The history of bread and bread making
The history of bread and bread making starts way back in ancient times. The earliest breads were unleavened. Variations in grain, thickness, shape, and texture varied from culture to culture. Archaeological evidence confirms yeast, both as leavening agent and for brewing ale, was used in Egypt as early as 4000 B.C. Food historians generally cite this date for the discovery of leavened bread and birth of the brewing industry.
Baking techniques in Ancient Egypt
Judging by the evidence of tomb paintings from the 25th century BC onward, the Egyptians began to evolve baking techniques with results that were both creative and predictable. The dough, made from sifted flour – wheat flour was kneaded in large earthenware tubs. Its consistency was liquid enough for it to be poured into moulds preheated by being stacked in a kind of oven. Once the dough had been poured into the hot mould it was covered with a slightly larger mould placed upside down on it and returned to the oven. When baked, the bread was the shape of a twin-truncated cone.
The Assyrians made dough of mixed wheat and barley flour and placed it in a large earthenware vessel heated to a high temperature with embers or hot stones. The vessels were then hermetically sealed with a lid and buried in the ground: the bread inside them was baked on the hay box principle.
The First bread ovens
The first breads in Greece were also cooked in the embers or under a dome-shaped bell. It is interesting to learn that Greeks actually invented the bread oven, which could be pre-heated and opened at the front.
In ancient times barley maza was the staple food. Solon (c. 640 – c. 560 BC), the Athenian lawmaker and poet, drew laws to regulate everything including eating bread, artos, only on feast days.
Artos is Greek for leavened loaf, but in Modern Greek, it is now more commonly used in the context of communion bread used in church. The significance of the artos is that it serves to remind all Christians of the events connected with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
However, in the 5th century BC, at the time of Pericles, artos could be bought from a baker’s shop. So could maza, which was cheaper and long remained the staple food of the poor. Meals consisted of bread or maza, and accompaniments to bread, opson.
Opson is an important category in Ancient Greek foodways, similar to Okazu in Japanese cuisine, or Banchan in Korean cuisine. Opson meant any food but bread: vegetables, cheese, onions, olives, meat, fish, and fruit. Later the term was referred to fish.
From time of Pericles, the art of the Greek bakers was not only seen in mixing various kinds of bread dough but also in designing different shapes, often made for a particular occasion. There was Cappadocian, milk bread baked in a mould, boletus, a mushroom-shaped with poppy seed sprinkled on top. Daraton, an unleavened bread in shape of the flat cake, Streptice – a plaited loaf, Almogaeus, a coarse rustic bread, Syncomiste, a dark bread made of unbolted rye flour, etc. Furthermore, there were more than 80 different kinds of cakes. Plakon, usually translated as “cake”, was a plain cake made of oat flour, cream cheese, and honey. All other varieties other than plakon, had their own name. The term artos covers any specified type of loaf.
Regardless of their close links with the Greeks, the Romans had almost no interest in baking until the 7th century BC. Bread was often free, since emperors and careerists made large-scale distributions to ease their consciences, or prevent riots.
Roman bread was originally made at home. Throughout the centuries purists forbade the offering of bread as a sacrifice in the practice of Roman religion. When bread replaces maza the wealthier classes kept slave bakers, some of which had t wear gloves to knead the dough and masks to protect it from undesirable drops of perspiration and the breath of a common person. The baking of the raised dough evolved through the usual stages: in the embers, on a griddle, under a bell, and finally in the brick oven.
The Greeks had established colonies on the Mediterranean shores of Gaul before the Romans did. In 168 BC a considerable number of Greek craftsmen bakers (pistores) inhabited Rome. Fond as they were of good bread, Greeks had trained native bakers, and the Gauls, showing talent that was to persist in their modern French descendants, soon became very good at their job. The Gauls, already introduced to beer by the Greeks, soon started using beer yeast as a raising agent. This was the spuma concreta or froth formed on the surface of the liquid by fermentation. Beer yeast made very light, well-risen bread, which was rightfully considered delicious.
Bakers College in Ancient Rome
During the reign of Augustus around 30 BC, there were 329 bakeries in Rome run by Greeks with Gaulish assistants. Roman bread was usually round, the tops of the loaves being shaped in many different ways, just as there were many different kinds of dough. Roman cakes were made of flake pastry of the modern Arab kind. The pastry was stretched out thin in separate sheets and contained cheese and honey. With the intention to please – placenda est – it soon acquired the name placenta. The dough of the placenta was also used to make cakes called scriblita, spira and spherita, shaped in ways corresponding to their names.
