A Bite of 'Sliced Bread' - Notes from a Baker's Rebel Daughter - by Rosemary Phillips


Bread the Staple of Life - A Little History



"Sliced Bread" a book by Rosemary Phillips
As a principle food for the human body the loaf of bread has played a major role in keeping humans alive, in initiating historic wars and revolutions, in ceremonies for religions, and in serving as a basis for economies for civilizations and countries around the world. Even our language has been affected as 'bread' refers to money, and 'breadwinner' refers to the person who makes the money.

The loaf packs a loaded story, a history dating back at least twelve thousand years or more, a history which is continuously changing as inquisitive scholars of life dig deeper to find truth and answers to the many questions presented by our present beliefs.

History of bread goes back thousands of years

No doubt you have a loaf of bread in your home, and if not, then it's most probably an item on your shopping list. Take a moment to look at the loaf of bread in your kitchen and allow yourself to drift back twelve thousand years to Neolithic times when grains were coarsely crushed, added to water, laid on heated stones, and baked by being covered with hot ashes. Life seemed pretty simple back then – gathering food, preparing food, finding shelter, keeping warm, keeping safe, not like today where time is money, where shelter and all the possessions which go with it require us all to work frantically at least eight hours a day to pay for everything, and where a loaf of bread can be picked up at a local bakeshop or supermarket, already sliced and packed in a plastic bag, or unsliced and wrapped in a paper bag for sanitary protection.

Those first recorded loaves were flat unleavened bread, prepared from various ground plant substances such as seeds, nuts, roots or tubers. This form of bread-making from cereal grains occurred in several locations around the world, except Asia where the main food was rice or millet porridge. Principle grains used were corn (maize), barley, millet and buckwheat, all lacking sufficient gluten (elastic protein) to make raised breads. Acorns from wild oak trees were used for mush or unleavened bread in areas of the Middle East where present information indicates the finding of the earliest evidence of ovens, dating about nine-thousand years ago. Along came wheat and rye, and in about 1,000 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) the Egyptians found that by allowing fermentation, a process already used in making beer, gases were formed making it possible to produce a light expanded loaf known as leaven bread.

The wealthy preferred bread from white sifted flour

In ancient Egypt, as in Rome, the bread of the wealthy was prepared from finely sifted flour, whereas commoners and soldiers were expected to live on coarse bread. White bread, often made whiter by the addition of chalk, was believed to be natural and free of dirt, and dark breads were suspected of being impure.

Bread as payment

As bread became a major food so too did it acquire major significance as a form of payment for work, as a sacrifice to the gods, and in politics as a form of social control and assistance. Records indicate that those who helped build the ancient pyramids were paid with bread and ancient communities stored grain to distribute in times of famine.

The first real welfare system – Ancient Rome

Throughout time the wealthy have taken from the poor by tithing grain and other crops. But they have also given. In about 70 B.C.E. the problem of feeding the large city of Rome led to a bread dole (ancient welfare) in which it was decreed that bread be distributed free to all adult males, initially numbering 40,000 and increasing to an estimated 300,000 recipients by 275 C.E. Citizens entitled to bread carried bronze or lead ration tickets. Grains to make the necessary bread to feed the population of Rome were imported from Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, North Africa and Egypt. With the decline of the Roman civilization grain trade ceased and commercial baking dwindled.

Regulating bread – white and Brown

Dark rye became a staple in Northern Europe and Britain until the Middle Ages at which time commercial baking again became prevalent. In 1202 C.E. (Common Era) King John presented the first laws in Britain governing the price of bread to permit profit, and in 1266 the Assize of Bread was established to regulate weight and price. There were separate guilds for white bread bakers and Brown bread bakers until 1569 when Queen Elizabeth I united the white and Brown bakers to form the Worshipful Company of Bakers. Ninety-seven years later the whole industry in Britain experienced a major set-back when it was burned out in the Great Fire of London in 1666. By 1700 C.E. wheat began to overtake rye and barley as the chief bread grain and in 1709 C.E. a new Act was introduced to supersede the Assize of Bread, empowering British magistrates to control type, weight and price of loaves. Only white, wheaten (wholemeal) and household (low grade flour) breads were permitted.

Striking for bread and peace - Revolution

In France, prior to the Revolution, the masses were dissatisfied with the lack of bread. During the Revolution a bread dole, like that of Ancient Rome, was set up in Paris. Likewise in later years, 1917 to be exact, Russian women took to the streets of St. Petersburg to strike for "bread and peace".

Wheat germ and Hovis

By 1826 wholemeal bread, eaten by the military and commoners, was recommended as being healthier than the white bread eaten by aristocracy. But wholemeal soured quickly. In 1886 Richard "Stoney" Smith, a third generation flour miller in Staffordshire, England, separated the germ from the flour, lightly cooked it in steam, added a little salt and returned it to the flour. None of the nutritional value of the wheat germ was lost and it produced a tasty Brown loaf, long lasting and rich in vitamins. This process was patented in 1887 as "Smith's Patent Germ Flour," and in 1890 Herbert Grime, in response to a national competition calling for a better brand name, came up with Hovis, a derivative of the Latin "hominis vis" meaning "the strength of man". Hovis Bread-Flour Company Limited was formed in 1898 and began marketing and selling their product across Britain. Bakeries using their flour carried the Hovis sign and tea shops carried the slogan "Teas with Hovis".

The introduction of sliced bread

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century loaves of bread were either baked in the home or purchased unsliced from bakers and baking companies. In 1927 Ernest Harrison, my grandfather, designed an automatic bread slicer to help speed up the task of cutting a loaf by hand. He made drawings and sent them off to a large grain company in the UK. Not knowing anything about patents or selling ideas to manufacturers, he moved onto tinkering with something else. The designs for the sliced bread machine was relegated to the Harrison family closet of memories to join the many other fleeting ideas produced at the beginning of an inventor's creative career. Possibly Ernest had tapped into an idea that was floating around the globe on the ethers waiting to be picked up by whomever was willing to tune in. Or was it just a coincidence that by 1933 large bakeries in both Britain and North America introduced commercial bread slicing and wrapping?

With automation came greater production. Huge machines were designed to mill the flour and make the bread. Bigger ovens were built to bake it, and finally a huge machine was produced for cutting and wrapping. As an economic measure during World War II, slicing and wrapping of bread was prohibited, but it was reintroduced in 1950.

Breads from around the world

Now that consumers are developing a greater awareness with regards to nutritional value of foods, and have more exposure to foods of different countries of the world, bakeries are producing many more forms of bread, from white and multi-grained to dark pumpernickel, chapattis, focaccia, pita – and the list grows. There are as many varieties of loaf as there are cultures, communities and individuals in this world who bake them. Now we can buy just about any kind of bread in super-markets, or bread shops, sliced or unsliced, or we can make our own the traditional way by mixing the ingredients, kneading, letting the dough rise, then baking it in the oven, or we can use the latest kitchen gadget, the bread machine, toss in the ingredients, press a button and within a few hours we can enjoy the delights of a fresh loaf of bread.

Copyright Rosemary Phillips, Quills Quotes & Notes Enterprises, 2013
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