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Posts tagged ‘Bread’

Sunday Baking: Seeking Sally Lunn

On a bright October 2018 morning in Bath, England, I set out in search of Sally Lunn’s Eating House, a bakery and dining room built in 1482, reportedly existing as a bakery since circa 1680. The story goes that a young Huguenot refugee by the name of Solange Luyon came to Bath around 1680 and found work in the kitchen of a bakery. She had also brought a recipe from home for a brioche-like bun that gained popularity as a base for sweet and savoury toppings. Today, Sally Lunn’s Eating House describes it as “part bun, part bread, part cake… A large and generous but very very light bun”.

In New Zealand a Sally Lunn is a sweet bread roll, and domestic recipes are bulked up with leftover mashed potato, dotted with raisins and spread with a thick, sweet layer of icing, dusted with coconut to stop it from sticking to the bag. It can also be referred to as a Boston Bun, especially in the South Island. In Bath, it is entirely different: an enriched but otherwise plain bun, served in halves with a sweet or savoury topping.

And then I found a recipe for a New Zealand Bun in the 4th edition of the Edmonds Cookery Book, which has been digitised by the National Library, so that we can all explore its contents. It’s a recipe for enriched bread rolls, really, with flour, sugar and a little

Recipe for New Zealand Buns, Edmond’s “Sure to rise”cookery book, 4th ed, National Library of New Zealand.

The recipe intrigued me – it seemed like a scone, and had a very similar list of ingredients for other Sally Lunn recipes in books from my own collection: the use of a breakfast cup of flour, sugar and butter and leavened with baking powder instead of yeast. So naturally, I had to make some.

A breakfast cup equates to about 190g of flour. I rubbed in 90g of butter, added a headed teaspoon of baking poweder, a spoon of raw sugar, egg and around 75ml of milk. This was then divided into 6 rolls, and baked at 200° Celsius for 15 minutes. The buns can out and were quickly gobbled up, and are particularly good with even more butter, some jam and a cup of tea.

Freshly baked New Zealand buns
A very similar recipe for Sally Lunns, Victoria League of Auckland, Tried Recipes, 5th ed.

But neither of these recipes are anything like a modern Kiwi Sally Lunn, or like the version sold at Sally Lunn’s bakery.

In the UK the buns are enormous, easily a hand span across. They weren’t as sweet as we expected from something promoted as being like brioche, and the texture was a bit dusty, as though the gluten hadn’t been encouraged to develop. In Bath we were told they were typically eaten with a knife and fork. The myth around the buns is fascinating: Sally Lunn’s Eating House says is because the recipe was passed on (3rd paragraph) with the deeds to the house. They contradict themselves several pages on, stating that the recipe was discovered in a secret cupboard during renovation s in the 30s. Sally Lunns are also reputed to have killed an acquaintance of one Phillip Thicknesse, who wrote in 1780: “I had the misfortune to lose a beloved brother in the prime of life, who dropt down dead as he was playing on the fiddle at Sir Robert Throgmorton’s, after drinking a large quantity of Bath Waters, and eating a hearty breakfast of spungy hot rolls, or Sally Luns“. This anecdote is the first record of Sally Lunns in the Oxford English Dictionary, which indicates that the buns had definitely been known about and referred to in speech prior to its first written record, and that a recipe for them existed.

To complicate things a little further, you can also get Bath Buns in bath: sweet, yeast-risen rolls with sugar nibs on top. They were reportedly developed to help offset the flavour of Bath’s famed spring water, which is actually revolting. Whether or not they helped is questionable: Jane Austen complained that she “disordered my stomach with Bath Bunns” in January 1801. By 1851 and The Great Exhibition Bath Buns had become heavier and fruited, named the London Bath Bun, which sold nearly a million pieces in five and a half months. These various buns and their popularity over the centuries show that sweet and enriched breads are an English favourite, and that New Zealand took on its own version with the New Zealand bun in the 1924 release of the Edmonds Cookbook.

To make French Bread the best way

Take a gallon of fine flour, and a pint of good new ale barm, and put it to the flour, with the whites of six new laid eggs well beaten in a dish, and mixt with the barm in the middle of the flour, also three spoonfuls of fine salt; then warm some milk and fair water, and put to it, and make it up pretty stiff, being well wrought and worked up, cover it in a boul or tray with a warm cloth till your oven be hot; then make it up either in rouls, or fashion it in little wooden dishes and bake it, being baked in a quick oven, chip it hot.

