Bread, Baking and Ovens

Bread as we know it originated in ancient Egypt. Grindstones or querns were found in the Fertile Crescent and the ancient Egyptians made a sort of sourdough bread, by saving some dough from a batch to start the next loaf of bread. These were baked in round ovens made of Nile clay, complete with shelves.

The Romans mechanised and formalised baking. A freed slave invented the first mixer – donkeys or horses turned paddles which mixed dough in a stone basin. The middle class expanded and women were keen to reduce their domestic chores, leading to an increase in the number of the bakeries in Rome. I was delighted to learn that bakers were essentially a type of civil servant. Guilds were formed which regulated baking and it became a hereditary profession.

Medieval bakers completed lengthy apprenticeships of up to seven years but outside cities, most people still baked bread at home. The poor predominantly ate rye bread, often with other grain flours added. Who knows what on earth they would have made of paying £5 for a loaf of sourdough rye bread from Waitrose.

White bread was highly prized throughout history, with even the Greeks writing about how fantastic it was. It was considered pure but was also a luxury. A proportion of the wheat had to be discarded to make white flour and it took more time and effort to grind and sift. Cheap white flour was not available until the nineteenth century; the cost of white bread dropped below that of brown in 1865.

White bread reigned supreme until the second world war when the government decreed that everyone must eat the National Loaf. It seems to have left a comical legacy of how awful it was. How bad can a loaf of wholemeal bread be? I can see why you might prefer white bread but it sounds as if people were forced to eat cardboard. It was mandated that it could only be bought the day after it was made, but even then, stale bread can easily be freshened up by putting it in the oven or indeed turned into decent toast without too much trouble. Reports state that it got more austere over time. The war did however result in bread being fortified with various nutrients which meant quite a lot for public health and is a practice which continues today with white bread. Calcium, iron and B vitamins are added. Iron is of course present in the germ of a wheat grain and therefore in wholemeal flour, which also contains fibre and protein.

The Chorleywood Bread Process was invented in 1961 and continues to be used to make 80% of bread in the UK. Reliant on specialist industrial equipment, it sped up the time needed to make bread and made it easier to successfully make bread from the lower protein flour grown in the UK. It did however also see the greater use of additives in bread, which traditionally used only very few simple ingredients.

Bread machines became popular in the 1980s and the tables have turned on wholemeal bread. The darker and heavier it is, the more middle class the consumer must be. German and Scandinavian rye breads and French poilânes are practically status symbols with white bread viewed as cheap empty carbs with few nutrients. Except focaccia and baguettes perhaps… I remember my mother making white bread once, when I was five. She loudly announced that she was making it because we were having visitors and their children were fussy. FUSSY. My parents seemed to view raising fussy children as an unforgivable moral failing.

We tend to think of bread as a loaf, made in an oven but it of course varies across the world. Much of the world eats bread made in an oven and items cooked using a griddle, skillet or frying pan. In some parts of the world, ovens are not really used or bread may not be eaten at all.

Let’s start in Ireland, where I began life. Soda bread and farls are eaten throughout the island of Ireland. Eleanor Heffernan, author of the Cornucopia cookbook, says of her soda bread recipe, ‘For many Irish people, there is a soda bread recipe in the family that has been passed on from generation to generation which is considered ‘”the nicest soda bread in the world”.’ (2008: 354) Soda bread and farls were largely unfamiliar items to me; my English mother made yeast bread in loaf tins and stacks of chapattis. (She is of Liverpool Irish stock, but too far back to qualify for an Irish passport.) Soda bread is made with buttermilk and usually includes oats. Heffernan uses a blend of wholemeal and plain flour, wheatgerm and both pin head and jumbo oats in her recipe. In Northern Ireland, soda bread is referred to as wheaten bread, an expression which puzzled me no end, as all bread seemed to be made of wheat. (If you are middle class in Ireland, north or south, the ‘h’ in wheaten is aspirated in a way I found slightly infuriating.)

Farls come in two varieties: soda and potato. Farl means ‘fourth’ and comes from the Scottish word fardel. (Interestingly, in Belfast, it’s not unusual for people to almost add a ‘d’ sound to the letter ‘l’. Meal can become ‘meedle’ and farl ‘fardel’. I could see that working in a north Dublin accent too, where parents can sound like paredents.) Farl dough is shaped into a round and cut into quarters before being cooked on a griddle. Soda farls are made with wheat flour, potato farls with a mixture of flour and mashed potato. Scottish tattie scones are very similar to potato farls.

(I remember starting school in Belfast when I was nine. We recited the Lord’s prayer in assembly. I was baffled by the way the girls said ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, drawing out the vowels in bread so that it became ‘breeeee-ud’.)

