3.6. - The history of bread: from prehistory until tomorrow

Look at bread: it is the history of the humanity which you contemplate. Bread is the very base of our food since millennia; it is the privileged witness of the history of mankind and of its civilization. As a spiritual symbol, it has accompanied religious festivals and rites. With the whims of nature and military campaigns, the bread has been token of opulence or misery, of constraint or freedom. Lack of bread caused famine in the Middle-Ages, protests because of the bread price at the dawn of the French revolution, bread rationing during World War II, the success of white bread in the post-war period and until recently the rediscovery of tasty whole grain bread, made with sourdough. Two important events happened "rather recently". The first one was the manufacture of the microscope by Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). Leeuwenhoek is known to have made over 500 "microscopes," of which fewer than ten have survived to the present day. In basic design, probably all of Leeuwenhoek's instruments - certainly all the ones that are known - were simply powerful magnifying glasses, not compound microscopes of the type used today. Yeast is a rather recent invention. A major breakthrough was made thanks to the work of Louis Pasteur. He demonstrated that the fermentation process is caused by the growth of microorganisms, and that the growth of microorganisms in nutrient broths is not due to spontaneous generation. Without the work of Louis Pasteur and the discoveries he made, we would not be able to understand and to make sourdough. And last but not least, in the 50's, a real scientific breakthrough, the important discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. The very knowledge of it will be the basis for further research and developments into the production of taste specific sourdoughs. A new microbiological era will be born.

The history of the bread starts in 8000 BC with the premises of agriculture. The activity and art of baking bread will develop from the Prehistory to Antiquity together with the growth of Mediterranean civilizations (Egypt, Greece and Rome)

Ten thousand years before Christ: man does not cook his food. He lives from hunting and collecting grains and seeds which grow in a wild state.

From about 8000 years BC, traces of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, located at the border of current Iran and Iraq, are found. Spelt, barley, millet, chick peas and wheat were cultivated on small plots of land close to the first sedentary villages. Cereals were crushed using stones. Cereals were difficult to peel and are sometimes roasted beforehand, which made it possible to remove the bran more easily and improved the conservation. Obviously the crushing of the seeds soon led to grinding thus obtaining flour. Sometimes the grains were also boiled. Archaeologists find traces of "soups" of boiled grains and more compact grain porridges. People discovered the very nutritive value of cereals.

The porridges resulted by the progressive thickening of the soups. The porridges presented two major disadvantages:

The porridges were transformed into thin wafers. Somewhere along the line, man started to heat (to bake) the wafers. They were prepared right before the meals and were very quickly cooked according to various processes:

Clay pot

It's difficult to know how and when the first ovens started to appear. Nevertheless a number of different models have been found in Middle East. Bell shaped cupola or dome: a fire was made in such a way that much glowing or smoldering wood was left. The bell was positioned above the glowing coal until it was sufficiently hot. The coal was removed and the wafer was placed under the dome. First appearance of the so called "tanur" ovens. Basically these are clay pots partially sunk into smouldering ashes, having a shape of truncated cone. Invented in the East, it is still used nowadays in countries like Egypt and India. Certain later models were posed on the ground and had at the base a system of a heard that could be moved. These were the first fixed ovens. The furnace itself was bell-shaped which had a frontal opening which can be closed during baking. The big advantage of this oven was that thicker wafers could be baked in this type oven.

It is difficult exactly to date the appearance of fermented foods. It is probable that at the time of "porridge consumption", man could very gradually manage (after a period of rejection, even of fear) to control the phenomena of fermentation. The appearance of fermented cereal drinks (millet, barley) around 4800 BC, ancestors of beer, would precede that of raised bread. From the Fertile Crescent, agriculture i.e. the growing and farming of cereals, started to extend towards other areas of the world, mainly in Europe and India.

Writing was invented in Mesopotamia about 3300 BC. People were using clay tablets but the absence of verbs make it difficult to understand what is meant on the clay tablets. The next photo is a clay tablet on which presumably the distribution of grain was described. However it proves that grain was an important product at that time.

