Bread: The First Wonder of the Food World

  By Dawn, 5 April 2007; Revised 6 April 2007
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Bread, around for centuries, has played an important role in many cultures. It has been in the forefront of religion, permeated monetary and legal systems, and became a status symbol. The Bible uses the words "bread"and "nourishment’ interchangeably. The English word "lord" comes from the old English "hlaford", meaning "keeper of the bread." In medieval Europe, bread was not only a staple in the diet, but part of the china, so to speak. The usual impalement to serve dinner was on a trencher, a piece of stale bread roughly 6 inches by 4 inches, served as an absorbent plate. When the meal was finished ,the trencher could then be eaten, given to the poor, or fed to the dogs. It was not until the 15th century that trenchers made of wood started to replace the bread variety. The role "matzoh" in Judaism and the "communion wafer" in Christianity are well known. The word "companion" comes from a Latin word meaning "one who shares bread." The sharing of bread and salt is a traditional basis of hospitality and creates a usually unbreakable mutual obligation of protection. A host could, with honour, allow harm to come to one he had shared his bread and hearth with.  In our society, think about what the use of the slang terms, "dough" and "bread" for money, says about our 20th-century priorities. Today, we can sample the types of bread from almost every culture around the world. It is still one of the staples that all cultures have.

Now a little vocabulary:
Leavener/leavening agent - the ingredient that makes bread rise.
Flour - the fine powdered substance that is the main ingredient. It could be wheat, rye, corn or any other grain ground.
Gluten - the component that gives dough its stretchiness and imparts the ability to capture the air (CO2 actually) that makes bread etc. rise. The flour with the biggest percentage of gluten is wheat, rye contains no glutton and, thus, all modern rye bread has wheat flour in it .
Barm - the scum of the top of fermenting beer, yeast for raising bread.

In the Beginning

It is thought that the first bread appeared early in the form of neolithic basic unleavened bread. Early Egyptian Sun bread may have been some of the first loaves of bread. These loaves were really just a thick paste formed into cakes and dried in the sun, then baked on hot rocks covered in ashes. Some of this type of bread have been found preserved in Stone Age settlements.   In Europe, the oldest known loaf dates back to about 3530 BC.  Found at Twann, on Lake Biel in 1976, the people, known as the lake dwellers, who built houses on stilts on the edges of lakes or, perhaps, even out over the water, cooked flat bread on hot stones, and covering it with ashes[1]. Direct decendents of this type are still made in the form of tortillas, chapati, poa ping and bannock.

On the Rise

Bread may have been naturally risen earlier from free floating natural yeasts, but the earliest archeological evidence comes from Egypt. Sourdough is the oldest form and probably arrived at by accident. It may have happened something like this:

Baker Amose left his bread in a place too warm for too long causing it to sour, but, because Amose was hungry, he baked it anyways and, by magic, it got bigger, lighter and had a pleasing taste. Then, some enterprising fellow discovered that if you add a little of yesterday's dough to today’s dough, he can get the same results. Presto, first sourdough starter came to be.

Today, you can get commercially made sourdough starters, but the best are still the ones you make yourself by souring a mixture of yeast, sugar and water.

There is some speculation that bread leavening and beer making are connected through the use of Barm, a yeast cake made from the form produced by fermentation in beer making. The foam was skimmed off, dried into a cake, and then dehydrated for use in bread, much like commercial yeasts today are mixed with water and sugar to activate them.  Some bakers may have noticed that the scent from his bread rising was similar to that of the brewers vats and gave the barm cakes a try in his bread dough . Who knows, but the archaeological evidence points to the fact that the Egyptians did it first. Later, other big beer makers where noted to have produced light loaves using their beer yeasts. Pliny the Elder reported that the Gauls and the Iberians used the foam skimmed from beer to produce “a lighter kind of bread than other peoples” By the 3c. BC, there were commercially prepared yeast products made for bread production in Egypt. Also common in Rome and Babylonia, non beer drinking cultures was to soak dry barm cakes in sweet wine for several days then add it to the dough, resulting in a similar effect- lighter, bigger loaves with a distinctive taste.

Although other ways to make bread rise where developed later on ( baking soda, baking powder etc.), none could produce the same texture, taste and height of yeast.

A Word on Flour

To most of us, flour means white wheat flour. Not so in the past. The first flours where nothing more than very course ground seeds from grass. Later, it was discovered that corn and some ancient varieties of wheat could be ground more uniformly to produce a better and more edible product. There have been ancient grains found in Egypt that have been grown today, and then bread produced in the described ways. The product was amazingly good, but it still wasn’t white bread. That wasn’t close to being until the middle ages, when they began separating the bran from the mix. They even flirted with bleaching it. This flour was very expensive, due to the labour intensity of producing it, and became a status symbol. Many cultures went in different directions producing what became the staggering varieties of breads available today.


History of Bread, Bernard Dupaigne
Six Thousand Years of Bread: It’s Holy and Unholy History, Heinrich Eduard Jacob
The Book of Bread(Evergreen Series) , Jerome Assire and Bernard Clavel.
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