The bakers had been allowed to form a collegium – a professional association. This “bakers college” ended up as exclusive a caste as any in India. A baker’s son could only become a baker, and could not follow any other profession, even if he married outside. Besides the religious ritual of the college meetings, there was a sign language known only to the initiates: tokens and passwords which protected trade secrets. There were no women members, however, women were found in the colleges of greengrocers, vendors of clothing, and tavern keepers. Bread was a masculine business.
Roman bread was usually round, the tops of the loaves being shaped in many different ways, just as there were many different kinds of dough. Roman cakes were made of flaky pastry of the modern Arab kind. The pastry was stretched out thin in separate sheets and contained cheese and honey. With the intention to please – placenda est – it soon acquired the name placenta. The dough of the placenta was also used to make cakes called scriblita, spira and spherita, shaped in ways corresponding to their names. The Gauls of Roman times proved to be successful bakers. Bread was the basis of the meal in the cereal-growing land of Gaul, even more than in Greece.
Bread as prime symbol of nourishment
In the early days of Christianity, barley bread seems to have ben considered a food suitable for religious penance or legal punishments. St. Patroclus, a French saint from Troyes, lived on barley bread dipped in water and sprinkled with salt. He was anticipating the soup which was to become a staple item of the European diet from the Dark Ages onwards: a slice of bread at the bottom of a bowl, with broth or soup made in a
In the early days of Christianity, barley bread seems to have ben considered a food suitable for religious penance or legal punishments. St. Patroclus, a French saint from Troyes, lived on barley bread dipped in water and sprinkled with salt. He was anticipating the soup which was to become a staple item of the European diet from the Dark Ages onwards: a slice of bread at the bottom of a bowl, with broth or soup made in a pot poured on to it.
From the Dark ages, bread became part of the standard table setting. A thick slice of bread, know as a trencher and sometimes laid on a wooden plate, served as a base upon which pieces of meat and sauce were placed.
In the Middle Ages, the wealthier classes did not eat the trencher bread. Instead, they threw it to the dogs or poor people waiting outside the door. Because Medieval houses were usually made of wood or daub and could easily catch fire, bread ovens were built away from inhabited areas, usually near water, to put out flames that got out of control. In France, mills and bakeries were not separated until the 15th century. Most flour used for bread making has been made of wheat since the 12th century. The price of wheaten bread set the standard of prices for other breads made of barley or rye flour, oatmeal or maslin. The price of salt used in the dough also had to be included in the price of the bread.
It is interesting to know that up to the 19th century, bread in Europe was often adulterated. Some of the commonly used additives in the 19th century were poisonous. To whiten bread, for example, bakers sometimes added alum and chalk to the flour, while mashed potatoes, calcium sulphate, pipe clay and even sawdust could be added to increase the weight of their loaves. Rye flour or dried powdered beans could be used to replace wheat flour and the sour taste of stale flour could be disguised with ammonium carbonate.
Brewers too, often added mixtures of bitter substances, some containing poisons like strychnine, to ‘improve’ the taste of the beer and save on the cost of hops. By the beginning of the 19th century the use of such substances in manufactured foods and drinks was so common that town dwellers had begun to develop a taste for adulterated foods and drinks; white bread and bitter beer were in great demand. This gradually came to an end with government action, such as the 1860 and 1899 Food Adulteration Acts in Britain.
First commercial yeast was produced in the United States in the 1860s. Charles and Maximillian Fleischmann, immigrants from Austria-Hungary, patented and sold standardized cakes of compressed yeast produced in their factory in Cincinnati. By the early twentieth century, factory-produced yeast was widely available. Cookbook recipes began specifying that commercial yeast be added directly to bread dough in sufficient quantities to leaven it in less than two hours. Bread changed in texture, becoming lighter and softer, and blander in flavor.
For generations, white bread was the preferred bread of the rich while the poor ate the whole grain bread. However, in most western societies, in the late 20th century, whole grain bread became preferred as having superior nutritional value. The history of bread making is as rich as the bread itself. Bread, the staff of life, has become the prime symbol of nourishment. Bread demands respect and, as one of the three sacramental foods, is regarded as genuinely sacred.
1. Jacob, Heinrich Eduard. Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History: Its Holy and Unholy History. New York: Lyons and Burfold, 1997.
2. Rubel, William. Bread: A Global History. The Edible Series. The University of Chicago Press Books, 2011.