Clay tablet Sumerians

The Sumerians, rulers of Mesopotamia from 2900 until 1800 BC, invented the plough. As a result there was an agricultural boom. Staple food was barley and wheat, but there are no elements attesting the production and consumption of fermented bread. However the Sumerians controlled the manufacture of beer and thus knew what fermentation was. Taking into account the difficulty and painstaking task of manual grinding and the imperfection of the first sieves, pure white flour was used to make the pastries which were offered to the many divinities. The ritual cakes held an important place in the religious ceremonies. One can thus say that patisserie came before bread In Egypt cereals governed the economy of the country. Common people consumed barley and for the elite, bakery products were undoubtedly made from wheat. The presence of baker at the court of the Pharaoh is attested towards 2700 BC. Although the nuance between bread and pastry is not obvious, Egyptologists estimate that there were about fifteen varieties of breads towards 2700 BC and forty towards 1500 BC. The techniques of grinding barley or wheat were not sophisticated, so much so that the Egyptians, considered big bread-eaters, had shabby teeth because of the presence of fine stone grit in the flour. Various techniques of manufacture of the bread followed one another. Rather liquid pastes were cooked in terra cotta moulds, other pastes were kneaded with the feet.

Oldest known code of law, the code of Hammourabi, sixth king of the first dynasty of Babylon, talks about of the beer and drinkable bread. This is an additional testimony of the astonishing proximity of these two types of products. It is impossible to know which percentage of the population consumed raised bread, and what characteristics this type of bread had. However it is almost certain that leavened bread existed at that time (about 2100 BC).


1200 BC: the Hebrew people knew, as well as other people, leavened bread since at the time of the exodus "people carried dough before it was raised". But they also consumed wafers. Abraham called to Sarah "quickly knead three measurements of the purest flour and make breads cooked under ash".

Discoveries in tombs have shown that sourdough has been used in rye breads north of the Alps since the end of the Bronze Age (800 BC). It is estimated that in the first century BC sourdough bread was generally known throughout the world.

The Greeks were not big consumers of raised bread, they ate various cereals and in particular a kind of crepe made from refined barley flour. Due to commercial contacts with Egypt towards 800 BC, the Greeks will discover bread. Towards 600 BC leavened bread was regarded as a delicacy and was reserved to the Egyptian ambassadors only. The invention of the mill (found in the town of Olynthus in Greece) with a rotating motion (actuated by slaves) will constitute a net progress. Initially this mill was used to crush olives but there is no doubt that this new machine replaced in no time the more primitive mortars and grinding stones.

In Greece around 500 BC bread is sold on the markets of Athens and Sparta. The quantities of fermented bread are rather small because leavened bread was only eaten on religious festivities. But the Greeks were the first to invent "powdered sourdough". They made a kind of sourdough using millet and bran which was mixed with the most of crushed grapes.

In 363 BC, Dinias (Greek author) writes: "the bread which is carried on this table and even the one which is bought at the market is of a bright whiteness and an astonishing taste". The art to manufacture it (the white flour), sophisticated at last century in Sicily by a baker called Codesto Thearion, appears on our table in all its splendour. Dinias wrote: "We have today thousand means of transforming all the kinds of flour into a food as healthy as pleasant. Add a little milk or oil and salt to the flour and you will obtain the most delicate breads."

The manual rotary grinding stones appear about at the same period in various countries. Trade facilitates the diffusion of these inventions and technology transfers take place. The Lydians (Lydia was a kingdom in Asia Minor, situated in the present Turkey) were excellent in the manufacture of ovens, the Parthians (the Parthian Empire was situated in ancient Persia) were considered skilful bakers.

The Romans, traditionally consuming cereal porridges, discover the taste of bread. The noble Romans will bring Greek and Lydian bakers to Rome to work in their villa to make various breads for them. Cato speaks about kneading like innovation. It is perhaps only at that time that someone took particular care to kneading. Seeing that strong people were needed in order to obtain well developed dough, men started to replace the women in the manufacture of the bread. Invention of the mill with animal haulage. These rotary horse-gear mills will allow to obtain much lager quantities of flour.