Or so says Robert May, who published The Accomplisht Cook in 1678.

I found this recipe in my copy of The Cornucopia, a compilation of historic recipes from 1390 to 1899: it’s a gem of a book with a wide range of recipes, including this one. I was really keen to give it a try, especially as all online versions of this recipe used modern, commercial yeast. But this wasn’t available in the 17th Century, so I needed barm. As indicated in my first post, barm was a name for yeast used in brewing and baking. I can be a little tough to get, but if you know some brewers, they’re your best bet of getting the yeasty, beery concoction. I used the top-fermenting yeast from the krauzen – the foamy crown of yeast atop a fermenting beer – from a fermenting batch of beer at our local brewpub, and the yeasty slurry at the bottom of my husband’s fermentation barrel after he bottled his latest brew. In the 17th Century the barm would have likely been a wild mixture of different yeast strains, nurtured by a brewer for each new batch of beer, so it seemed fitting to mix two different strains for this bread.

There is a second curious addition to this recipe: its use of egg whites. I chatted with a few chefs and bakers about this and our best guess was to increase the likelihood that there was going to be ample protein in the dough to trap the CO2 produced by the yeast: a pseudo-gluten, if you will. The strength of flour is even today a little dependable in each crop, so eggs would have been a good way to ensure that there was going to be some strength. It made the bread’s crumb a bit heavy, but not unpleasantly so: I ate just a roll for dinner and really enjoyed it.

Finally, there is no way that the whiteness of modern white flour was equal to white/ fine flour in the 17th Century: to fix this, I took a few serving spoon’s worth of white flour out of the bowl, and added an equal amount of wholegrain flour to dirty it up. Historical white flour was put through a horsehair sieve to remove the bran: I can’t be sure how thorough that was, so I decided that a few spoon’s worth of wholegrain flour would take modern flour to a slightly-closer-to-17th-Century flour.

I made a half-size batch, as the thought of kneading a full gallon of flour (about 3kg!) was terrifying. This recipe is as faithfully close to the original as I could make it, with conversions into modern measures to make it more readable.

To make French Bread the best way


1.5 kg flour, mostly white with a bit of wholegrain

3 egg whites

30g salt

400ml yeast from a friendly brewer*

250ml water and 250ml milk, warmed

Bread, bread recipe, historic bread


Mix the flour and salt together, pile onto the bench top, and make a big well in the middle. Beat the egg whites to the point before a soft peak, pour into the well, and add the barm. Use your hands in a gentle circular motion to start slowly incorporating the egg white and barm, and then little by little start mixing in some of the flour walls of your well. It will form sticky chunks and be unwilling to take in more flour once about half of the flour is incorporated.

At this point, you can either slowly add the warmed water and milk to the well and keep going, or transfer it all to a big bowl and get stuck in, squishing it all in. Add about half of the liquid to start, and add the rest in dashes until the dry flour is incorporated, and your hands look more like dough than anything else. If you added the liquid in a bowl, now’s the time to tip it back onto the bench for kneading. If you used the well method: congratulations! You saved yourself a dish, unlike me.

Bread, bread making kneading, historic bread

Knead the dough until it slowly stops sticking to the bench and eventually to you. It will become a soft, elastic ball that is more interested in sticking to itself even though it doesn’t feel likely at the beginning. If it feels far too wet (but don’t confuse sticky with wet) don’t be afraid to add a spoonful of flour to firm it up. Knead it well: my kneading time to this point took about 15-20 minutes. Eventually, I was left with a beautiful ball of dough that very happily stood up to the twisting mentioned in my sourdough post. You can see here what twisting does on the bottom of the dough to create tension: –

Bread, bread making, dough, historic bread

Lightly flour the top of the dough, and pop it upside down in a bowl, and leave in a warm spot to rise. (The authors of The Cornucopia helpfully included annotations, and indicate here that it took around two hours to warm your oven up in the 17th Century). Let the loaf rise for 2 hours in a warm spot, during which the dough ought to double in size.

