11/4/13

What Bread Would Chaucer Have Eaten?


Starter mixI 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?

A little note I found elsewhere says the English word “lord” comes from the old English “hlaford” (“loaf ward”) which means “keeper of the bread.” Zingerman’s notes:

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.

Starter mixBack 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.

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10/9/13

Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much


Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

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10/2/13

I Didn’t Know That…


History of EnglandOne of the great delights of learning is to be able to read or hear something new, something unknown, something that challenges the mind or your previously formed ideas and opinions. Something that fascinates and delights you. That “ah ha!” moment.

Last week I stumbled across a website called History of England and I felt like that when I started to read through it. Better yet, I spent an hour downloading the 104 free podcasts of his history (plus the eight or so supplementary ones) to listen to while I walk my dogs.*

The site is a blog created by David Crowther, who also reads the pieces for the podcasts. Crowther modestly calls himself a “part time history enthusiast,” but his writing is as good as many of the histories I’ve read.**

I discovered the site when I was searching for some data on the Middle Ages for my post on the Unknown Monk meme last week. I started reading, then reading some more, and suddenly it was several hours later.

Crowther’s succinct profile is:

Interests: Well, History, obviously. But also a dedicated allottment owner, though at the most important times it’s difficult to get down there enough. Then very keen on walking, whether with the dog or something more major. Play tennis, bit of golf; armchair Rugby & cricket fan. Supported the Leicester Tigers since . . . a long time ago.

With some breaks for personal time, Crowther produces a weekly podcast – an amazing amount of work and dedication I admire and respect. I know how tough it can be to do this sort of work with any regularity. But this stuff requires a lot of background work: reading, culling images, cross-checking.

Plus he fills his blog with maps, text and images to supplement the podcasts. It’s a wonderful place to simply explore. England’s history is so rich it never fails to captivate me. Somewhere in that timeline, my ancestors lived and breathed, fought, worked the land… where, or course, I don’t know, but probably in the north near my father’s home of Oldham.

I started listening to Crowther’s podcasts on Monday and I’ve finished a mere eight of them – each is about 30 minutes. I’ve just finished the second on Alfred the Great and am in the late 9th century. Really intriguing guy – and learned, not just one of the era’s typical warrior-kings. Literate – in fact he not only taught himself Latin (and translated Latin into the vernacular), but wrote some of the earliest written works in the vernacular.

So far the stories been full of surprising information about the early English – and the successive invasions of the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Danes after the Romans pulled out of Britain in 410 CE. Ripping stuff, and told with a light hand and a dry sense of humour. He reads very well, with a good speaking voice, measured and easy to follow.

It’s an era I know damned little about – actually no one does, really, because until Alfred there was little written, or at least little that has survived. It’s not called The Dark Ages for nothing. But it turns out to be a rich, fascinating time for all that. Kings with odd names, warriors, battles, politics, internecine squabbles, church and state, family feuds… the stuff of good history.

One of those “ah ha!” moments was his talk about Offa, King of Mercia in the 8th century CE. I’d heard the name, but wasn’t really aware of his place or importance. Now I know enough to want to delve deeper. I expect a trip to Chapters or Amazon in the near future will include a search for books on this period.

I’m hooked. And I have 100 more to go!

