northern Europe.

If you enjoy cooking take a minute to look at ‘Simon Scrutton French Cookery Classes’ on Google – and learn how to make top class bistro-style dishes. Suitable for beginners upwards.

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history of bread
history of bread