Curiously, the recipe doesn’t include instructions to punch the dough down and give it a second rise, which goes against all of my instincts. But as my intention is to stay true to Robert May’s instructions, divide the dough into portions and shape into loaves or buns (roles – aka rolls). It is very easy dough to divide with a knife. I made up four buns and a small loaf with one half of the bread, and a large loaf with the other half. Bake your dough in a hot 200° Celsius oven, in a dish or exposed. I baked the buns on a baking tray, exposed in the oven for 30 minutes, which gave them a beautiful burnish. I baked the loaves in cast iron pots, for 20 minutes with the lid on and 20 minutes after without. When you remove the lids you get a lovely waft of beer coming out of the oven, which adds to the delicious bread smell filling the house.

And that random final instruction to “chip it hot”? means to chip away the crust, which is actually necessary. This is a bread that makes a solid bottom crust, requiring some serious chewing. Unfortunately, I failed to flour the bottom of my pots, so the super-heavy crust also stuck like a demon to my pans: removing the loaves required chipping to get the bread out!


Would I make this bread again? Absolutely! The only changes I would make would be to flour the bottom of the pans to avoid the sticking/ chipping issue, and I would investigate making a version without the eggs, and another with an experimental second rise. The bread itself is very tasty, and the beery aroma that comes from it is delicious. It is dependant on my being able to procure the barm, but will very likely become an occasional bread recipe of mine. Especially when I serve any beer-focussed dinner.

Bread, bread making, historic recipe, Robert May, French bread the best way, beer bread

The end product: a little doughy, but delicious



* This yeast might be a little chunky, with leftover protein, hop particles, dead and live yeast, all floating in the beer. If this grosses you out, you can rinse or wash your yeast, but I didn’t: it pretty much all went in, as my husband pointed out: the liquid isn’t necessarily the yeast. This actually added to the bread’s flavour: there’s a lovely hint of beery hop bitterness at the back of your palate after each mouthful.

Baking bread at home

My own journey with bread baking began in 2015, when I read Michael Pollan’s Cooked.

I was intrigued, and promptly attempted to make a starter, which never really reached full vigorous health. Through weeks of late nights stretching dough and early mornings baking, I never quite succeeded in achieving the bread that Pollan raved about. My bread was stodgy and without the praised holes characteristic of sourdough, and while tasty was nowhere near as delicious as I had hoped. It was only once I purchased a copy of Chad Robertson’s Tartine bread book, which is referenced extensively in Pollan’s Cooked that my bread baking improved thanks to the obsessively-detailed instructions.

My preferred recipe follows the Tartine process with 75% hydration, but in a halved quantity, as the two of us don’t get through that much bread bread that often. This means that instead of 750 grams of water to 1000 grams (1 kg) of flour, I have 375g of water to 500g of flour. I break my flour down to 50% white flour, 25% wholewheat, and usually 12.5% each of whole rye and whole spelt flour, depending on what’s in the pantry. I get my wholegrain flours (wheat, rye and spelt) come from a local health food shop and cafe in my city, run by Seventh Day Adventists who organically grow their grain locally. For those living in New Zealand, you can order their flours (and other goods) here.

Fabled Food’s household bread

To bake my bread, I follow a process which I have adapted to fit my lifestyle and my need to go to work during the day. It looks like a long recipe, but is honestly simple, requiring short spurts of energy over 24 hours – and the reward of fresh bread is well worth it.

Ingredients – leaven

100g strong white flour

100g wholewheat floor

Dollop of sourdough starter

200g warm water

In the morning, prepare a leaven by mixing 200g of warm water with 100g each of white flour and of wholewheat flour, to which I add a good dollop of starter. Mix it well, cover it with a tea towel and leave it in a warm sheltered spot, and go to work.

Ingredients – bread

1kg flour, split as follows:

250g strong white flour

125g wholewheat flour

125g whole rye flour (which can be split which whole spelt flour, if you like)

350g warm water + 25g warm water for later use

~100g leaven

10g salt



In the early evening (and as soon as possible when you get home (to avoid a late night) test your leaven to ensure it’s aerated well. Fill a cup with warm water and gently drop a spoonful of leaven in. If it floats, it’s ready. If it sinks, warm the oven on the lowest temperature possible for 5 minutes, turn it off and pop the leaven in, allowing the heat to liven up the yeast and encourage them to eat the sugars up and excrete that all-important carbon dioxide. Keep an eye on the leaven and watch for the spurt of activity.

