Edible histories: bread

Categories: History of food

From Stone Age foragers to the artisans of Bread Ahead: a potted history of bread

Words: Mark Riddaway 

The history of bread, they said. That’s what we want from you. About a thousand words or so. When Hercules was asked to clean out the Augean stables, the filthy home of a thousand immortal cattle whose dung had not been cleared since the dawn of time, it must have seemed like a pretty onerous job. To me, though, that sounds like much the easier task.

The history of bread is the history of humanity. It’s the story of 1,000 generations of people from every corner of the globe, from Stone Age foragers in the Middle East to the skilled artisans of Bread Ahead who work their weird alchemy at Borough Market every day.

The story of bread is a story of routine subsistence, but it’s also the history of world-altering events: war, famine, revolution. It’s the story of religion (the matzo of Judaism, the host of Catholicism) and the story of language (the word ‘lord’ comes from the Old English ‘hlafweard’, meaning ‘man who guards the loaves’; the word ‘companion’ comes from the Latin for ‘with’ and ‘bread’: essentially someone with whom you share your baguette).

This potted guide won’t even touch the sides: it’s just a shovelful of dung from a planet-sized stable.

Fertile Crescent
Bread-making appears to have been invented by hunter gatherers in the Fertile Crescent. Evidence of cereals being used to make flour has been found at Paleolithic sites dating back almost 30,000 years. On one dig by the Sea of Galilee, grindstones were found beside a group of burnt stones, suggestive of a simple hearthstone oven.

Bread was being eaten long before the invention of agriculture or the development of written language. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving work of literature, dating from c.2100 BC, the wild man Enkidu is encouraged to eat bread as a way of becoming more civilised: “Then the woman said, ‘Enkidu, eat bread, it is the staff of life.’”

The Ancient Egyptians, who cultivated a type of wheat known as emmer, left behind a vast wealth of evidence as to their bread-making prowess: carvings, paintings, hieroglyphics, the ruins of bakeries, and the perfectly preserved (albeit extremely stale) bread rolls once used as funerary offerings.

Classical grammarian
The Greeks loved bread almost as much as they loved thinking deeply about things. In Athenaeus’s vast, 15-volume Deipnosophistae (truly the Augean stables of food books), bread is described as being a “food as old as the time of Saturn”—and when you have a classical grammarian marvelling at how old something is, it’s clearly pretty venerable.

Athenaeus lists dozens of distinctive breads from around the Hellenic world: a bread called tabyrites “which fills the cheeks”, a Syrian bread that’s “like a flower”, bread that smells of honey, bread baked on ashes, bread made with cheese.

One bread from Rhodes is “made up with such an admirable harmony of all the ingredients as to have a most excellent effect, so that often a man who is drunk becomes sober again”. I’ll have one of those please. And another flagon of that wine.

Bread and circuses
Bread was the staple food of the Romans, “bread and circuses” being the poet Juvenal’s rather sniffy summary of the Roman population’s most pressing—and decidedly unpoetic—obsessions. When the Gauls lay siege to Rome in 390BC, the city’s defenders pelted their enemies with bread rolls to prove just how well stocked their larders were.

According to Livy, “the Gauls were continually bringing up the famine and calling upon them to yield to necessity and surrender. To remove this impression, it is said that bread was thrown in many places from the Capitol into the enemies’ pickets”: a ballsy but rather foolhardy gesture, considering the Romans genuinely were starving.

In Rome, baking became a respected trade, largely run by freed slaves (but dependent on a large number of decidedly un-freed slaves to do the hard work). One baker, Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, began life in servitude and ended it with enough money and status to build a magnificently ostentatious tomb, which still stands in a prominent position just outside Rome’s Porta Maggiore gate.

Identifying marks
In medieval London, bakers formed one of the very first City guilds. The earliest evidence of its foundation dates from 1155AD, when the ‘bolengarri’ paid a mark of gold to the exchequer. Soon only guild members would have the right to sell bread in the City’s markets, their loaves impressed with identifying marks to verify their legitimacy.

