Bread is the foundation of our diets: loved and loathed, it has been a part of our diet since the Neolithic age. But why did bread – an entirely man-made food – become our staple starch? It seems a suitable start into my adventures with food history to delve into the mysterious origins of bread, our most domestic food.
Essentially, we don’t know. To make bread, we are required to be sedentary and settled, rather than roaming and following a hunter gatherer style diet, so that we can plant, nuture, grow, harvest and process grains to make our daily bread. Some food historians believe that it was the desire for bread (or beer) that drove us to abandon our hunter-gatherer lifestyle, settle down, and cultivate grains and domesticate animals. The irony for our health is that a farmed diet is immediately less varied and more work-intensive, so our ancient ancestors must have really had a mind-quirk to decide to work harder for their survival. When you settle down and become agricultural, the diversity of your diet is immediately limited, as was the life expectancy of neolithic people. Farming requires a much higher input of labour for less variety, and your plant-based food options are instantly limited to the climate and geography of your local area. So the great mystery of why we decided to settle down is one that continues to puzzle.
The primary ingredient in bread is wheat, a species of grass with seeds that humans actually can digest. It’s not like the grass growing in your backyard, which isn’t digestible for humans (even cows need a second stomach to digest tough grass fibres). Wheat produces fat seeds that we turn into bread, and which contain just the right amount of certain proteins that are brilliant at making bread the airy delight we so love. Other grains, like rye, barley and spelt, can also be used to make bread, but it’s a tougher loaf, without the airiness that we all love. Wheat contains high amounts of the proteins gliadin and glutenin, precursors to the protein gluten, which is formed when milled wheat seeds are wet and kneaded, which mashes the two protein chains together to create gluten (Latin: ‘glue’). Gluten enables the flour to trap gases produced by yeast, enabling your bread to rise.
Bread’s evolution into the puffy, elevated loaves of our supermarket aisles is a meandering one. In ancient Mesopotamia, which existed between 5000-3500 BCE, wheat grains were served at banquets either whole or ground into flour, and extolled as “extraordinary sources of nourishment … the agricultural revolution was not yet ancient enough for cereals to have lost their sacred status and become a staple of commoners” (Jean-Louis Flandrin). When these little grains did trickle down to the commoners, it was initially eaten as a kind of porridge. Both of these options sound pretty unappetising, but eventually someone discovered that they could bake this porridge into a flat cake, and that if you left grains and water for a bit longer it bubbled up and that if you cooked it you got leavened (risen) bread. In the following millennia, we came to the point where we refined and perfected techniques around saving some of the bubbling mass from the last loaf to make the next*, kneading and resting the dough, and baking.
Bread, first as a porridge, then unleavened and eventually leavened, is the once-mysterious product of flour, water and invisible microbes. Archaelogical evidence confirms yeast (both as leavening agent and for brewing ale) was used in Egypt as early as 4000 B.C., with genuine yeast, such as saccaromycetes from brewing, was used for bread baking from around 1500 BC. This invisible, magical microbe worked its magic, eating the sugars available in the milled grains and excreting carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the wet, sticky mush of gluten, causing our dough to rise the loaf: an apparent miracle. Yeast was formally discovered by Louis Pasteur in 1857 while looking into ways to improve brewing methods, and with this discovery, the secrets of the fermentation process began to be revealed. Yeast for bread making could be either from a sourdough culture, or with some leftovers from the last brewing session. Yeast was known in several guises, and the most common known for bread making today is sourdough and commercial, domesticated yeast. Yeast was also present in Bread’s cousin, beer, where top-fermenting yeasts, such as ale yeast, was frequently bought by bakers from brewers for bread making, and was known as godisgoode or barm. Godisgoode is by far my favourite term (and the question of its capture is posed to every brewer I meet: wild yeast isn’t always going to be tasty). This peculiar and pious term named God as the mysterious force behind turning slop into bread, sugary water or juice into beer or wine, “bicause it cometh of the grete grace of God“. Through all the millennia, bread, with its magical transformation from a sloppy wet mix to aerated and light bread, was treated with all the resect required for a god-given miracle.
