I was mulling over the growth of the whole ‘artisan bread’ movement as I made another batch of dough last week to cold ferment in the fridge. As I lay in bed reading one night, I started to wonder what sort of bread Chaucer would have eaten. Or Shakespeare.
That led to: how was bread made 500 years ago? 1,000? What ingredients did they use? How did the technology and techniques develop? How was yeast’s work discovered and when? How authentic is today’s bread? Aside, that is, from the refined flour, sugar, salt and highly domesticated yeast…
So I started to do a little online research. (Visual pun: That’s my latest starter on the left, with my latest effort, a modest pan bread made from a similar starter, a bit further below).
First stop: Gode Cookery, a website dedicated to historical – Medieval to Renaissance – cooking, recipes and food. It offers both pages on Chaucer’s food, but also numerous pages and recipes for bread and here.*
Lots of material for experimentation there, but not a lot of narrative history about how bread was developed and worked. Was it kneaded, or just allowed to rise naturally? Where did yeast come from? Flour? How were loaves shaped? Cooked?
Historically bread has played an important role in nearly every major European culture. In the Bible the word “bread” is synonymous with “nourishment.” The English word “lord” is derived from the old English “hlaford”, meaning “keeper of the bread.” The role of challah and matzoh in Judaism and the communion wafer in Christianity are, of course, well known. The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “companio”, meaning “one who shares bread.” And in our society, think about what the use of the slang terms “dough” and “bread” for money says about our 20th-century priorities.
Back to Chaucer. Bread is mentioned several times in the Canterbury tales. In The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer wrote:
Her board was mostly garnished, white and black,
With milk and brown bread, whereof she’d no lack,
Broiled bacon and sometimes an egg or two,
For a small dairy business did she do.
Ah, but what kind of brown bread? Was this rye or a whole wheat? In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, he writes:
Let such be bread of purest white wheat-seed,
And let us wives be called but barley bread;
And yet with barley bread, if Mark you scan
Jesus Our Lord refreshed full many a man.
So clearly white and dark breads have different social connotations. Again, bread is mentioned in the General Prologue, in discussion of the Franklin:
He loved to dip his morning bread in wine.
A pleasing live was the custom he’d won,
For he was Epicurus’ very son,
That held opinion that plain and pure delight
Was true happiness, perfect and right.
A householder, and that a great, was he;
Saint Julian he was in his own country.
His bread, his ale were always good and fine;
No man had cellars better stocked with wine.
Bread also appears in other tales; brief mentions, not as a centrepiece, and seldom described with any more detail. Food and drink were literary props for Chaucer, but – according to Food in the Arts – weren’t all that important to him:
Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don’t give the modern culinary historian much to work on.
Gode Cookery tells us bread was one of the :
…most common and vital foodstuffs of the Middle Ages, it was, and has always been a daily staple of life. Essential to Medieval society, a rise in the cost of wheat or a scarcity of bread usually marked the beginning of a time of famine or economic calamity. Figures indicate that in England, the average lowly household allowed everyone about 2 to 3 pounds of wheat bread a day, while in France wheat records show that each citizen had enough wheat for about a 2-pound loaf each day. Clearly, bread was the basis of the Medieval diet. References to many varieties of bread appear throughout Chaucer’s writings.
Two to three pounds of bread a day? Of course, the loaves were smaller, and denser, not like the commercial sponge bread we have today. Still… This site suggests peasants ate as much as two loaves of bread every day: 2,200 to 3,000 calories in bread alone:
A prosperous English peasant in the 14th century would probably consume 2 – 3 pounds of bread, 8 ounces of meat or fish or other protein and 2 -3 pints of ale per day. The bread was usually mean of rye, oats, or barley. Meat was expensive and usually only available on special occasions. Often eggs, butter, or cheese were substituted for meat. Vegetables such as onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, turnips, parsnips, peas and beans were staples. Fruits were available in season.
Rye could also be problematic: it is susceptible to a fungus called ergot, which can drive people mad, or even kill them. It might make them appears as ‘witches,’ too (many of the famous witch hunts happened after an outbreak of ergot poisoning, it seems):
Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system.
Note to self: check rye flour before using. People already think I’m crazy. No need to confirm it for them.