The Oldest Breads
The first breads were made from a mixture of coarser or finer cereal meal and water. The dough was pressed in the form of flat breads and baked by means of various methods. These ancient breads were most of the times unleavened. Fermentation was something that might have occurred only accidentally, when the piece of dough was left to rest for too long before being baked.
The Assyrians were making bread from a mixture of wheat and barley. The bread was baked in big clay pots which had been previously heated at very high temperatures with the help of hot stones or embers. The pots were sealed airtight with a lid and then buried in the ground. The bread was baked by the heat retained in the walls of the pot. This process would take around three times longer than it would have in a normal oven.
Egyptians started developing baking techniques around the 25th century B.C., as demonstrated by the illustrations found in different tombs. The dough was being kneaded in long clay troughs and baked in cone-shaped baking forms. The dough made with sifted emmer or barley flour was liquid enough to permit being poured in these strange forms. The forms had been previously stacked and preheated in a kind of primitive oven or directly in the embers. They were then filled with dough and then covered with other slightly bigger cone-shaped forms, placed upside down on top of them. The baking would then follow. It is not very clear if the Egyptians were intentionally using yeast (obtained from beer brewing) to make more aerated breads. Traces of yeasts have been discovered in breads found in pyramids, but since emmer or barley flour give dense breads anyways (because of low protein content), it cannot be known with certainty to what extent did ancient Egyptians know how to play with dough fermentation.
Bread Baking in Ancient Greece
It seems that the Greeks have been the first ones who started to deal seriously with baking and to develop the art of bread. Their first breads were as well unleavened flat-breads, called “maza”. They were baked in the hearth, in embers, in a griddle or on top of a baking stone covered with a clay bell. Then the Greek invented the oven which could be preheated and which had an opening in front and this remained till nowadays the main method for baking. These “mazas” were made in Antiquity out of barley flour. About wheat bread (“artos”) we know some things from the time of Solon, who decreed that this bread could only be eaten during holidays. “Artos” was made at home and shaped round. In the 6th century B.C., in the days of Pericles, “artos” could be bought from bakeries, same as “maza”, which remained the staple food of the poor. The name “artos“ still exists today, designating the Greek festive bread – white leavened bread associated with different religious rituals which take place during Eastern.
The meals consisted of “maza” or “artos” and accompaniments – “opson“. “Opson” used to designate any food besides bread: olives, garlic, onions, vegetables, cheese, meat, fish and fruits. Later, the term “opson” was narrowed down to designate only fish, considered by Greeks the king of food. In these meals one can detect the origins of some contemporary foods like piada, pissaladière, pizza.
Since the time of Pericles, the art of baking didn’t mean anymore only the skillful mixing of different flours but, more than anything, the shaping of breads in different forms. Here are some of the most often found breads: “boletus“ shaped like a mushroom and covered with poppy seeds, “skreptice“ – a braided bread, “blosmilos“ – a bread divided (or scored) in squares, “daraton“ – an unleavened bread in the form of a low cake or “hemiarton“ – the bread from Efes in the form of a crescent, dedicated to the goddess Artemis.
The Breads of the Romans
Despite their close ties with the Greeks, the Romans didn’t show interest towards the craft of bread baking till the 8th-7th centuries B.C.. As in Ancient Greece, in Ancient Rome also, there was first the porridge (made out of dried cereals), then the thicker ”maza” – unleavened breads, obtained out of a dough similar in consistence to porridge. The first Roman breads were made at home. Bread baking had back then a negative aura. Even later the purists continued to ban bread ritual offerings. This fact mirrors the Jewish view that fermented dough is impure.
When bread started to replace ”maza”, the class of rich Romans started to keep slave-bakers. The more sophisticated among them were compelling their slaves to wear gloves and masks in order to avoid the contamination of dough with sweat drops or with their breath of common people.
There were the same steps (as in the case of the Greeks) in the evolution of Roman leavened bread: baked in the embers, than on a griddle, under a bell and finally in a brick oven. In 168 B.C., there was in Rome an important flow of artisan bakers (”pistores”) of Greek origin. They were also millers and they were baking a superior bread than the one made by slaves.