A mix of flour

The different flours for your loaf of bread

Weigh your 500g of flour into a large bowl. Add 100g of leaven and 350g of warm water, mix with your hands, and leave to ‘soak’ the flour for 40 minutes. Meanwhile be sure to stash the remaining leaven in a container to use as a starter in the future. Ask me how I know!

You’ll find a timer is very useful for the following steps!

After the 40 minutes is up, add the final 25g of warm water (to take you up to 75% water) and salt. Squish the salt and water into the dough with your hands – the dough will already feel different to the first mix; satisfyingly squashy and more cohesive, and won’t stick to your hand so badly. Once the salt and water is added, leave it for 30 minutes.

You’ll now be able to start developing your dough over the next few hours. This is known as the bulk fermentation, and is a time-consuming but low-effort process. Rather than kneading, you’ll be stretching the dough – with a dough this wet kneading on a countertop would be messy and tear-inducing. Keep it in the big bowl and wet your hand and forearm. Slide your hand between the bowl and dough to the bottom, cup your hand and lift the dough up and away – I stretch it outwards, over the rim of the bowl, but you’ll find the stretching technique that works for you. Fold the dough onto itself, rotate the bowl by 1/3, and repeat twice more. Cover your bowl again, leave it in its sheltered spot, and repeat this stretching process every 30 minutes for the next three hours.

Dough Collage

By the third hour the dough will be getting pretty aerated – you should start to see trapped air bubbles as you stretch the dough, and the dough won’t stick to you as much, and it will feel tense: the third and fourth stretches will be stiffer and harder to stretch the dough out and fold. Treat it gently as you’re folding it from 2.5 hours – no punching down the dough! After about 6 stretching cycles, you’ll be ready to start shaping the dough. Use your intuition and feel the dough to judge how it’s going – if it’s not looking very aerated or is still sticking more to you or the bowl than itself, stretch it a few more times.

Using your hands, gently coax the dough out of the bowl onto a clean, floured work surface. Cup the dough in your hands, and gently but decisively turn the dough in circles, twisting so that you get some tension in the surface. You want the bottom of the dough to grab at your counter top so it forms a nice ball. Cover the dough with a tea towel, and leave the dough to rest for another 20 minutes.

A boule of bread

A boule of bread after the first twists

You’re now ready to shape the loaf. Shaping is essentially adding structure (in the form of layers) within the loaf so it rises better.

With a round of dough in front of you, slip your hands under the dough until about 1/3 of the dough is in your hands. Lift it up slightly, and stretch the dough away from you, before folding it backover the top of your dough. repeat for the left and right sides of the dough, and finally the last quarter of the dough nearest to your body. This time, as you fold the dough over itself, roll the bread over so it’s upside down, with all the folds underneath. Twist the rounds a few more times to give the loaves some more tension, and let the dough rest for another 20 minutes.

Adding more structure

Structure of the first three folds in the dough

Gently place the boule into a medium sized bowl, lined with a smooth tea towel that has been dusted with rice flour, and let the final rise occur overnight. In the winter, I let this rise occur at a cold room temperature, but in the summer (or for warmer climates) leave the boules in the fridge, loosely covered by the tea towel to avoid drying out the dough. Place your baking dish (we use cast iron pots with lids), into the cold oven, and head to bed.

In the morning, we need to be at work by 8am, so have developed the following routine for baking:

6:00am: Turn the oven up as high as the temperature will go. If the boule was in the fridge, take it out to take some of the chill off.

6:20: Take your hot baking dish out, remove the lid, and carefully tip the boule into the dish. If you want to score the loaf, do so now with a sharp blade, and replace the lid and pop back in the oven. Turn the temperature down to 230 degrees Celscius.

6:40: Take the lid off your baking dish, but leave the loaf in the oven to brown.

7:00am: Remove the baking dish and your loaf from the dish, placing it on a wire rack. Make tea and stare hungrily at your beautiful loaf, which is filling the house with the smell of deliciousness.

Freshly baked bread

Breakfast is ready!

The loaves need time to ‘set’ so they slice more easily, which I find takes about an hour, but I usually get stuck in much sooner as the morning rush overtakes me and the need for breakfast kicks in.

I thoroughly recommend investing in the Tartine Bread book, which is so detailed and precise that the process from starter to bake takes 23 pages, with lots of photos to assist you along the way. Many people freak out at the detail – but knowing the process of bread baking is important to achieving a good finish, and when you break it down to actual work you find the effort comes in such short increments that it’s actually easy.

