Bread History

I was browsing around for old recipes today, mainly Roman or Egyptian and frankly didn’t’ get far. Every single one uses modern test tube yeast which is obviously ridiculous. It seems the Romans used grape juice to accelerate fermentation, and clearly the Egyptians made some sort of sourdough. Given that all you have to do is leave grains out in a warm place soaking in water and after 2 days or so it is bubbling away, and seeing how grains are way too hard to chew and digest unless at the very least soaked, I suspect that basic bread making was discovered long before the Egyptians.

This is the sort of thing you find (when searching for Sumerian bread recipe in this case):

24oz organic barley flour
16oz warm water
8oz grape nuts cereal (flour, malted barley flour, salt, yeast)
8oz honey
generous amount of freshly ground coriander
generous amount of freshly ground cardamom
generous amount of ceylon (true) cinnamon

Mix everything. The dough tastes pretty good, and the grape nuts give some texture to it, but without the bits of hull the original probably had. Form into flat, cookie shapes on a baking stone. Bake for 35 min at 375F, then flip ‘em over and bake again.

Now this is an unleavened bread, though if you soaked it slowly for 2-3 days, of course it would naturally start to leaven itself.

But ‘grape nuts cereal’ for a Sumerian recipe? Why do people come up with such clearly ridiculous stuff?! I just don’t understand…. Anyway, the linked article is simple and has some good information especially about what is lost with white flour production and modern processing methods. This is towards the end of the article:

Early bread was made from mixtures including wheat, acorns, nuts, millet, barley, rye, oats, peas, beans and whatever weed seeds were harvested along with the grain. Since wheat is the best source of gluten making it most suitable for producing a light, risen loaf, its use soon predominated over that of other grains.

Mediaeval European peasants also ate bread made from mixtures of grains, peas, acorns and weed seeds, but since Roman times, all ‘refined’ and ‘civilised’ people have preferred soft, white, wheaten bread. Although rye and barley were the chief bread grains in Britain until about AD 1700, coarse breads containing flours other than white wheat flour became very rare after that time.

Grain milling became simplified in Rome in about 500 BC with the introduction of a rotary quern in which a circular stone wheel turns against a fixed stone wheel (this was the basis of milling up until the nineteenth century). The top stone was turned by animals or domestic slaves, later by waterwheels. This process enabled the Romans to mill four or five grades of flour, reserving the finest and whitest for the wealthy. Coarse wholemeal, which also contained other grains such as millet, was favoured by wrestlers and gladiators to build up their strength, so the Romans were aware of the nutritive value of wholemeal flour but chose to use refined white flour.

Modern milling of wheat to 70 per cent extraction white flour removes 50 per cent of the vitamin B5, two-thirds of the folic acid, 72 per cent of the vitamin B6, 77 per cent of the vitamin B1, 80 per cent of the vitamin B2, 81 per cent of the vitamin B3, 86 per cent of the vitamin E, 60 per cent of the calcium, 40 per cent of the chromium, 71 per cent of the phosphorus, 76 per cent of the iron, 77 per cent of the potassium, 78 per cent of the zinc and sodium, 85 per cent of the magnesium, 86 per cent of the manganese and 88 per cent of the cobalt. And this is before storage, the addition of flour improvers and other chemical additives, and baking all take their further toll on nutrients. The refinement of grains, along with the processing of other foods, has been linked with the growing epidemic of modern degenerative diseases.

Chemicals and Mass Production

Recipes for modern commercially produced bread may include many additives to make mass production more convenient for the factory. These additives include chemicals to retard staling (which is otherwise very rapid in a refined-flour loaf; white bread becomes cardboard in half a day), mould inhibitors, softeners, emulsifiers, taste-enhancers, free-flowing agents, yeast stimulants, and stiffeners to reduce the rising time of the dough.

This last is what enables the so-called instant fermentation of bread. It is becoming common practice to make bread that needs no rising: chemical stiffeners such as potassium bromate and potassium iodate allow unleavened bread to be beaten with powerful beaters in a few minutes. Such bread lacks flavour, so artificial flavours need to be added.

Flour is often called ‘enriched’, but of all the nutrients lost, only thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), iron, calcium and sometimes pyridoxine (B6) are replaced. Since more vitamins are still being discovered, it is likely that all that has been lost in the refining and storage of flour has not been identified. Nutrients tend to work with each other: certainly the benefit obtained from a whole food can never be duplicated by returning some isolated components to a refined product. There is also the question of how assimilable is the form in which these nutrients are added.”

Many of the Roman recipes I found (all using instant yeast!) featured about 2-1 mix of wholewheat to rye. Now they had white flour in Roman times, so it looks to me like their bread was very similar to ours with various combinations of spelt/emmer/wheat/rye. Often they added a little olive oil, and they liked garlic, rosemary, onions and fennel seeds. So it seems that quite a few of my recipes are very close to ‘Roman’ bread.

And according to one article, the Romans picked up high quality baking from their Greek slaves at some point since the Greeks were better at it. But then Greece was civilised long before Rome.

I suspect the key difference between ancient and modern bread is not technique (assuming basic natural/organic leavening such as I and many others still use) but the strains of wheat.

A Cape Breton farmer is going to grow a strip of rye this year just as an initial experiment. We’ll see if we can conquer the threshing hurdle. But I would love to have island-grown rye for my fresh-ground loaves. The starter cultures from those ryes will also be true, island-grown cultures. THE BEST!!


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