The long history of the loaf

Flour, salt and water – from these humble beginnings bread has risen, travelling in some form, whether pita, pretzel or plait, to all corners of the world. Able to adapt to the climate, lifestyle and culture of an area, bread is universal, and still, as in ancient times, the staff of life.

Thousands of years ago humans discovered and developed the art of growing grain, and Egypt, the world’s first superpower, based its entire wealth on the cultivation of wheat. Still playing an important role in the modern diet, commercial bread is now far-removed from the nutritional powerhouse it once was, and increasing numbers of people find themselves unable to tolerate the modern loaf.

While the Egyptians may well have discovered sourdough fermentation by chance, bread soon became central to daily life, and bread has been a vital part of society ever since. The development of civilisation can be closely linked to the history of bread making, with archaeologists discovering fossilised bread in many different parts of the globe. 

The Greeks copied bread making from the Egyptians and their invention of the hearth oven opened the door to new types of bread. The Romans spread the technique further and by medieval times bread was the main source of energy for the continental population. It would stay that way until the early 20thcentury.

Made with just stone-ground flour, water and salt, bread provided a simple, nutrient-dense food that kept well and was easy to store and transport. In much of Europe, only the wealthy could afford highly-refined white flour – the majority of the population ate wholemeal bread. Few houses in town had an oven, so bread was often baked in a communal bake house outside the village, which also reduced the risk of fires burning the town to the ground. 

The type of bread eaten in a region was determined by the type of grain grown, resulting in a wide variety of flavours and styles. France’s temperate climate was perfect for growing wheat, which was transformed into delicious baguette or pain de Campagne. The Italians preferred their rustic pane Toscano or Pugliese and in modern times the world renown Ciabatta, while the rye grown in northern Germany became rich, dark pumpernickel, the country’s most famous bread. Vollkornbrot and Bauernbrot were also staples of the German diet, along with more than 350 other types of bread, differing by season, reason and region.  

Traditionally farmers worked in harmony with the environment, but in the years following World War II, the Third Agricultural Revolution, also known as the “green revolution”, took place. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But all is not as it seems… Using high-yield varieties of grain, along with irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides, the modernisation of farming nearly doubled agricultural output (initially anyway). The increased yield may have saved some from starvation, but energy requirements soon outstripped the declining yields. In a double whammy for the environment, modern farming puts more carbon, through loss of topsoil, into the atmosphere and less carbon back into the soil as a result of not using traditional composting methods, thus further aggravating climate change. 

Both the industrial and the green revolution also changed the way food was produced. The slow process of grinding flour through stone mills was replaced by roller mills, which allow easy removal of much of the husk, and with it valuable nutrients. Roller mills allowed production of large volumes of white flour over a short time and the refined flour produced was uniform and had greater keeping qualities than stone-ground wholemeal flour. Unfortunately, the heat of the rollers damages valuable vitamins and minerals, leaving a product that has very little nutritional value. Centuries of envying the rich for their white bread and cakes had whipped up an appetite for the ‘fine white soft’ bread, and it’s ‘ready when you are’ nature fitted nicely with women’s emancipation from tedious housework in the post-World War II era. Naturally-occurring yeasts were replaced by baker’s yeast, which worked faster but required added sugar to leaven the bread. In the early 1960’s, British scientists discovered that adding hard fats, chemicals and extra yeast to their low-protein white flour made a softer loaf that could be baked in a much shorter time yet kept twice as long as traditional bread. Known as the Chorleywood method, it changed breadmaking forever and has become standard practice in commercial bakeries around the world, including New Zealand.

1957 Wonder Bread ad. Eating it makes women “vital” and more fascinating.

In stark contrast to modern bread, traditional bread is slowly fermented using wholemeal flour and naturally-occurring bacteria and yeasts. Fermentation is the process these microorganisms use to break down the complex carbohydrates we cannot digest on our own and other components of flour, such as gluten, to forms of energy that are easier to digest. The microorganisms present in a wild ferment also produce a range of vitamins, amino acids and co-factors, which are essential to our nutrition, they neutralise components in flour that bind minerals and thus make the minerals available for us to absorb. It was this combination of natural, wholesome ingredients and the fermentation process that made wholemeal sourdough bread one of the only foods that you could eat exclusively and almost indefinitely without suffering any nutritional deficiencies.

Wholemeal organic rye sourdough bread is one of the most nutritionally valuable additions to your diet.

Our ancestors survived, even thrived, on a diet based on bread. Nowadays many people can’t enjoy this simple pleasure, but this may be due to the type of bread, rather than bread itself. If you’ve had to surrender the white sandwich loaf, or you’re concerned about climate change, perhaps it’s time to try traditional bread, made locally from organic ingredients. After all, organic sourdough bread is one of the most satisfying, sustainable and sensible foods available. Is it time to get real bread back into your life? 

Bread & Butter Bakery

Modernist Bread, by Nathan Myhrvold. This book – or rather encyclopaedia of bread- is not cheap, but contains volumes of information about bread from the earliest findings of humans eating grains to the modern days of fast and furious factory loaves.


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