The default bread in the UK is a sliced loaf in a bag, used for toast and sandwiches, which I feel is a sad indictment of British society. We do of course have supermarket bakeries, where we buy baguettes (or French sticks as the Northern Irish call them), loaves and rolls. Traditional family bakeries are less common, presumably declining due to supermarkets. While bakeries do exist, they tend to sell expensive, artisanal bread or are more traditionally working class, for example, Greggs, Peters (a chain up north) or Percy’s in Lewisham. They often sell things you might buy and eat then and there: savoury pastries like pasties or sausage rolls, donuts, gingerbread men and iced buns along with loaves of bread.

By contrast in Europe, they have lovely fresh bread readily available. Our luxury is their everyday normal. The Germans eat bread rolls – Brötchen, in endless varieties and loaves of rye bread. There was a bakery where we bought fresh Brötchen, between our house and the bus stop. (I get very nostalgic in Lidl as they bake fresh Brötchen.) By contrast in London, you’d need to live somewhere quite affluent to have a local bakery. When I worked in France, fresh baguettes were delivered from the bakery in the village every morning.

Perhaps I am being slightly unfair to the British. We do have quite a lot of lovely things in the grey area between bread and cake, the scone perhaps being the primary example. Many classic British bakes are made with an enriched dough with added dried fruit: teacakes, hot cross buns, Bath buns, Eccles cakes and Chelsea buns. Let us not forget Welsh cakes, which are a bit like fruited scones cooked on a griddle.

Most countries make baked goods with enriched doughs. Cardamom buns are made throughout Scandinavia and the French have viennoiserie (croissants and pains au chocolat) along with brioche which is supposedly what Marie Antoinette suggested the starving masses could eat in the absence of bread – ‘let them eat cake’. The Italians of course have panettone. Challah, a beautiful plaited loaf made with enriched dough is bought or made every Friday by Jewish families across the world. Rich with symbolic significance, it originates from Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish communities. Challah was the name given to bread eaten in southern Germany in the Middle ages. It became the bread of the Sabbath and of holidays in Germany and Austria and was taken to Eastern Europe and Russia.

Breads made with enriched doughs are common in Eastern Europe and are often made for special occasions, for example, babka which is a twisted sweet bread filled with chocolate and baked in a bread tin. I remember seeing the Ukrainian chef Olia Hercules show Mel and Sue how to make a Ukranian wedding bread on an episode of Bake Off. She told them how instead of a wedding cake, women make a wedding bread together and sing.

It seems that much of Europe eats yeasted loaves and rolls in various varieties made of flour, water, oil, salt and yeast. As we go further east, the flatbread, leavened or unleaved, becomes more prominent. Pita in various forms is found throughout Greece, Turkey and the Middle East. Lebanese khobez is papery thin and round, bigger than the pita bread we buy here. Flatbreads and seeded round loaves are eaten in Morocco. Flatbreads, often fermented, are eaten in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and South Sudan. Bread rolls are cooked on a grill in South Africa, where they also eat bunny chow, a loaf hollowed out and filled with curry.

Let’s go back to the intersection of Europe and the Middle East. I first tried Turkish pide in Berlin; falafel comes in a huge slab of pide, a thick dimpled bread that can be bought in enormous round loaves. I used to work near a Turkish restaurant which did wonderful Turkish pizzas made with pide dough. (The aubergine one is amazing.) Pide is soft and pillowy, a bit like naan bread.

Ovens change as we move further east. The electric oven attached to a wall gives way to the tandoor. Originally from Iran, they are used throughout the Middle East, in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Punjab in northern India. Considered by many in Britain to be an intrinsic part of an Indian meal, naan are specific to certain parts of the Indian subcontinent. The food historian Pushpesh Pant objects to what he calls ‘the tyranny of the tandoor’.

In India, flatbreads are made of wheat flour on a slightly concave griddle pan or tawa: chapatis, roti, bakri and parathas. Parathas are flaky and buttery, made by brushing dough with butter, folding it and rolling several times, almost in the way a croissant is made. Other breads are made by deep frying – luchi, bhatura and puris. Further south, dosa, paper-thin crispy crepes are made on griddles. In France of course they eat filled crepes, sweet and savoury, made of wheat or buckwheat.

Steaming is more common in parts of the world where ovens are not traditionally used. Dhokla and idli are made by steaming in India and in China, a variety of dim sum dumplings are steamed, along with steamed buns in other parts of Asia. Steaming used to be more common in the UK, specifically to make puddings. Although steamed savoury puddings were made in the UK, it is typically associated with sweet puddings, no less the Christmas pudding which I suspect for my generation is their only experience of steaming a pudding. (I’m told pudding is a perplexing word for people learning English. It refers to dessert in general but also a variety of puddings, whether treacle or Christmas or indeed Yorkshire pudding which is something entirely different again.)