In 30 B.C., in the time of the reign of Augustus, there were in Rome 329 bakeries led by Greeks, who had Gaul helpers. These immigrants had been allowed since the time of Numa Pompilius (753-673 B.C.) to form a ”collegium” (professional guild), nonetheless they were bound to follow draconian regulations. For instance, the son of a baker couldn’t practice any other profession than that of baker. The “collegium” was in the first place an organization which guaranteed the professional and moral integrity of its members. There were initiation rituals and other religious rituals performed during its meetings. Also there was a system of passwords and symbols meant to protect the secrets behind the bread commerce. The members of this association were connected by a great solidarity, enjoying, despite social restrictions, the dignity of their job.
The monument of the baker Eurysaces (constructed around 50-20 B.C.) contain an important frieze which illustrated the stages of the handicraft, from the harvesting of wheat, to the selling of breads. The wheat was milled in a huge stone mill, put in motion by horses. When the stone wheel was spinning, it was crushing the wheat berries against the walls of the mill. After kneading, the breads were given a round shape, then they were baked in a brick oven. Unlike in Greece, where the slaves took care of milling and of kneading the dough, in the case of the Romans, one can notice that all the people involved in this process, were men. With the exception of the very low classes, the Roman women didn’t go shopping and they didn’t bake the bread. There were now women in the bakers’ collegium, although they could be members of other collegiums, like for instance those of the grocers, the clothes sellers or even the innkeepers.
The bread of the Romans was usually round, its upper part being shaped in many different ways. The dough also was being made from many combinations of different flours. “Siligineus” was made from a finer wheat flour and had a soft crumb, being loved by patricians. The breads described as “plebeius” or “sordidus” were made from a coarser milled flour, probably not sifted, and were meant for plebeians. “Ostrearius” was eaten with oysters at banquets. The bread from Picenum, which contained dried fruit, was baked in special clay forms, projected to be broken when the bread was done (in order to take it out). This bread was eaten moistened in milk and with honey.
The Bread of the Gauls
Well, I’ve said already that the Greeks were the first ones to seriously develop the art of bread. They had been establishing colonies on the Mediterranean shores of Gaul even before the Romans. Because they were very attached to their kind of bread, they taught the native bakers their handicraft. The Gauls, proving talent, have rapidly become very good bakers. Being familiar with beer also because of the Greeks, the Gaul have soon conceived the idea of leavening the bread with the foam created on the top of the fermenting liquid. Back then, the properties of beer yeast were known only tot he Egyptians.
The Gallo-Romans from later were usually making bread at home. This was baked in an oven or in the embers. In Gaul, where many cereals were being cultivated, bread represented the basis of a meal, even more so than in Greece. The high quality spelt flour could be transformed in a delicious bread, aerated and delicate.
The texts and inscriptions about the art of bread making dating from this period, are very rare. One piece of information that remained, refers to St. Patroclus (saint from the 3rd century from Troy), who would eat only barley bread soaked in water and sprinkled with salt. It seems that at the beginning of Christianity, barley bread was considered proper for religious penitence or for official punishments. This bread represents an anticipation of soup, an important food of the Early Middle Ages, but also of the subsequent epochs. In the frank language, ”suppa” meant ”to soak”. The name of this familiar food refers to this period’s habit of placing a slice of bread on the bottom of the bowl and pouring soup on top of it.
Bakers, Ovens and Mills in the Early Middle Ages
Bread soon became part of a typical meal. Another custom which was often found in the Early Middle Ages and till the Renaissance, was that of serving meat and the accompanying sauce on a thick slice of bread (which was placed on a cutting board). Such a portion was usually enough for two people, who were thus literally sharing bread, becoming comrades or companions (in latin “com-“ means together and “panis” – bread). The wealthier classes weren’t eating this slice of bread, but were instead throwing it to the dogs or to the poor, who thus had the chance to eat a food that was often tastier than the piece of black bread they were taking with them while working in the fields.
The artisan bakers reappeared in the big cities of Europe beginning with the 6th century. In those times, bakeries didn’t have their own ovens. Because the medieval houses were usually built out of wood or wattle and daub, any small flame could prove catastrophic. For this reason, bread ovens were constructed far far from inhabited areas, usually next to a river. The water was used not only to extinguish potential fires, but also to operate the mill (wind mills have been introduced only later, after the Crusades). In France, mills and bakeries haven’t been separated till the beginning of the 15th century. The reason for this separation were the increasing cases of fraud and spec owed to this arrangement.
