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  • (The Larousse Book of Bread: Recipes to Make at Home)
Three simple ingredients connect our past, present and future: Water, flour and yeast. Together they make something we`ve known for generations, bread. It comes in different variations, plain, sweet, savoury, flat, rolls, sticks. Loved by all of us, staple food for most of us. Many say the baker is an alchemist or a scientist. Making bread is both easy and complex but it’s very difficult to make perfect bread. And this is how the story of bread begins. *To listen to the English language story, click on the AUDIO tab. Transcript is below.*
Svetlana Nedelkoska, Christophe Mallet.

8 May 2015 - 4:40 PM  UPDATED 8 May 2015 - 5:02 PM

Wheat has been cultivated by man since before recorded history. The shift from hunter gatherers who sourced food grown in the wild to farming domesticated species marked an important turning point in human history. It was around ten thousand years ago, in the Neolithic period, when cereals and bread became a staple food, with wheat and barley among the first plants to be domesticated.

Food technologist and CEO of Sydney’s Elevating Food Safety, Dijana Green explains the ancient origins of bread making.

"It was actually grown in Mesopotamia, in Egypt.  The w heat was basically first merely chewed. Later it was discovered that it could be pulverised and made into a paste. Then they thought they could set over a fire, and if they were to put it over the fire, then the paste would harden and they could make a flat bread which could be kept for several days. So it didn’t really take them much to discover that leavened bread was something quite easy for them to make."

Influential French Master Baker Eric Kaiser describes how yeast was incorporated into the bread-making process.

"It started in Egypt. The story that we find about bread is easy, it`s a round bread - La Tourte. It means we do it at this moment, a bread with strong flour. At the beginning they did the milling by hand and they were starting to mix this type of flour with water and with little salt. And they saw that the bread was very heavy. But the day after, the lady, she took a part of the dough from the day before and she mixed it to do the same recipe and she sees at this moment that the bread improved better. So she started to do the same system every day. This is how we find the story of Levain - natural yeast or sourdough. It’s a culture of natural yeast."

Since then, bread’s changed in shape and size and the recipes keep evolving. In many parts of the world, flatbreads, or breads made without yeast have remained popular.

Dijana Green from Elevating Food Security says these breads come in a huge variety.

“Some different types of flatbreads that are commonly made with the various grains in many around the world, there are lots of them, you`ve got the lavashs, taboons, Mexican tortilla,  you have chapati, there’s roti there’s naan, even the Scottish have their own oatcake, in North America they have a johnnycake, the Jewish eat Matzo, we have pits which come from the Middle East, and in Ethiopia they eat injera.”

In the 12th Century BC, Egyptians were able to purchase flat bread from stalls in the village streets. Buying street food is considered normal now, but the technology was revolutionary. The Egyptians had pioneered portable baking.

“The Egyptians, they were the first to manufacture portable ovens. They were even using a beehive or barrel-shaped container which was made out of clay, it was usually divided into two central horizontal partitions. The lower section formed the fire-box where they burned pieces of dried wood. The upper part, was basically accessible from the top, and that was their baking chamber.”

Pizzas are still cooked this way, and this type of oven is still considered best for baking top-quality bread. In early Jewish history, people baked in ovens made of hollowed stone instead of clay. In Jerusalem there was a Bakers` Quarter where bread was baked in tiers of stone built ovens or furnaces, as they were called in the bible. In Ancient Rome bread ovens in public bakeries were originally made from solid rock. Dijana Green says bread was once just a practical addition to a meat meal.

“In medieval Europe time, bread served not only as a staple food but also as part of the table service. And it was really interesting to learn, the standard table setting of the day the trencher, a piece of stale bread roughly 15 cm by 10 cm large, it was served as an absorbent plate. Basically by the completion of a meal the trencher could then be eaten, given to the poor, or fed to dogs. It was not until the 15th century that the trenchers made of wood started to replace the bread variety.”

Baking bread in pans or tins was a late change, mainly seen in British society. Most bread sold in Australia nowadays is sliced. Dijana Greens tells the story of the American inventor behind slicing.

“The father of sliced bread was Otto Frederick Rohwedder.  He was working on a machine back in 1912 inventing sliced bread. When others saw that, and other bakeries were reluctant to use it since they were concerned the sliced bread would go stale. It was not until 1928, when Rohwedder he basically invented a machine that both sliced and wrapped the bread. And by wrapping the stale issue was no longer a problem.  It tastes good, there’s no problem with quality.”

In 1961 bread was changed again with the development of the Chorleywood Bread Process. This machine used intense mechanical working of the dough to dramatically reduce the fermentation period needed for the dough to rise. In the early 19th century domestic methods of cooking started to change too, with households preparing their own dough at home. Professional bakers now use mixers and provers. As the bread making process got more advanced, Eric Kaiser argues that bread’s paid the price.

"You know in every country people lose a part of the story how we can do bread. For example ten years ago I was called in a big factory, very very big, and they do a very bad bread, and they said can you help us improve the quality of our bread. And I do that in many countries. I think people have a beautiful recipe and history of bread but sometimes we lose the good way.”

Some bread types like the French stick or baguette remain icons of food culture.

"You know, at the beginning they were starting with a baguette at 20 cm and after the war, some baker started to do this bread with this flour that he found and the salt and he is starting to put the yeast inside because the yeast is coming from 1850, and the baker is starting to put an aspirin inside, that is Vitamin C and starting to give the volume. This is how they’re starting to do a big baguette 50 or 60cm, very white, not too crispy but very soft to eat."

Eric Kaiser says our bread habits have changed.

“Now we eat bread differently. For example, if you go in France, you can see people coming three times a day to bay a baguette or to buy something for lunchtime, to buy a sandwich or Tartine but in other countries, if you take for example Australia or America, they buy a big loaf and keep it for a few days and they slice the bread to eat every day. So it is definitely sure that more you have fresh bread on the table, the more you eat bread."

For generations white bread, made from refined grans, was the preferred bread of the rich, while the poorest ate dark, wholegrain bread. However, in the late 20th century, the meanings of each bread type reversed. Most western societies now regard wholemeal bread as having superior nutritional value. Bread producers now use wide varieties of flour, from finely milled, to white, wholemeal, multigrain and gluten free. Eric Kaiser says going back to older methods is creating a better quality product.

"If we see the story of bakery 2000-3000 years ago, I said to you that people were milling the flour by hand , and now we are going back to make again a stone ground flour, so we are not far, because we go back all the time back to history and we have this type of flour we can give the same colour that we can find perhaps 200 or 500 years ago . So it`s beautiful. And we have sophisticated flour to do the pastry very white, very nice to do puff pastry or croissant."

To Dijana Green, bread’s versatility ensures its enduring popularity.

“I guess there are many changing diets, many changing beliefs now, with different people, different groups, different religions, and even if you can`t eat wheat, can`t eat gluten , you are on a low carb diet, there is always a suitable bread product that can be made.”