There are of course parts of the world where they appear not to eat bread, notably Thailand. I remember being utterly horrified upon being given a Thai curry with naan bread at a restaurant in Derry/Londonderry. In Vietnam, a former French colony, banh mi, a type of filled baguette is widely eaten.

If we continue eastwards, we come to America, that peculiar land which is familiar in some ways and very strange to us in others. Great consumers of wheat, they also eat corn. While initially reluctant to do so, English settlers began to eat corn, as the Native Americans had done for a very long time. Northern recipes for cornbread more commonly use a mixture of cornmeal and wheat flour whereas Southern recipes tend to use only cornmeal. Cornbread is leavened with baking powder and/or soda rather than yeast. As Irish breads are, it is made with buttermilk. It is baked in a cast iron skillet or is made in smaller cake-like versions on a griddle.  

I am curious about the gravy and biscuits eaten in the US. As far as I can tell, biscuits are like scones. Some googling reveals they are very similar in both ingredients and appearance, but they don’t have any sugar in them. Apparently, this is a hearty Southern breakfast. It sounds like a very strange combination indeed to me; scones covered in gravy.

In the Caribbean, they eat large roti, which are made in a way similar to parathas, and fried johnny cakes made of corn. Corn is also eaten in central and south America where it is used to make tortillas. Much of south America eats European-style loaves and there is a clear distinction between a tortilleria and panaderia. Arepas, often stuffed, made of corn are eaten in Colombia and Venezuela,

Back in the UK, supermarket shelves are stocked with bagels, pita bread, naan, chapatis and tortilla wraps. This reflects how multicultural the UK is but is perhaps also indicative of our desire to buy things that we can eat on the go as a quick lunch. We seem to have a slightly contradictory relationship with bread in the Western world. In 2012 bread fell out of favour and everyone seemed to go gluten free. Wheat was blamed for all our health problems and was seen as a great modern ill. Levels of gluten intolerance seemed to soar. While 1% of the population are coeliac (an autoimmune condition), many people report non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. It has been suggested that people are simply eating too much wheat. Perhaps eating it two or three times a day, every day is too often. Or having bruschetta followed by a big bowl of pasta could quite possibly leave you feeling sleepy and bloated. Other issues have been raised about the processed nature of modern bread and the additives used. The Chorleywood Bread Process has been deemed thoroughly unnatural and there is an increased demand for handmade bread containing little more than flour, water, oil, salt and yeast. With regards to the flour used, it seems the gluten content in flour has increased over time, making modern bread quite different to what previous generations happily ate. People also report getting on better with flours with a lower gluten content such as rye.

Doctors and nutritionists warned about incorrect assumptions that gluten free products were healthier than bread made with wheat. Areas of concern include the ingredients used, for example xantham gum and lower levels of fibre. Others see it as a gateway to or a mask for disordered eating patterns, with young women using it as an excuse to cut out what they perceive as foods that could make them gain weight. Whether or not you eat bread, we seem to have shifted away from people eating sandwiches for lunch, with more people eating salads or reheated leftovers from dinner the night before. Eating lots of bread feels symptomatic of a busy society with no time for the things that matter. People are too busy to cook so bagged loaves are bought and eaten in a rush where there is no time to make a meal – toast on the hoof, a quick sandwich. M&S launched their boxed sandwiches in the 1980s and the nation began to eat lunch al desko. The pattern was established that work was more important than taking the time to eat a proper meal.

Conversely, bread making became a cool, hipster activity centred around East London, a trend one assumes was imported from Brooklyn. One fellow even made bread with yeast taken from his beard. Ugh. Rye sourdough bakeries started to pop up everywhere. My dad just laughed. ‘There’s nothing new here,’ he chuckled. ‘I was once a vegan making my own sourdough bread in East London.’ There’s a funny sort of cult around sourdough, specifically the starter – how old it is and where it comes from.

I occasionally toy with the idea of buying a bread machine but I think it would be a terrible idea as I suspect we’d both get very fat. Really I’d like to learn to make beautiful, tidy, symmetrical loaves of bread, round or lozenge shaped. I feel the jealousy rising when I see other people’s loaves on social media. I had a look at the Bread Ahead baking school in Borough Market which left my head spinning with the immense choice of baking courses. I wonder if the Great British Bake Off has a part to play, introducing people to a variety of new baked goods from different parts of the world. Perhaps people just have an insatiable appetite for the warm, comforting experience that is making and eating something fresh from the oven.

Our enthusiasm for baking only seems to be on the up. As we went into Coronavirus lockdown, flour and yeast disappeared from the shops. I had no idea people were that into making bread. (I occasionally have worrying conversations with people who ask me if bread is vegan…) Sourdough has become even more popular as people haven’t been able to find yeast. While my loaves are a bit wonky, I think breadmaking is a wonderful thing to do. Long may the nation keep making their own bread.


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