Remember that bread making is a process requiring multiple senses, and is something that should be enjoyed. Every loaf will teach you something different, and before you know it you’ll be confident enough to try different flour combinations, hydration levels, and possibly even to join the Recipes from Tartine Bread Facebook page, which is full of inspiration. Happy baking!

Breaking bread

Bread is the foundation of our diets: loved and loathed, it has been a part of our diet since the Neolithic age. But why did bread – an entirely man-made food – become our staple starch? It seems a suitable start into my adventures with food history to delve into the mysterious origins of bread, our most domestic food.

Essentially, we don’t know. To make bread, we are required to be sedentary and settled, rather than roaming and following a hunter gatherer style diet, so that we can plant, nuture, grow, harvest and process grains to make our daily bread. Some food historians believe that it was the desire for bread (or beer) that drove us to abandon our hunter-gatherer lifestyle, settle down, and cultivate grains and domesticate animals. The irony for our health is that a farmed diet is immediately less varied and more work-intensive, so our ancient ancestors must have really had a mind-quirk to decide to work harder for their survival. When you settle down and become agricultural, the diversity of your diet is immediately limited, as was the life expectancy of neolithic people. Farming requires a much higher input of labour for less variety, and your plant-based food options are instantly limited to the climate and geography of your local area. So the great mystery of why we decided to settle down is one that continues to puzzle.

Kibbled wheat: getting to know our subject.

Kibbled wheat: getting to know our subject

The primary ingredient in bread is wheat, a species of grass with seeds that humans actually can digest. It’s not like the grass growing in your backyard, which isn’t digestible for humans (even cows need a second stomach to digest tough grass fibres). Wheat produces fat seeds that we turn into bread, and which contain just the right amount of certain proteins that are brilliant at making bread the airy delight we so love. Other grains, like rye, barley and spelt, can also be used to make bread, but it’s a tougher loaf, without the airiness that we all love. Wheat contains high amounts of the proteins gliadin and glutenin, precursors to the protein gluten, which is formed when milled wheat seeds are wet and kneaded, which mashes the two protein chains together to create gluten (Latin: ‘glue’). Gluten enables the flour to trap gases produced by yeast, enabling your bread to rise.

Bread’s evolution into the puffy, elevated loaves of our supermarket aisles is a meandering one. In ancient Mesopotamia, which existed between 5000-3500 BCE, wheat grains were served at banquets either whole or ground into flour, and extolled as “extraordinary sources of nourishment … the agricultural revolution was not yet ancient enough for cereals to have lost their sacred status and become a staple of commoners” (Jean-Louis Flandrin). When these little grains did trickle down to the commoners, it was initially eaten as a kind of porridge. Both of these options sound pretty unappetising, but eventually someone discovered that they could bake this porridge into a flat cake, and that if you left grains and water for a bit longer it bubbled up and that if you cooked it you got leavened (risen) bread. In the following millennia, we came to the point where we refined and perfected techniques around saving some of the bubbling mass from the last loaf to make the next*, kneading and resting the dough, and baking.

Wheat porridge: a predecessor to bread?

Wheat porridge: a predecessor to bread? It’s rather nice with some butter, cinnamon and honey.

Bread, first as a porridge, then unleavened and eventually leavened, is the once-mysterious product of flour, water and invisible microbes. Archaelogical evidence confirms yeast (both as leavening agent and for brewing ale) was used in Egypt as early as 4000 B.C., with genuine yeast, such as saccaromycetes from brewing, was used for bread baking from around 1500 BC. This invisible, magical microbe worked its magic, eating the sugars available in the milled grains and excreting carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the wet, sticky mush of gluten, causing our dough to rise the loaf: an apparent miracle. Yeast was formally discovered by Louis Pasteur in 1857 while looking into ways to improve brewing methods, and with this discovery, the secrets of the fermentation process began to be revealed. Yeast for bread making could be either from a sourdough culture, or with some leftovers from the last brewing session. Yeast was known in several guises, and the most common known for bread making today is sourdough and commercial, domesticated yeast. Yeast was also present in Bread’s cousin, beer, where top-fermenting yeasts, such as ale yeast, was frequently bought by bakers from brewers for bread making, and was known  as godisgoode or barm. Godisgoode is by far my favourite term (and the question of its capture is posed to every brewer I meet: wild yeast isn’t always going to be tasty). This peculiar and pious term named God as the mysterious force behind turning slop into bread, sugary water or juice into beer or wine, “bicause it cometh of the grete grace of God“. Through all the millennia, bread, with its magical transformation from a sloppy wet mix to aerated and light bread, was treated with all the resect required for a god-given miracle.