Wheat mill (Turkey)

The Romans will promote the cultivation of wheat, the grain does not require anymore being grilled or crushing before milling and because of that the flour contains more gluten. Towards 100 AD, the wheat will be cultivated throughout the Roman Empire on a large scale.

60 BC: Roman engineers invent the hydraulic mill. Their diffusion will spread out between 100 BC and 400 AD. Moreover a system of conical grinding stones with variable spacing will be born. It is probable that that will result in a relative improvement of the quality of the flour.

14 AD: foundation of a college for millers and bakers in Rome. This caused a significant progression of the bread culture in the food of the Romans. Pistore which means manufacturer and crusher seems to be the first name of the professional bakers.

30 AD: the kneader of Eurizaces On the monumental tomb of the master baker Eurizaces appears a machine used to mix the dough which moved by a horse. Undoubtedly the oldest mechanical kneader! The whole of the scenes represented, testifies to the large size of these flour-milling-bakeries which ensured the free distribution of cereals and breads. Fine white flour was for the nobles, whole wheat flour was used for the bread for the people. Pline considered it regrettable that there different types of flour and that the bread of the poor is not the same as that of poor. The "panis plebeuis" was made with flour and bran, the "panis hordeacus", based on barley, was intended for the slaves.

Tomb of Eurizaces
Tomb of Eurizaces
Tomb of Eurizaces

79 AD: flour-milling bakery of Pompeii. Pompeii had 33 bakeries. The bakery of Modestus is quite well preserved and still can be visited today. It shows clearly that flour milling and baking was done in the same area. The type of oven, as it can be seen in that bakery, will be built until the beginning of the twentieth century.

bread shop in Pompeii
bakery of Modestus

bread shop in Pompeii

bakery of Modestus: oven in the back left, wheat grinding machines in front

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages begin. Europe was decentralised, rural and parochial. The powerful ruled while the poor tried to survive. There was no sense of progress and fatalism and superstition prevailed. Belief in the eminent end of the world was common.

The main problem was to have food and ever so often periods of severe famine characterised daily life. The phrase "Our daily bread" was a concrete reality during the Middle-Ages. Food intake among all social classes consisted mainly of cereals, usually in the form of bread and, to a lesser extent, gruel, porridge and pasta. Estimates of bread consumption all over Europe are fairly similar: around 11,5 kg of bread per person per day. The importance of bread as a daily staple meant that bakers played a crucial role in any medieval community. Among the first town guilds to be organized were the bakers', and laws and regulations were passed to keep bread prices stable. The English "Assize of Bread and Ale" of 1266 listed extensive tables where the size, weight, and price of a loaf of bread were regulated in relation to grain prices. The baker's profit margin stipulated in the tables was later increased through successful lobbying from the London Baker's Company by adding the cost of everything from firewood and salt to the baker's wife, house and dog. Since bread was such a central part of the medieval diet, swindling by those who were trusted with supplying the precious commodity to the community was considered a serious offense. Bakers who were caught tampering with weights or diluting their doughs with less expensive ingredients could receive severe penalties. This gave rise to the expression "a baker's dozen": a baker would give 13 for the price of 12, to be certain of not being known as a cheat.

The custom of leavening the dough by the addition of a ferment was not universally adopted. For this reason, as the dough without leaven could only produce heavy and indigestible bread, they made the bread very thin. These loaves served as plates for cutting up the other food upon, and when they became saturated with the sauce and gravy they were eaten as cakes. These were called trenchers. The use of trenchers remained long in fashion even at the most splendid banquets. It would be difficult to point out the exact period at which leavening bread was adopted in Europe, but we can assert that in the Middle Ages it was anything but general. "Yeast" was reserved for pastry, and it was only at the end of the sixteenth century that bakers used it for bread.

