The history of bread

20 Jun

Before recorded history, bread existed, it has been the staple in many diets.  Though the common white breads and many other varieties known commercially today are touted as “empty calories”, it need not be the case!  Bread can be highly nutritious and has fed humanity for eons.  Bread is one of the earliest and the most generally used form of food adopted by mankind.  Nothing in the whole range of domestic food more affects the health and happiness of the family than the quality of its daily bread.

The word “bread” is derived from the verb “to bray” or to pound, expressive of the old method of preparing the grain.  Bread is made from something brayed such as wheat or corn, but is not formed into bread until moistened with water to form a dough.  The word dough is a word meaning “wet or moistened”.  The word “Loaf” comes from the word “lifian” which means to raise or lift up.  Hence this word came after the original cooks learned that by adding yeast or fermenting the dough would cause it to be raised, made light and more porous.

Originally wheat was grown in great quantities in Mesopotamia.  Wheat wasn’t always ground or pulverized and turned into a flour.  In the beginning, it was turned into a paste and set over a fire.  This would harden the paste into a flat bread.  It was by accident when yeast fell into the paste and the cook discovered that yeast caused bread to rise and become fluffy. In early times, the cooks learned that if they left some of the dough raw and used it to make the bread the next day, it introduced a rich flavor to the bread, thus “sour-dough” bread was given birth.

As the cooks learned more about the properties of yeast and learned to produce yeast cultures, it is said that “only the bad housewife would have no yeast growing in her larder”.  I will share with you another time how to make your own yeast.  The cost of yeast on the local grocer shelf is quite expensive.  Part of why I think bread has left the daily diet in so many cultures.  I mean lets face it, you can normally find two loaves of bread on sale for around $3 for the cheaper store brands, while a package of yeast to make 1 loaf of bread will cost you over $2 and you still have to purchase the flour, eggs, sugar, milk and butter to put them together a simple loaf.

I learned to make bread with my mother growing up.  We would knead and knead lots of dough every saturday, by the time they had raised, been punched down and allowed to raise again, baked….we turned out about 20 loaves of bread each and every saturday that would feed the family through the week.  It was a big production and took up every inch of flat surface space we had in the kitchen to accomplish.

As more grains were discovered and turned into a paste or flour, more and more bread varieties evolved in the diets of the population.  Back in the early days, the type of bread in which you ate told much of your family wealth.  Back then, the darker breads were eaten by the poor and the white breads were eaten by the rich.  Few had the money to purchase the ultra refined white flours, but could still make bread with the un-refined darker versions of grains.  So the poor ate the highly nutritious bread and the rich ate the lowered nutritional white breads.  There were diseases known as “rich man disease” which came from the lack of nutrition in producing white rice and white flours.  These were diseases not present in the poor ranks of society as they could not afford to purchase these ultra-refined flours.

The Greeks further refined the bread making skills of the Egyptians, the new techniques made their way all over Europe.  Rome felt that bread was more vital than meat.  The whole Roman welfare system was based on the distribution of grain to the Roman population for the making of bread.

In the middle ages, where community bake houses were born, normally a community bake oven was located on the Lord of the lands property, where everyone could come to bake their breads and cakes for a fee paid to the Lord.  Bread has through many dark times of poor economy sustained life, more so with the poor, but it was the staple that kept many societies alive through poor economies.

Falsely accredited to Marie Antoinette, who never really said it, but is credited for it when the French Revolution came about, she is quoted to have said “If the poor can’t put bread on their table, let them eat cake”.  She never really said this, but it just goes to show you the importance of flour and the meal table.

To this day, bread is used in religious ceremonies and even said in many common prayers like “Give us this day our daily bread”.  I think this refers not just to the sustenance of the belly but also sustenance of life, mind, body and soul.

While not true for the hybridized varieties of grain grown not for its quality but its weight, that is refined to the point that it has even less nutrition than when it began (which through hybridization and breeding for weight has reduced its nutritional value).  Bread is the “bread and butter” of life, and in many societies and family tables it remains the key to most meals in many forms.

Many historic books have cited that bread was often used as the plate in which the meal was served.  The juices from the meats and vegetables would soak into the bread and the guests would simply eat their plates.  being lazy I like this idea!  Think of all the saved time, “here is your plate——eat it up”, I don’t want to do the dishes tonight!  In the middle ages the entire family would gather for a meal and eat from the same platter or pot.  But when company arrived, each guest was normally given unleavened bread to serve as their plate.

In the Anglo-Saxon language, the word “lady” signified “giver of the loaf” which is not only appropriate but neat at the same time.

We hope you enjoy the many recipes for bread you will find in our bread section.

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Posted by on June 20, 2011 in Bread, The Kitchen


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