Commercial bakers yeast is called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It is more commonly called s. cerevisiae, and the ‘cere’ in cerevisiae is a nod to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships. It is believed to have been isolated from the skin of grapes: it is that white frosting you so often find of grapes or plums. This was developed into Baker’s Yeast. By 1879 it was being bred in huge vats in Britain, and was found that it could be spun in a centrifuge to create a concentrated, yeasty slurry. This was developed into a cream, then a compressed yeast cake, and finally took the granulated form we recognise in shops today in America during WWII.
Sourdough, however, has a much more ancient history and rather than just one species is a symbiotic colony of several strains of bacteria and yeast. They live in harmony and contribute to the classic sour yet moreish flavour of sourdough bread. Each strain has something different to offer, but the famed sourdough bacteria is Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, so named because scientists thought that this was a unique bacteria to be found in San Fransisco and was the reason the city made such notable sourdough. Luckily for us, sanfranciscensis can be found the world over. This symbiotic little community each contributes flavour, aroma, and acids to help break down the proteins in bread and turn your sticky lump of flour into a delicious loaf. If you get into brewing and craft beer you’ll find that some yeast and bacteria strains that have cult-like fan clubs, and each yeast is carefully chosen to impart its unique personality upon the wort: lager yeasts for cold environments and for a crisp finish, ale yeast for warmer brews and a fruity finish, and even more complex as we move onto wheat beer yeasts (for the classic banana-and-clove aroma and flavour). Wild fermented and sour beers are a bit more like the drunken cousins of sourdough: a wild party of yeast and bacteria producing beer that can literally make your tongue curl. The most famous bacteria here is brettanomyces (affectionately known as ‘brett’), known and loved for their sour, funky vibe (but loathed and feared in the wine industry for its potential to cause spoilage).
Real bread ought to be made with just three ingredients: flour, water, and salt; four if you want to be particular and count the yeast (and bacteria). It is an incredibly simple ingredient list for a food that can sustain life, and does so best when turned into bread, as opposed to the three base ingredients. A slow fermentation process activates and unlocks the nutrients that are sitting inert within the seed, waiting to nourish the sprouting plant. Bad luck for our aforementioned Mesopotamian aristocrats, scoffing their raw grains. But the thing is, what you really want for good bread is wholewheat flour. The white flours that make up so much of our diets today offer nothing in nutritional value, but do make a pretty, well risen loaf – the dumb blonde of the bread world, perhaps? Wholegrain flour is finicky: it has a shorter shelf life due to the oils within the germ and bran that can go rancid with time. The nature of whole grain also makes it harder to work with and to create that voluptuous loaf: it’s heavier and ‘spiky’, thanks for the shreds of bran and germ that can damage the long threads of gluten required to trap air, resulting in a less airy loaf. It is also tougher to eat thanks to the additional roughage, but is better for your digestion as a result. In terms of nutrition, but makes for a better loaf every time.
The great irony is that throughout history, people continuously sought to get the whitest (and therefore softest) possible loaf. Historically, this was done by sieving wholegrain flour, and today we can read stories everywhere about corrupt bakers tampering with their flours to make their bread as white as they could. Common ‘whiteners’ are said to include chalk, ground up bones, bean meal and lime, but I take these claims with a pinch of salt. Bill Bryson uncovered research from Frederick Arthur Filby in 1934, who took the obvious step of trying to bake bread with such whiteners: Bill Bryson summarised his results as “in every case but one the bread was either as hard as concrete or failed to set at all, and nearly all the loaves smelled or tasted disgusting**. Several of the loaves needed more baking time than conventional loaves, so were actually more expensive to produce. Not one of the adulterated loaves was edible”. The honest truth is that bread is actually a difficult thing to make, requiring precision and care at every step. Bakers were a quickly established profession so that people could literally leave such a finicky part of their diet in the capable and well-practised hands of the professionals.