The bakers’ guild was responsible for enforcing a 13th century statute known as The Assize of Bread. The law, which remained in place until the 19th century, provided a sliding scale for the exact weight of bread that could be sold for a farthing, dependent upon the wholesale price of grain: a form of state intervention that today’s City would greet with a jowl-wobble of indignation, but which did much to prevent its medieval citizens from starving.

City records teem with dodgy bakers accused of selling underweight loaves of bread made from “false, rotten and putrid materials”. These included John Bird, who was dragged before the beak in 1327 accused of a rather inventive fraud.

Falsely, wickedly and maliciously
When customers brought their dough to him to have it baked in his ovens, Bird would knead it over a small trapdoor. The baker had one of his apprentices “sitting in secret beneath such table; which servant of his, so seated beneath the hole and carefully opening it, piecemeal and bit by bit carefully withdrew some of the dough aforesaid, frequently collecting great quantities from such dough, falsely, wickedly, and maliciously.”

The penalties for serious offences were harsh: for a first offence, the guilty party would be dragged on a hurdle through the dirtiest streets of the City with the faulty loaf hanging from his neck; after a second, he would be dragged through the streets then pilloried; and after a third, his oven would be pulled down and his right to sell bread revoked.

For several centuries, white bread bakers and brown bread bakers moved in entirely separate and mutually antagonistic circles. In medieval England, as had been the case in Ancient Greece and Rome, the fanciest loaves were made with white flour, while whole grains were deemed suitable only for the plebs.

The lord’s bread
The whitest loaf was known as simnel bread or pain demayn, a corruption of panis dominicus, the lord’s bread, and only those of the highest rank had access to its fine-crumbed delights. Moving roughly down the social scale came wastel bread, French bread (also known rather delightfully as ‘puffe’ or ‘pouf’), cocket, tourte, trete bread and black bread.

Bottom of the pile was horse bread, bulked out with legumes, chaff, straw and anything else that the baker could get away with—designed to be fed to horses, but often eaten by the very poor.

For much of our nation’s history, the poor, especially in cities, ate almost nothing but bread. As well as being horribly boring, this had some pretty grim consequences. The price of grain is highly susceptible to the twin evils of weather and war—two of our national specialisms—and when bread becomes unaffordable, the poor either die or revolt.

Bread riots
The Great Famine of 1315-1317 started with some heavy rain and ended with millions dead. In 1795, as bread riots broke out around a weather-battered, war-weary country, mutinous soldiers in Sussex sequestered bread and flour and started selling it to local people at reduced prices.

In May 1816, 1,500 East Anglian rioters armed with spiked sticks roamed the region carrying a flag proclaiming “bread or blood”, smashing up buildings and looting mills. In the autumn of the same year, another dreadful harvest led to riots across the north of England. With the mob largely ignorant of the nuances of macroeconomics, many a local baker took a brutal and entirely unjustified beating.

It wasn’t just Britain. Bread prices were a major factor in the French revolution (hence the notorious “let them eat cake” line that Marie Antoinette never actually said) and were the main trigger for the Southern bread riots in Virginia in 1863, the 1977 Egyptian bread riots, and the splendidly named Bread and Cheese Revolt in 15th century Holland.

Grim industrialisation
In the UK at least, bread riots have become less of a problem in recent decades. People should, though, be ready to protest about the grim industrialisation of mass market bread, involving heavy processing of the grains and the addition of fats, sugars, preservatives and bleaching agents.

More promisingly, breads that were once sneered at for being a food of the poor are being given a new lease of life by proper bakers: sourdoughs, wholegrain loaves, rye breads. Artisans at Borough Market and beyond are revelling in the possibilities. Every loaf they bake contains an echo of 30,000 years of history—and a single bite will reveal as much about bread as 1,000 words ever could.