Extract from The Dough Also Rises–How to Make Great Bread, Anita Burns
Wow! I am stunned when I think about how long bread has been a staple in the human diet. It’s even mentioned in the Bible. In my twisted mind, I pictured one of the Old Testament prophets trekking to the marketplace and handing out a few sheckels for a nice white loaf so light it could float. What a miracle. What a “wonder.” NOT!
Bread then was flat, dense, gritty, and hard to chew without soaking it in liquid.
As humans, we love our bread. Always have. People have been making flour for at least 30,000 years. Bread making goes back at least 5,000 years, but it was nothing like what we call bread today—that baby is a modern invention.
If you were sitting around the fire in Neolithic times (stone axes, spear points, and such), you would be munching on hard, grainy, dense, flat bread. Most likely it would also be burnt on the outside. Regulating the temperature on a communal fire pit wasn’t easy.
The oldest bread that we can really call bread was found in Oxfordshire, UK and dated to around 5,500 years ago. The two “loaves” look like lumps of coal. It was analyzed at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in New Zealand, then Dr. Mark Robinson from Oxford University looked at them through a microscope. Imagine his surprise. “Holy yeast farts, Batman. This was BREAD!” Maybe that’s not what he really said, but I would have.
And so it went for centuries. Even though ovens date back to around 29,000 BCE, they were really built to roast mammoth, not bake bread. In pre-dynastic Egypt, home oven pits were used, but they were not made for baking bread and were cumbersome to operate.
It was the clever Greeks who invented a free-standing, front-loading bread oven. It was a hit, and everyone along the trade route had to have one. It was the latest high-tech fad and a must-have for the up and coming in-the-know couple.
Imagine the sales pitch:
“Ladies, picture yourself with the latest in homemaking convenience—the Klibanos 4000!”
“Have more time for your family, visiting with friends, or just plain relaxing. The Klibanos 4000 is portable. Place it anywhere in your home or take it with you when you travel. Front loading, light weight, and easy to clean.”
“Your bread will be the envy of the neighborhood. Shipped directly to you from the capital of innovation—Santorini. Order now before they run out and you have to hang your head in shame.”
But, even with the convenience of a portable, front-loading bread oven, the end product was pretty hard and chewy. Yeast-leavened bread was still the dream of sorcerers. Any leavening that entered bread dough came from vagabond yeasts riding the wild winds. They dropped down into sticky dough and became trapped like dinosaurs in tar.
“Hmmm! Look at this, Aristophanes. Why is my bread puffing up? Have a bite.”
“Whoa! Holy Zeus, this is good. How did you do this?”
The baker then spent a lifetime trying to figure out why sometimes the dough puffed up and other times it just laid there like a lazy donkey.
Most likely it was the Egyptians (of course, wasn’t it always the Egyptians) who figured out about leavened bread. Maybe they ran out of water for their dough and were too lazy to trek down to the well to get more. Looking around, someone said, “Hey, use beer. They’ll never know the difference.” Voila! It rose up and the magic was born.
Even with leavening, the bread would have been heavy and dense. Why? Because the flour we use today is NOTHING like ancient flours. Depending on geography, they used barley, millet, spelt, kamut, emmerkorn, or rye. These have gluten, (essential for a light, stretchy loaf) but very little.
In Egypt, thanks to their obsession with preserving everything, there are hundreds of bread loaves to examine. Most looked like large pizzas without the toppings. Some were round, but still pretty flat. They, too, used a variety of grains, but a common grain was Emmer. This takes some doing when processing it into flour because its thick chaff has to be removed.
To process it, the Egyptians sprinkled the grain with water, then pounded it with a wooden pestle in a limestone mortar. Then it was dried in the hot sun. Next, the grain was winnowed to let the chaff fly off into the air and the grain sink back to the ground. After that, there was sieving to remove any leftover flakes of bran, chaff, and stone from the pestle. The sieves were made of rushes and not very efficient, so, as a last step, it was picked over by hand. Finally, the grain was milled into flour using a flat grinding stone. Phew!
Even with all this, some chaff, stone grit, and bran remained, so the Egyptians just got used to having stuff stuck between their teeth.
There’s an ancient Egyptian bread recipe included in my book, The Dough Also Rises. It is based on one found in an ancient tomb, minus the grit and stones.
So fast forward to this century. What a difference! Is there anything better, more sensual, and more addicting than the aroma of fresh bread baking? Don’t answer that. You gotta admit, though, that this is one helluva great smell. It’s so good that some bakeries install a fresh bread fragrance atomizer in their shops and pump the fragrance outside to attract customers.
This fragrance speaks to our ancestral pleasure centers. It is so powerful that some real estate agents spray an artificial fresh bread aroma in the houses they are trying to sell or in model homes.
Do you make bread? I’d love to hear about it.