Image of the yeast strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Saccharomyces cerevisiae: small but mighty

Commercial bakers yeast is called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It is more commonly called s. cerevisiae, and the ‘cere’ in cerevisiae is a nod to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships. It is believed to have been isolated from the skin of grapes: it is that white frosting you so often find of grapes or plums. This was developed into Baker’s Yeast. By 1879 it was being bred in huge vats in Britain, and was found that it could be spun in a centrifuge to create a concentrated, yeasty slurry. This was developed into a cream, then a compressed yeast cake, and finally took the granulated form we recognise in shops today in America during WWII.

Sourdough, however, has a much more ancient history and rather than just one species is a symbiotic colony of several strains of bacteria and yeast. They live in harmony and contribute to the classic sour yet moreish flavour of sourdough bread. Each strain has something different to offer, but the famed sourdough bacteria is Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, so named because scientists thought that this was a unique bacteria to be found in San Fransisco and was the reason the city made such notable sourdough. Luckily for us, sanfranciscensis can be found the world over. This symbiotic little community each contributes flavour, aroma, and acids to help break down the proteins in bread and turn your sticky lump of flour into a delicious loaf. If you get into brewing and craft beer you’ll find that some yeast and bacteria strains that have cult-like fan clubs, and each yeast is carefully chosen to impart its unique personality upon the wort: lager yeasts for cold environments and for a crisp finish, ale yeast for warmer brews and a fruity finish, and even more complex as we move onto wheat beer yeasts (for the classic banana-and-clove aroma and flavour). Wild fermented and sour beers are a bit more like the drunken cousins of sourdough: a wild party of yeast and bacteria producing beer that can literally make your tongue curl. The most famous bacteria here is brettanomyces (affectionately known as ‘brett’), known and loved for their sour, funky vibe (but loathed and feared in the wine industry for its potential to cause spoilage).

Real bread ought to be made with just three ingredients: flour, water, and salt; four if you want to be particular and count the yeast (and bacteria). It is an incredibly simple ingredient list for a food that can sustain life, and does so best when turned into bread, as opposed to the three base ingredients. A slow fermentation process activates and unlocks the nutrients that are sitting inert within the seed, waiting to nourish the sprouting plant. Bad luck for our aforementioned Mesopotamian aristocrats, scoffing their raw grains. But the thing is, what you really want for good bread is wholewheat flour. The white flours that make up so much of our diets today offer nothing in nutritional value, but do make a pretty, well risen loaf – the dumb blonde of the bread world, perhaps? Wholegrain flour is finicky: it has a shorter shelf life due to the oils within the germ and bran that can go rancid with time. The nature of whole grain also makes it harder to work with and to create that voluptuous loaf: it’s heavier and ‘spiky’, thanks for the shreds of bran and germ that can damage the long threads of gluten required to trap air, resulting in a less airy loaf. It is also tougher to eat thanks to the additional roughage, but is better for your digestion as a result. In terms of nutrition, but makes for a better loaf every time.

A homemade loaf

A loaf of homemade sourdough

The great irony is that throughout history, people continuously sought to get the whitest (and therefore softest) possible loaf. Historically, this was done by sieving wholegrain flour, and today we can read stories everywhere about corrupt bakers tampering with their flours to make their bread as white as they could. Common ‘whiteners’ are said to include chalk, ground up bones, bean meal and lime, but I take these claims with a pinch of salt. Bill Bryson uncovered research from Frederick Arthur Filby in 1934, who took the obvious step of trying to bake bread with such whiteners: Bill Bryson summarised his results as “in every case but one the bread was either as hard as concrete or failed to set at all, and nearly all the loaves smelled or tasted disgusting**. Several of the loaves needed more baking time than conventional loaves, so were actually more expensive to produce. Not one of the adulterated loaves was edible”. The honest truth is that bread is actually a difficult thing to make, requiring precision and care at every step. Bakers were a quickly established profession so that people could literally leave such a finicky part of their diet in the capable and well-practised hands of the professionals.

