Bread Lore

Reader Contribution by Sue Van Slooten
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Bread has about as much lore about it as does Christmas. This is more than likely due to the fact that it’s been around for millennia. Shortly after the Agricultural Revolution. I’m talking about the one that occurred about 10,000 to 15,000 years before present, after the last Ice Age. Not the one that occurred post World War II. The first cultivated grains are some of the same ones still with us today:  wheat, barley, oats, rye, as well as some lesser known highlights, like kamut, spelt, millet and teff. The New World contributed quinoa, corn and amaranth. There are others as well, but our focus will be on the most well known at this point.  

Early bread was a rugged affair. Simply put, ground grains mixed with water, and baked on a hot stone. Very basic, but it was a simple flatbread. These flatbreads were used for millennia, hence, today look to Mexico to the tortilla, or to India for the naan. The flatbread often served as the bowl, plate, scoop, or spoon, sometimes all of these. All that mattered was that the food was transported to the mouth, and enjoyment followed. It would be many years before the invention of yeast.

Early yeast was “discovered” in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but not always in the way one would imagine. These were wild yeasts, captured from out of the atmosphere. Once tamed, they eventually made their way into a number of products, including bread and beer. The Egyptians are widely credited with inventing beer, but not for drinking purposes just yet. As was the ancient way back then, beer was reserved for embalming. Just thought you beer drinkers would like to know that. The Egyptians did catch on to what a refreshing drink beer could be, along with their bread, and in fact became some of the earliest professional bread bakers. Don’t know about the beer. They had a reputation among the ancients as making some of best bread, and they soon learned how to add things to their bread to create different tastes.  

From the Egyptians on through time, with stops in Rome, the Middle East, Europe and today all over the world, it has been merely the refinement of technique and ingredients. You can literally travel the world exploring bread, from various flatbreads to yeast risen cakes to yes, even that fluffy stuff, American white bread available in supermarkets every where. As we can see, those early wild yeasts have now been harnessed and packaged into little jars, packets and cakes for our baking pleasure. Another important development was sourdough, again, a fortuitous taming of the little beast from San Francisco, where it is said, only that strain of yeast lives. Beware! Yeast inhabits the environment everywhere, even in your kitchen, these often being wild native varieties, but if you bake a lot, the cultured ones often get loose. 

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