Even if he was not involved in all the stages of the bread making, the baker was the one who was sifting the flour and was preparing the dough. The breads were being baked after the instructions of the baker in the communal oven. This was maintained by the local nobleman. The oven was not always placed in the surroundings of the baker’s workshop and was serving usually more bakers. The one who was taking care of the oven was not the baker, but a man whose job was to kindle and to maintain the fire and to supervise the baking. The bread could also be made to order with the flour brought by the client himself. If the bakers would receive for instance 2,5 kg of flour, the bakers had to give back 3,5 kg of bread (a part of the flour represented therefore the payment for the workmanship). These customs regarding the use and the functioning of bakeries, were often to be found in that period in Western Europe.
When the houses started to be built from more long-lived materials, the separation of the ovens from the bakeries became less and less justified. Phillipe the 2nd of France (1180-1223) allowed bakers to hold their own ovens – attached to their workshops-shops. As was the case with the shops of butchers, the bakeries were positioned at the edge of the town (because of rats). Although Louis the 9th (1214-1270) relieved the citizens from the obligation of using the communal ovens and of paying taxes for them, the old customs endured in the rural areas for the profit of the nobleman till the end of the Ancien Régime.
The Functioning of a Bakery in the Middle Ages in France
I will further tell you how a bakery used to be organised in those times and how the production of bread was being regulated. Well, if a master baker wanted to start his own workshop and shop, he had to obtain a certificate which would attest his competence. For this the baker had to produce a “masterpiece” which would then be assessed by the guild colleagues. This part was nonetheless more of a mere formality, because in fact the certificate was bought from the royal, communal or seigniorial fisc. Moreover, it was necessary to pay an annual tax named “hauban”.
The master baker was assisted by different servants. The journeymen (in French “valets” or “massips”) knew the handicraft very good, but could not activate independently. At the base of the hierachy were the apprentices (named “gindres” in French, from the Latin “juniores”). They had to learn the craft and be as humble and quiet as possible. They lived a hard life, having to take care of all the heavy and ingrate works: they were carrying sacks of flour, kneading the dough (sometimes with their feet covered in sacking), tending the oven fire, cleaning the ash (which afterwards the master would sell as raw material for the lye used for washing clothes or for making paint), chasing rats away and preparing the food. The apprentices had to buy their apprenticeship and were not being paid. They were getting though in return accommodation and meals.
After two or three years, the apprentices who aspired to become journeymen, had to take an oath on the relics of the saint protector of the guild (at the beginning it was St. Peter, then St. Lazarus and finally Sf. Honoré - who remained the protector till today) that he would conform to the conditions of the community he wants to be a part of. Also, the future journeyman had to swear that his health is good.
Except for the difficult times (of famine for instance), when bread was being made from any available ingredient, the composition of bread was strictly regulated by authorities, with the purpose of maintaining its quality and of preventing fraud. Flour was a precious food and its waste had to be avoided at any cost. In 1594, the bakers in France had to mark their breads in order to be easily identified in case of controls.
Even since the 13th century, most of the flour was being made in France out of wheat. The price of wheat flour bread was determining the standard price of other breads made for instance with barley, rye or oat flour. These had to necessarily be cheaper. The French law, which was controlling the price of bread had been established in the time of king Dagobert (603-639) and was abolished only in 1981.
The price of salt was included in the price of bread. Because of the tax they were paying on salt (tax named “gabelle”), the bakers had to save the precious ingredient a much as possible. Some sources claim that in the 16th century only the luxury breads were salted, whereas other sources show that this habit was varying from region to region. As a general rule, the salting of bread was mandatory. It depended upon the baker to decide the used quantity. Since the French Revolution, the price of salt decreased dramatically (from 14 sous to 1 sou). Since that moment the bakers have been able to salt their breads at will.
In 1650, the bakers had stopped sifting their own flour. They were buying it from mills, already sifted and with different degrees of fineness. We must not forget though that since this point, it took another couple centuries for white bread to be consumed on a large scale and to replace the porridge or mash which could be made from cereals considered inferior.
The first treaty about the art of bread was written by Malouin in 1775. It was called ”L’art du meunier, du boulanger et du vermicellier” (“The Art of the Miller, the Baker and the the pasta artisan”). It was followed immediatly in 1778, by Parmentier‘s (the popularizer of the potato) book ”Le parfait boulanger” (“The Perfect Baker”).
About so much I found out about the history of bread from the massive and wonderful ”The History of Food” by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat. I am very interested to find out more about the history of German, Russian or Scandinavian bread. I will surely come back with new information as soon as I find other sources. Also, I intend to try to reproduce some historical breads and to learn more about regional breads.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat – ”A History of Food”