We have several words in current use that owe their existence in our lexicon to bread. The bread of the upper echelons of society in Medieval England ate bread called manchet, a now-extinct word from the middle English words maine – “flour of the finest quality” and the historical definition for the word cheat – “denoting a kind of wheaten bread”. One we’re more familiar with is the term Upper Crust: where the softer, nicer top of a loaf was sliced off and eaten by the wealthy members of a household (who also wielded the greatest power). Those of lower rank would have received the charred and crunchy bottom crust. Bottom crusts had another use in households as trenchers. Trenchers were the precursor to the plate, and would serve as both a container for your dinner which could absurd the juices and flavour of your meal and could be eaten once you finished, or more often given to the bottom crust of society. Today we most often see them as a bread bowl for soup, or as the container for the South African dish bunny chow.

Bread features extensively throughout the bible. As I was raised agnostic, the quotes read something akin to cannibalism: that the word and body of Christ are bread, and that partaking in it is the way to ensure everlasting life. It is a beautiful symbolism: that such a staple, available to all, is one and the same as the word of god: a great equaliser, upper or bottom crust be damned. John 6:50-71 states “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day“. Unleavened bread (or wafers) are featured in Christian communion, where it is known as a Host (from the Latin hostia; “sacrificial victim”. Delicious.) and is literally the body of christ through the process of transubstantiation.

Another famed biblical story around bread is Exodus 12:34 “So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders“. Unleavened bread is an essential of sabbath as a commemoration of the exodus, often in the form of matzo, where it symbolizes redemption and freedom, but it is also lechem oni, “poor man’s bread”. It is intriguing the weight given by religion to unleavened bread over leavened, highlighting the very plain as divine over the risen, leavened loaves of bread we have always sought.

Bread detail

Evidence of yeast’s production of gases to raise the bread

From the divine, bread today is facing a PR crisis. It is not the staple it once was, and is often reviled as something terrible and allergy inducing, and is guilty of making us fat. Supermarkets sell homogenous loaves of bread that, whiter than our medieval ancestors could have dreamed of and devoid of its original nutritional value. Our pursuit of the softest, whitest bread seems to be triggering gluten intolerance and constipation. And as much as I love a squishy white bread roll (slathered with butter and stuffed with ham, please), I know it’s not ‘good’ bread: it’s not that tasty and it’s not good for me. An Italian study referenced by Michael Pollan indicates that sourdough fermentation of bread potentially breaks down gluten in a way that modern commercial yeasts don’t, meaning that sourdough bread may be more digestible for those with a gluten intolerance, and “some researchers attribute the increase in gluten intolerance and celiac disease to the fact that modern breads no longer receive a lengthly fermentation”. The acids in sourdough also slow our digestion of sugars in the flour, so it naturally has a lower GI, meaning I’d get hungry less quickly on a sourdough ham sandwich than that squishy white supermarket bun, and I’d probably eat less than the two (or three) buns I might scoff otherwise.

It seems that our longing for the ultimate loaf: soft, quick, easily and cheaply produced has lead us down a track that we started upon when we first became farmers over hunter-gatherers: a monotonous diet that isn’t really the best in terms of nutritional variety that we can get. But at least, with bread, we can harness its value as food (and not an edible substance) by taking it back to basics: wholegrain flour, water and salt, made as a sourdough. I’ll toast that.




*Imagine the howling disappointment of the first person to discover the joys of primitive leavened bread, and that once it was eaten it was all gone, and you had to wait several days before the next loaf. We can only hope that they learned that saving some of an earlier dough to speed up the process was a quickly acquired lesson!

**I tip my hat to Mr. Filby for having the stomach to actually try bone-meal bread. Yuck.



Want to know more? Great! Here’s some of what I read to write this post:

100 million years of food: what our ancestors ate and why it matters today, by Stephen Le. Published by Picador in 2016.

At Home, by Bill Bryson. Published by Doubleday in 2010.

Cooked, by Michael Pollan. Published by Penguin in 2013.

Food: a culinary history from antiquity to present, edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English edition by Albert Sonnenfeld. Published by Columbia University Press in 1999.

Man walks into a Pub: a sociable history of beer, by Pete Brown. Second edition published by Pan, 2011.

Baker’s Yeast, BrettanomycesLactobacillus sanfranciscensisSaccharomyces cerevisiaeTransubstantiation, Wikipedia. All double-checked on March 21, 2018.