How different is our daily bread from the peasant fare of 500 years ago? We take a look at breads then and now.
Sitting round the dinner table, carving thick slices off a hearty wholemeal loaf from the local artisan bakery or our own oven, we take pride in our part in a bread tradition that stretches back millennia. After all, the Greeks and Romans marched on their bread, and the word 'companion' is said to originate from the Latin for someone with whom you share your bread (panis).
But how much does our springy bran-flecked wholesome-looking loaf really have in common with the bread our British ancestors were eating some five hundred years ago?
Fields of gold
Let's start with your typical feudal peasant. If you were lucky enough to live in the southern half of England, you might have a crop of wheat – our favourite bread grain, even back then. Elsewhere, your crop would more likely a mixed field of wheat and rye called maslin (which also lends its name to the wholemeal bread made from it).
Alternatively, your go-to crop might be barley – not a grain we currently associate much with bread. 'Sustaining and nutritious these breads no doubt were,' writes Elizabeth David in her book English Bread and Yeast Cookery. 'They were also dark, coarse, heavy and dry.'
Other ingredients, such as potatoes, apples and turnips, were sometimes used to bulk up the dough. Certain additions, such as potatoes, give lightness, moisture and flavour to the bread and can be heartily recommended even today. Others, such as 'flour ground from dried peas mixed with boiling water to reduce its disagreeable smell' (Bread: A Global History, William Rubel) sound distinctly less appetising.
Also be glad that horse-bread, a type of flatbread made with bran, rye and sometimes 'chaff, straw and the waste from the bakery floor' (Rubel) – intended as horse feed but apparently sometimes eaten by the poor due to its low cost – is no longer an option, no matter how tight budgets may get.
As for the nobility, their bread of choice was manchet, a type of soft white loaf. Light, airy, devoid of the nutritious bran, white bread proclaimed the wealth of its eater by its very composition. White flour, achieved by bolting (sifting) wholemeal flour to remove the wheatgerm and bran, automatically meant you had enough wheat at your disposal to essentially discard a sizable bulk of the original grain. In addition, its very lack of nutritional value was a marker that you, the lord of the manor, had no need to subsist on bread and bread alone.
How times change
What a shock it would be, then, for our 16th century peasant to see us now. The snow-white supermarket loaf is now the cheapest form of bread available, thanks to industrialisation and in particular the 1960s Chorleywood process; wheatgerm and bran is now sold at a premium in health-food stores; and any food-lover worth their (pink Himalayan) salt wouldn't feel complete without an artisan stone-baked brown country loaf gracing their bread board.
Want to try a taste test? For those looking to step back a few centuries, here's a recipe for maslin bread, made with wholemeal wheat flour and dark rye.
Other ingredients and dishes from times gone by:
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