We have several words in current use that owe their existence in our lexicon to bread. The bread of the upper echelons of society in Medieval England ate bread called manchet, a now-extinct word from the middle English words maine – “flour of the finest quality” and the historical definition for the word cheat – “denoting a kind of wheaten bread”. One we’re more familiar with is the term Upper Crust: where the softer, nicer top of a loaf was sliced off and eaten by the wealthy members of a household (who also wielded the greatest power). Those of lower rank would have received the charred and crunchy bottom crust. Bottom crusts had another use in households as trenchers. Trenchers were the precursor to the plate, and would serve as both a container for your dinner which could absurd the juices and flavour of your meal and could be eaten once you finished, or more often given to the bottom crust of society. Today we most often see them as a bread bowl for soup, or as the container for the South African dish bunny chow.
Bread features extensively throughout the bible. As I was raised agnostic, the quotes read something akin to cannibalism: that the word and body of Christ are bread, and that partaking in it is the way to ensure everlasting life. It is a beautiful symbolism: that such a staple, available to all, is one and the same as the word of god: a great equaliser, upper or bottom crust be damned. John 6:50-71 states “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day“. Unleavened bread (or wafers) are featured in Christian communion, where it is known as a Host (from the Latin hostia; “sacrificial victim”. Delicious.) and is literally the body of christ through the process of transubstantiation.
Another famed biblical story around bread is Exodus 12:34 “So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders“. Unleavened bread is an essential of sabbath as a commemoration of the exodus, often in the form of matzo, where it symbolizes redemption and freedom, but it is also lechem oni, “poor man’s bread”. It is intriguing the weight given by religion to unleavened bread over leavened, highlighting the very plain as divine over the risen, leavened loaves of bread we have always sought.
From the divine, bread today is facing a PR crisis. It is not the staple it once was, and is often reviled as something terrible and allergy inducing, and is guilty of making us fat. Supermarkets sell homogenous loaves of bread that, whiter than our medieval ancestors could have dreamed of and devoid of its original nutritional value. Our pursuit of the softest, whitest bread seems to be triggering gluten intolerance and constipation. And as much as I love a squishy white bread roll (slathered with butter and stuffed with ham, please), I know it’s not ‘good’ bread: it’s not that tasty and it’s not good for me. An Italian study referenced by Michael Pollan indicates that sourdough fermentation of bread potentially breaks down gluten in a way that modern commercial yeasts don’t, meaning that sourdough bread may be more digestible for those with a gluten intolerance, and “some researchers attribute the increase in gluten intolerance and celiac disease to the fact that modern breads no longer receive a lengthly fermentation”. The acids in sourdough also slow our digestion of sugars in the flour, so it naturally has a lower GI, meaning I’d get hungry less quickly on a sourdough ham sandwich than that squishy white supermarket bun, and I’d probably eat less than the two (or three) buns I might scoff otherwise.
It seems that our longing for the ultimate loaf: soft, quick, easily and cheaply produced has lead us down a track that we started upon when we first became farmers over hunter-gatherers: a monotonous diet that isn’t really the best in terms of nutritional variety that we can get. But at least, with bread, we can harness its value as food (and not an edible substance) by taking it back to basics: wholegrain flour, water and salt, made as a sourdough. I’ll toast that.
*Imagine the howling disappointment of the first person to discover the joys of primitive leavened bread, and that once it was eaten it was all gone, and you had to wait several days before the next loaf. We can only hope that they learned that saving some of an earlier dough to speed up the process was a quickly acquired lesson!
**I tip my hat to Mr. Filby for having the stomach to actually try bone-meal bread. Yuck.
Want to know more? Great! Here’s some of what I read to write this post:
100 million years of food: what our ancestors ate and why it matters today, by Stephen Le. Published by Picador in 2016.
At Home, by Bill Bryson. Published by Doubleday in 2010.
Cooked, by Michael Pollan. Published by Penguin in 2013.
Food: a culinary history from antiquity to present, edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English edition by Albert Sonnenfeld. Published by Columbia University Press in 1999.
Man walks into a Pub: a sociable history of beer, by Pete Brown. Second edition published by Pan, 2011.