At first the trades of miller and baker were carried on by the same person. The man who undertook the grinding of the grain had ovens near his mill, which he let to his lord to bake bread, when he did not confine his business to persons who sent him their corn to grind. Loaves varied in form, quality and consequently in name, there were at least twenty sorts of bread made during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with names such as the court loaf, the pope's loaf, the knight's loaf, the squire's loaf, the peer's loaf and the varlet's loaf. The "table loaves," were served at the tables of the rich, were of such a convenient size that one of them would suffice for a man of ordinary appetite, even after the crust was cut off, which it was considered polite to offer to the ladies, who soaked it in their soup. For the servants an inferior bread was baked, called "common bread.". In many counties they sprinkled the bread, before putting it into the oven, with powdered linseed.

Bread made with barley, oats, or millet was always ranked as coarse food, to which the poor only had recourse in years of want. Barley bread was used as a kind of punishment. Monks who had committed any serious offence against discipline were condemned to live on it for a certain period.

Rye bread was held of very little value, and it was very generally used among the country people. Black wheat, or buck wheat, which was introduced into Europe by the Moors and Saracens when they conquered Spain, quickly spread to northern Europe which helped to ease the problems caused by famine.

At mealtimes, servants set up the trestle tables and spread the cloths, setting steel knives, silver spoons, dishes for salt, silver cups, and mazers - shallow silver-rimmed wooden bowls. At each place was a trencher or manchet, a thick slice of day-old bread serving as a plate for the roast meat. Meals were announced by a horn blown to signal time for washing hands. Servants with ewers, basins, and towels attended the guests.

After grace, the procession of servants bearing food began. First came the pantler with the bread and butter, followed by the butler and his assistants with the wine and beer. One of the most vital features of medieval feasts were trenchers, plates cut from stale loaves of bread and which were used to hold food, salt, and even candles during the feast. Every diner ate off one, and there were even servants whose specific task during mealtime was the carving and presentation of trenchers, the finest and most delicate given to the king or ranking nobility. Used trenchers, full of sauces and covered in bits of food, were given to the dogs or presented to the poor, who waited hungrily outside, as alms.

After its importance as food, the most useful role bread played at table was as a plate, or trencher. A trencher could be made of many different materials, earthenware, wood, or metal, but well into the sixteenth century it was often made of bread. The word is derived from the French verb trenchier or trancher, to cut, and the plate was made freshly for each meal by cutting off a slice from the loaf. It soaked up gravy, and could be eaten by the diner, tossed to a favourite dog, or tidied away with all the other remains and given to the poor. A clean trencher was prepared once or twice during an elaborate meal as the table was swept clean between each course.

Any man who ate his own trencher must have been particularly hungry, as the bread used was rather coarse and stale, to make it solid enough for the purpose. The flour was unbolted and the loaf itself several days old: "trencher bred iii dayes (old) is convenyent and agreeable." The Goodman of Paris adds the information that a trencher should be "half a foot wide and four inches high". In texture it was close and firm enough to be used sometimes as a candle holder.

An ordinary diner made his own trencher after he sat down at the table, by cutting off a slice from the nearest loaf, but the most important people present expected to be served. The bread bore silent witness to their status. One manual suggests three trenchers for the master of the household, two for his son, and one for the least distinguished at the table.

There was no progress for about 1500 years but in the 17th and 18thcentury, things began to change. Two important discoveries and people lie at the basis of these changes:

Louis Pasteur discovered that alcoholic fermentation was not a chemical process. He found optical active compounds in fermented solutions and concluded that this had to be the result of a biological process. His conclusion was that fermentation was the result of a biological process carried out by micro-organisms. As a result of the work of Louis Pasteur, it was possible to produce yeast on an industrial scale.

Another two people played an important role in the development in the art of baking.

Due to the industrialisation of yeast, also the industrialisation of bread became possible. Industrial bakers, particularly in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States were always on the look out for quicker and cheaper production methods. Kneading times, proofing times and baking times were reduced to the absolute minimum. At the same time it became more and more difficult to find qualified personnel. As result the bread lacks body and flavour.

Nol Haegens