By the time I get to the end, I expect he will have added many more, so I can look forward to many enjoyable hours. His 104th podcast – the latest as of this writing – only brings us to the mid-14th century. He hasn’t even reached my personal favourite – the late Tudors and early Stuarts. I can hardly wait for him to delve into Henry VIII, Elizabeth and Shakespeare. That should be getting close to lecture 200, I suspect.

~~~~~ 

* My usual listening fare has been audio courses from The Great Courses, which I still enjoy listening to. Their individual lectures are 45-60 minutes each, which means I sometimes can’t finish one when walking the dogs. Sometimes I listen to music copied from old 78 recordings instead.

**  And perhaps better than many – with history as a major interest of mine, I’ve read thousands of books over the last few decades and not all of them are as spellbinding as Crowther’s modest work.

07/16/13

Losing the world, and some sleep, but enjoying it


 

Civ VBrave New World – not the novel of a dystopian future by Aldous Huxley – is the name of the latest add-on for Civilization V, following after Gods & Kings, released in 2012. BNW was released last Tuesday, and I was at the local EB Games store to get one on launch day. Over the weekend, I took a look at it, playing for several hours in learning mode.

Civilization, if you don’t already know, is a turn-based 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) computer game/simulation created by Sid Meier, originally in 1991. It has gone through numerous releases (Civ II in 1996, Civ III in 2001, Civ IV in 2005 and the latest, Civ V in 2010). V is built on a hexagonal grid like the old paper wargames, where earlier versions used a square grid. The map can be randomly generated each game from a template (many islands, large continents, one land mas, dessert, jungle,etc.) so every game is different.

It’s always been one of my top five or so favourite computer games, and I’ve played it (and many other Sid Meier games) since the first release.

The basic goal of the game is to build a civilization from the Stone Age to the space age, along the way discovering technologies, building cities, exploring the world, fighting barbarians and then other players (limited to computer opponents until Civ IV, now with online opponents). Your workers need to cultivate the land, too: mine it, build quarries and plantations, chop forests, bridge rivers and link cities with roads and, later, railroads. Growing cities grows your territory, expanding your borders outward, providing more land to till and mine. Continue reading

05/1/13

Waterloo, 200 years later


The BattleThis June we will be a short two years from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo*. It is expected to be a large event, especially since the 100th anniversary was not celebrated because it fell in the middle of WWI. That gives us enough time to reconsider the battle and to read the histories and reports about it. Wouldn’t it be grand to stand on the field that day, 200 years later?

I have been reading about Napoleon’s campaigns and the events of his reign for many decades, since the early 1970s when I first read David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon (a book still on my shelves). Dozens of books have been written on the battle, and continue to be written.

I played through many, many wargames of his battles and campaigns, but always for wargamers, Waterloo was a popular and often-played battle. I still have copies of the SPI “Napoleon’s Last Battles” quad game, but, sadly, no one with whom to play it.

As Wellington called it, it was a “near run thing.” The chances for either side to win were close, and if you play the entire three-day campaign in a wargame, starting with the battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny, you have many strategic opportunities to see how history might have changed, had another path been taken, or a different result developed in these earlier clashes.

Looking back, the battle has become the stuff of legend, with not a small amount of mythology mixed into the tale. It was a relatively literate era, and afterwards many accounts of the battle were written, first-hand and the analysts who followed later. Historians have argued over many points in the day, what effect they had, what mistakes were made, what happened and what might have happened.

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04/28/13

Rasputin: Two Perspectives


Grigory RasputinPerhaps no character stands out in pre-Revolution Russia as much as that of Grigory Rasputin. He was influential, enigmatic, charismatic, secretive, held no office, yet had enormous influence on the events and people of the era. How could a barely literate peasant affect the destiny of an empire?

In many ways, Rasputin was the icon of the changing times, in others he represents the end of the old era, the last gasp of the autocratic, superstitious Russia. Mythologies grew up about and around him during his life, and even more so in death. No matter how you view him, he remains a subject of popular interest and his death continues to generate conspiracy theories, almost a century later.

The period from 1881* to 1921 is one of (for me) the most fascinating periods in Russian history.** While the rest of Europe was hell-bent on progress, development and industrialization (as well as colonialism), Russia was a bulwark of almost medieval attitudes and economics against the tide of progress. The fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the Soviets is intriguing.

The same period that saw some of the most brilliant Russian writers and composers also saw brutal anti-semitism, pogroms, and a recalcitrant autocracy digging in to preserve its perceived rights to absolute power.

From a global perspective, given the situation, the Russian Revolution was inevitable, although the resulting Soviet state was not. What it began as, and what it became, are two very different things. But that’s material for another post.

Nicholas Romanov, the last Tsar is one of those great, tragic characters of history; weak and unsuited for the mantle of power in turbulent times that changed the face of the nation and the West. His wife, Alexandra, while stronger, shares much of the blame for his fall from power, in part for her religious interference in secular political issues. And that’s where Rasputin comes into the story.

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