Bread: A Real Slice of Life

Bread in Oaxaca, Mexico

Mercado de los Abastos in Oaxaca, Mexico

Bread seems like a pretty basic food, sort of an irreducible minimum on which one builds. But bread is actually quite complex, and it was not the first thing people did with cereal grains. For a big chunk of early human history, grains were simply parched on hot stones or pounded to a rough powder and boiled into gruel or paste. (In fact, in many regions, these food forms are still important, from the foofoo of West Africa to the tsampa of Tibet.) Scholars believe that the first time people realized they could put the paste on the hot stones, producing a simple flatbread, was likely the late Stone Age. And just as gruel and paste persist to the present day, so do classic, stone-cooked flatbreads, from Mexican tortillas to Scottish oatcakes to Chinese pancakes.

It actually took several millennia and a bunch of technological advances to get the world to the place where bread as we know it was even a possibility. First, a variety of wheat had to be developed that could be easily husked. Wild wheat must be roasted to remove the husk, but heating wheat denatures the grain’s gluten-forming proteins. No gluten, no rising. The first settlements we know about arose in areas where wheat grew wild, so it seems that wheat first domesticated humans, and then, returning the favor, humans began to domesticate wheat. This jump likely occurred between 8000 and 7000 BC in the region that is now Anatolia, Iran, and Syria. It is not known exactly when that ideal, easy-hull wheat was bred, but it was likely among the first traits people tried to develop during the domestication process.

Another necessary advance was in grinding. Pounding grain with a stone was fine for porridge, but you needed a finer and more consistent flour to produce bread. The mortar opened out into a flat surface and the pestle was turned on its side, becoming a grinding device known as a saddle stone. While these are pictured in Egyptian tombs, most North Americans are familiar with this type of device from images of Mexican women grinding maize. These produced finer flour, but were slow and tiring. Then, around 800 BC, the Mesopotamians came up with a wheat mill that used flat stones and a circular motion, which led in time to the use of animals, water, and wind as the muscle behind the grinding.

The development of ovens was another milestone on the road to bread. The Egyptians have long gotten the nod as the first to come up with a formal oven (as opposed to simply putting a pot over a hot stone, which likely predated “real” ovens). However, ovens like those attributed to the Egyptians appeared about the same time in Mesopotamia and the Balkans, as well. Recent archaeological evidence has shown that an igloo-shaped clay oven appears to have been in use in the Balkans as early as 5000 BC. This pattern of oven appearances seems to indicate that the oven was developed elsewhere—possibly Central Asia—and then the idea spread via trade routes.
Wood Oven

This still-busy wood-burning oven at a popular restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico, is nearly identical to the earliest ovens, which emerged around 7,000 years ago.

So, with ovens in place, wheat modified so that it could be husked raw, and the first improvements in grain grinding coming into play, it was only a matter of time before a gruel or paste left out overnight picked up some wild yeast spores and began to bubble. The evidence points to Egypt as the first place to get a handle on fermentation, probably around 4000 BC. The Egyptians didn’t understand how it happened—yeast wasn’t really investigated until the 1800s, when Louis Pasteur began to delve into its mysteries—but they did recognize that something was happening to their dough, and that that something could be reproduced. At first, they used bits of dough saved from a previous bubbling batch, much as the miner-‘49ers produced their sourdough in the American West. In time, once they realized that they could ferment beverages, too, they began to use the froth from beer-making to leaven their bread.

It took a while for leavened bread to leap across the Mediterranean. Improved wheat strains were not growing in Greece until about 400 BC, and even then, flat barley loaves remained popular for a long while. In ancient Rome, though the consumption of leavened bread was initially viewed as being unhealthful and foreign, leavening did catch on, and the production of yeast became regularized for the first time. During grape harvest, millet or wheat bran would be mixed with grape juice, formed into cakes, and stored in clay pots until the cakes became sour and yeasty. This produced a reliable source of yeast. The Romans turned baking into an art form, and the first baking guilds arose in 168 BC. The growing social importance of bread can be seen in the Latin companio, or “one who shares bread,” which has given us both companion and company in English. Of course, there is also the famous and derisive remark made by Juvenal that Romans cared for nothing except bread and circuses.

Raised breads remained the realm of the well-to-do for centuries. All that advanced grinding, leavening, and baking technology cost money. Another important factor was that not all grains can be made into raised bread. Barley was the major grain of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. The thing that finally bumped barley out of first place was the spread of leavening in bread baking. Barley doesn’t have any gluten, so you can’t make raised breads from barley flour. So wheat started to take over in areas that had experienced raised breads. However, barley remained the primary bread grain in Europe until the 1500s. It was as important in Europe then as rice is in Asia today. But wheat finally won out, as more and more people could afford the technology needed for using yeast in baking.

Bread making didn’t change much over the next seventeen centuries. Beer froth or millet cakes or bits of reserved dough were still used in making raised breads. But while the techniques for leavening didn’t change, other technologies did. The windmill was introduced into Europe from Persia in the Middle Ages, and with a more cost-effect way of grinding grain, bread making could become a profession. In the 11th century, bakers’ guilds arose, with separate guilds for those who made white bread or brown bread.

Social structure began to be demonstrated by the bread you ate: the higher your status, the finer your bread. Throughout Europe, grains other than wheat were for the poor or “barbarians.” This bias can be seen in a swipe made by the great Dr. Samuel Johnson, who described oats as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” The socially defining aspect of bread can even be seen in our language: the word “lord” comes from the Anglo-Saxon hlaford, which means “keeper of the bread” or “loaf-ward,” and referred to the master who protected and supplied food. Likewise, the word “lady” comes from hlaefdige, which means “loaf-kneader.” The lady of the manor, and her attendants, produced that which the lord might protect or distribute.

It was not until the 1600s, when increases in per capita income and continued improvements in the process made it possible for a greater portion of the population to indulge in leavened bread. The brown bread guild dissolved and was absorbed into what was now a general bread-baking guild. However, bakeries remained urban phenomena. In the countryside, homemakers still produced their own breads. In regions where rye, oats, and barley were still the dominant grains—primarily in northern climes—darker, coarser loaves were still the order of the day.

Leavened breads continued to become more widely available as Europe developed, but not much else changed until the 1800s—and even then, the changes were refinements, not leaps forward. Pasteur helped us understand yeast a bit better. Advances in technology made baking improvements accelerate after about 1865—but the primary effect here was the evolution of pastry and cakes, not changes in bread. Our ovens are easier to operate (but not necessarily better than wood-fired ovens, as anyone who has had bread baked in such an oven can attest). But otherwise, when you start your yeast fermenting or knead your dough, there is little difference between your actions and those of a baker in the 1700s. It took millennia to get us to the bread we have today, but once we got it right, we knew to leave well enough alone.

[This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.]

© 2008 Cynthia Clampitt

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2 Comments

Filed under culinary history, Food, History

2 responses to “Bread: A Real Slice of Life

  1. archaeozoo

    This was an interesting read. Food generally is fundamental to our history; if we didn’t eat, we’d starve to death and famine has played a role time and again in human history. Bread is perhaps one of the most ‘basic’ of those food stuffs, but is also perhaps one of the most significant too.

  2. Thanks, archaeozoo. I checked out your site, and enjoyed the history and archaeology you have there. Archaeology is, as you know, an important tool in food history. Digging up all those middens and old cooking pots has given us pretty much all we know about food before writing became common. (Of course, after writing became common, a huge percentage of the writing was about food, so central is it to life.)

    Food is, indeed, fundamental to our history, and pursuing it has certainly changed the course of history more than once.

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