History of Bread

An extract from “Cultured Foods” by Wendy Zeffertt, printed here with her kind permission. For a copy of the book within Australia most book shops should be able to get hold of the book through the distributor, Australian Book Group in Drouin, Victoria. If anyone can’t get it that way they are welcome to email Wendy Zeffertt.

wheat-2Agriculture, as far as we know, first developed in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries about 8000 BC, starting with simple grass seeds. Eventually, wheat, barley, rye, oats, millet, rice and sorghum were all grown: by about 4500BC grain had become a staple food. The first method of preparing grains was to parch and then boil them whole. The first milling was achieved by crushing wild grain on rocks. Then, people began to grind the grain with a mortar and pestle to make porridge or gruel. Eventually, the first round, flat loaves of bread were made from heavy porridge-like pastes of flour and water that were baked in front of the fire. The nearest surviving equivalents are the chapattis of India and Mexican tortillas. The next development was fermentation to make the bread lighter and more digestible. This was probably an accidental discovery from leaving porridge in a warm place for a few days.

Early Egyptian sun bread was made from a thick batter which was left in the sun to dry and leaven before it was baked. Bread was a staple in ancient Egypt too: the daily average wage was three loaves of bread and two jugs of beer. Leaving dough for several days to sour became a common method of leavening bread. A more reliable method, common in both Babylonian and Roman times, was to soak bran in sweet wine for several days to make a leaven.

Mediaeval bakers in many European countries developed a barm of flour, water, malt, and hops, which they left to get sour. They would then mix their bread in the same wooden bread trough each time, making use of the leavening culture which remained from the previous use.

Early bread was made from mixtures including wheat, acorns, nuts, millet, barley, rye, oats, peas, beans and whatever weed seeds were harvested along with the grain. Since wheat is the best source of gluten making it most suitable for producing a light, risen loaf, its use soon predominated over that of other grains.

Mediaeval European peasants also ate bread made from mixtures of grains, peas, acorns and weed seeds, but since Roman times, all ‘refined’ and ‘civilised’ people have preferred soft, white, wheaten bread. Although rye and barley were the chief bread grains in Britain until about AD 1700, coarse breads containing flours other than white wheat flour became very rare after that time.

Grain milling became simplified in Rome in about 500 BC with the introduction of a rotary quern in which a circular stone wheel turns against a fixed stone wheel (this was the basis of milling up until the nineteenth century). The top stone was turned by animals or domestic slaves, later by waterwheels. This process enabled the Romans to mill four or five grades of flour, reserving the finest and whitest for the wealthy. Coarse wholemeal, which also contained other grains such as millet, was favoured by wrestlers and gladiators to build up their strength, so the Romans were aware of the nutritive value of wholemeal flour but chose to use refined white flour.

Modern milling of wheat to 70 per cent extraction white flour removes 50 per cent of the vitamin B5, two-thirds of the folic acid, 72 per cent of the vitamin B6, 77 per cent of the vitamin B1, 80 per cent of the vitamin B2, 81 per cent of the vitamin B3, 86 per cent of the vitamin E, 60 per cent of the calcium, 40 per cent of the chromium, 71 per cent of the phosphorus, 76 per cent of the iron, 77 per cent of the potassium, 78 per cent of the zinc and sodium, 85 per cent of the magnesium, 86 per cent of the manganese and 88 per cent of the cobalt. And this is before storage, the addition of flour improvers and other chemical additives, and baking all take their further toll on nutrients. The refinement of grains, along with the processing of other foods, has been linked with the growing epidemic of modern degenerative diseases.

Chemicals and Mass Production

Recipes for modern commercially produced bread may include many additives to make mass production more convenient for the factory. These additives include chemicals to retard staling (which is otherwise very rapid in a refined-flour loaf; white bread becomes cardboard in half a day), mould inhibitors, softeners, emulsifiers, taste-enhancers, free-flowing agents, yeast stimulants, and stiffeners to reduce the rising time of the dough.

This last is what enables the so-called instant fermentation of bread. It is becoming common practice to make bread that needs no rising: chemical stiffeners such as potassium bromate and potassium iodate allow unleavened bread to be beaten with powerful beaters in a few minutes. Such bread lacks flavour, so artificial flavours need to be added.

Flour is often called ‘enriched’, but of all the nutrients lost, only thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), iron, calcium and sometimes pyridoxine (B6) are replaced. Since more vitamins are still being discovered, it is likely that all that has been lost in the refining and storage of flour has not been identified. Nutrients tend to work with each other: certainly the benefit obtained from a whole food can never be duplicated by returning some isolated components to a refined product. There is also the question of how assimilable is the form in which these nutrients are added.

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