The Beauty of Bread

We can scarce comprehend the significance a humble loaf of bread held to our medieval forebears. It was indeed the staff of life to them. The very words “Lord” and “Lady” are bread derived, coming from the Anglo-Saxon hlaford = loaf-keeper = lord, while hlæfdige, lady, is from hlaibadigon = bread-kneader.

Fine loaves made of pure wheaten flour were only enjoyed by the prosperous. Poor folk ground and kneaded barley, rye, oats, buckwheat, dried beans, acorns, hazel and alder seeds, and in particularly lean times, even weed seeds and tree bark to eke out their meal and bake their bread with.

Wild yeast could be captured from the air – a handful of meal stirred into a bowl of water or milk left standing outdoors will foam – and “yeast sticks” prepared by dipping birch twigs into this fermented mixture and allowing the yeast to dry upon the twigs. These dry yeast-covered twigs could then be soaked in water next baking day, releasing their yeast to start the bread’s sponge. But such leavening would be uncertain, and most breads must have had quite a dense and unforgiving texture, particularly if the flour – and other cereal ingredients – had not been well-milled.

Hearth-cakes with little or no rising agent were patted out and cooked on flat stones or iron griddles placed atop glowing embers. Bread could also be baked by placing the dough on a flat stone or griddle, turning an iron or copper cauldron over it, and heaping hot wood ash around the base. The captured steam escaping from the dough would help even unleavened dough rise a little, and give the bread a softer texture.

Domed clay ovens were built by those who could afford them, and baking could then reach a high art. The formed loaves were placed directly on the oven floor, chunks of burning wood charcoal placed within, and the door sealed to retain heat.

Brewing and baking go hand in hand, and the yeasts that fed one could fuel the other. The frothy result of brewing beer or ale called barm (from the Old English word beorma) was added to bread making ingredients to produce a lighter, chewier, more flavourful loaf.

Bread baking, like many other cooking activities, was performed out of doors to limit the threat of fire, and to provide adequate working light for the cook (remember that the interiors of most early medieval buildings, whether hut or great hall, were indeed dim to the modern eye).

Loaves were eaten at each meal, sometimes forming the sole or main source of nourishment. Monasteries commonly issued a pound of bread per inmate per day. Folk blessed with abundance embellished their loaves with fresh butter, cheese, meat, or gravy. Sweet breads too were known, and spiced with cumin, caraway, poppy, sweet Cicily seeds, and dried honeyed fruits, graced feast tables in timber halls.

….without Bread all food turns to loathing
from Ælfric’s Colloquy (Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham, died circa 1012)

Source: A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food Processing and Consumption by Ann Hagen, Anglo-Saxon Books 1992

For a bread recipe submitted by a reader, click here.

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