The enthusiasm for home baking has shot up during the lockdowns, and one of the most popular things to make at home is the humble loaf of bread. I’ve not had a go myself as it seems to be quite labour intensive unless you have a bread-making machine.
I try not to eat too much bread as it doesn’t agree with me, but unfortunately I absolutely love it, especially a freshly-baked carb-loaded crusty white loaf. One of my favourite ways to relax is with a French baguette with lashings of butter alongside a glass of chilled of dry white wine. A very simple yet undeniably satisfying pleasure.
Bread is one of the earliest known forms of ‘cooking’ and there is archaeological evidence suggesting that some form of bread was created at least 30,000 years ago. Prehistoric man was known to eat a kind of gruel made from water and grains, and it is this food that would be spread on to hot stones near the fire to cook into a solid form.
I wonder, because our best discoveries often come about as a result of happy accidents, whether someone spilled their gruel on to a rock near the fire, and noticed it starting to bake into something interesting? And hey presto, bread was born!
All the early forms of bread were flat, and whichever grains grew in your continent’s climate determined the kind of bread you made. In the Middle East you’d have pitta and bazlama, in India there were chapati, naan and paratha, shaobing in China and tortilla in Central America.
The discovery that you could make bread rise was also likely a happy accident. From around 8,000BC, the ancient Egyptians were adept at brewing beer and it is possible that some of the yeast they used in the process found its way into a waiting flatbread mixture. Another theory is that there were some latent yeast spores in a flour mixture that was left too long in the heat. However it came about, it was around then that the process known as ‘proving’ was discovered.
Originally, grains would be crushed by hand, but again it was the Egyptians who invented a ‘machine’ to do the job. The grains were placed between two circular stones that were then rotated to crush them. This method was ultimately surpassed by the water mill that was invented by the Romans in around 450BC, and with each technological advance, the making of bread became more skilled and more artistic. As time went on, the finer the flour and the whiter loaf the better, as the kind of bread you ate was a reflection of your status. Dense brown loaves with coarse grains were left for the poor.
The bread making process was completely revolutionised by the the steam roller mill that was first seen in Switzerland in 1834. It rolled the grain to split it, rather than crush it, and this made the process of separating the endosperm, the germ and the bran, much easier, thus refining the flour even further. Another revolution occurred with Otto Frederick Rohwedder’s invention of the slice and wrap machine in 1928, which he used for the loaves he sold from his own bakery in Michigan. By 1933, 80% of all bread sold in the U.S. was sliced and wrapped, and the saying ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ began to be uttered.
According to my dad’s column from 31st January 1981, there were 18 million loaves sold in the UK every day 40 years ago, 75% of which were white. More recent figures suggest it is around 12 million, which is quite a drop considering that the population has increased by more than 11 million since 1981. However, it is no doubt down to the fact that there are so many food alternatives to bread available in our shops these days, alongside many of us choosing to lead a low-carbohydrate or gluten-free lifestyle.
However, 99% of households do still buy bread, and despite the number and variety of exotic doughy creations using a whole plethora of different grains, white bread still accounts for 75% of our purchases.
As I come to the end of this piece, I still haven’t had my breakfast, and sat there on the side is an untouched, white crusty bloomer.
Hang the low carb diet! Pass me the butter.
Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 5th February and the Gazette & Herald on 3rd February 2021