It’s believed that man has been baking bread for at least 8,000 years, one of the oldest prepared foods dating back to the Neolithic era. At that time bread consisted of a mixture of flour and water, which was then roasted on fire to furnish a rather hard product. According to a legend, at some point around 1,000 BC (maybe even earlier), probably in Egypt, someone forgot to cook the dough and, as it ended up fermenting, accidentally produced the first leavened bread. If you mix a bit of such dough with a knew one you can duplicate the process (as in what is today known as sour-dough). Nevertheless, lets not forget that unleavened bread is, even today, quite common in several cultures. The idea behind leavening is to create gas bubbles in the dough, to make it soft, and yeast is quite good in producing carbon dioxide, as long as you create a nice living environment for it. Such environment should have water, adequate temperature and fast utilizable food (usually in the form of sugar), nothing much different from what is needed by most known life forms.
It was possibly during this period that beer has also been developed, as beer and bread rely on the same basis. The yeast used in the production of both is usually the same, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, meaning “the sugar fungus of beer”. In fact, during the middle ages, the Catholic Church accepted beer as “liquid bread”, allowing the monks to drink it even during the Lenten season, between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, when no solid food could could pass their lips. But that`s another story.
The isolation of the yeast is also attributed to the Egyptians. The technique of mixing flour with yeast then jumped to Greece, and from there easily reached the Romans. The ruins of several Roman cities, including those of Pompeii, reveal the existence of bakeries at those times (bread has even been preserved by the ashes of Vesuvius – see bellow a picture from Wikipedia).
Bread found in the ruins of Pompeii
The rest of the story is easy to figure out. From Rome, specially considering the expansion of the Roman Empire, it spread all over Europe, and over world, and for a very simple reason, it is healthy and nutritious, filling the stomach for a very reasonable price.
As Tony Yoward says, the 20th century saw the mass production of bread, with some of the sliced white loaves of the later decades bearing little resemblance to the tasty hand-crafted product. The turn of the 21st century has seen the rise of the domestic bread making machine – a clean effortless way to enjoy fresh wholesome bread baked to one’s own taste. It seems ironic that after so many centuries in which the wealthier citizens demonstrated their status by buying the whitest wheat bread from someone else’s oven, the same sector of society now seeks out mixed grain wholemeal flours to bake in their own kitchens!
Last Friday evening I turned on the TV and a show by the famous English Chef Jamie Oliver was on. It was not one of his usual cooking shows, but one where he tried to turn a bunch of teenagers into first class chefs. At that moment he was teaching them how to make bread. The show was rather boring, so I watched for only a few moments and went to bed. The next morning my first thought was: I have to prepare some bread. And that was something I had never done before.
I jumped out of bed went to look for one of his books (The Naked Chef) searching for a bread recipe. I found it, but it was rather different from the one he was teaching on TV. So I decided I would prepare it the way I remembered, and it was something like this:
Get 500 g of flour and put it on a table as a circle, more or less like the top of a volcano (with a hole in the center);
Put 15 g (1 table spoon) of dried yeast, 30 g (2 table spoons) of sugar (honey may be used instead) and 5 g (1 tea spoon) of salt in the middle;
Add 300 ml warm water (below 40 oC);
With a fork slowly mix everything together working from the center towards the border;
When it becomes hard to work the dough with the fork it`s time to start using your hands;
Work the dough for 5-10 min and then put it rest in a PVC film covered bowl (it`s time to let the yeast do its job);
After the dough doubles in size, which means its full of gas bubbles (this should take from 45 min to 1.5 hours depending on the conditions, specially temperature) work the dough for another 5 min;
At this point I added a mixture of minced rosemary, thyme and basil in a 1 tablespoon of olive oil;
Shape the breads (I made 2 round Italian style breads) and let them double size again;
Spread thin layer of butter sprinkled with flower on a pan and gently place the breads (cut a cross on the top of each one). Be gentle, for we want to keep the gas bubbles inside now;
Bake the breads for about 20-30 min at 230 oC (in fact I was so anxious that I checked the oven every 5 min until they got a beautiful brownish color).
The result was fantastic, specially considering that it was my first experience. I took them to a friends BBQ and both of them were eaten in less than 5 min with grilled and sliced pork sausage. I tried some slices with olive oil and they also tasted just great. I just wish my daily bread was like that. For sure I’ll try new variations, like including some dried tomatoes, for example (the Internet is full of recipes).
My Italian bread
Have you tried something similar? Please, share with us.