A brief history of bread

Most of the people alive in Britain today may have no memory of a time before sliced white bread, so we forget that in the history of bread this was something really new and possibly temporary.

The industrial technique to make this kind of bread was developed in the 1960s and is called the Chorleywood process.  It involves inexpensive flour, a lot of yeast, more water than traditional breads, and quite a few additives that make the bread fluffy and white, with a soft crust, and delay the process of going stale. Importantly for the factories producing these breads, it speeds up the whole process. Traditional breads will sometimes take several days to make, and develop their flavour. Chorleywood breads can be made entirely by machine in less than 40 minutes from start to finish.

 

This means that industrial bread became really cheap. Thousands of bakers from all over the country, many of whom were making something quite unique could no longer compete and the bakeries and the skills were lost.   Bread making is now dominated by a tiny number of huge fully mechanised factories with the distribution systems to deliver identical loaves of bread all over the country.

But all of this is really so new!  If we think about the history of bread before Chorleywood, it takes us back into prehistory.

Bread has been made wherever humans had mastered the use of fire, and there is some evidence that bread of a kind, predates our own species. Cooking meat and grains makes it possible for us to access the nutrients more efficiently than from raw foods. The nutrition that our ancestors were able to find from cooked food led to the growth of brain size, and gave them a little more leisure to think about how their lives might change. 

Grain became so important that it will have driven the shift from small groups of people living as hunter-gatherers, to settling in the areas where grain grew well. Selective cultivation of grains that people liked and could use was the foundation of agriculture.

Not all of this will have been good. Making bread is hard and archaeology shows us the basic tools for grinding grains, and also the wear and tear on the skeletons, often of the women, who were involved in these daily tasks. But even with this, the security provided by stored grains led to the growth of populations from tiny family groups into the much larger communities that could now be supported.  

 

As communities grew, it became necessary to find ways to make storage of grains, milling and baking a little easier. We see mills powered by water, wind, or animals. We see communities building brick built ovens, such as the ones we see in Pompeii, and we see the emergence of bakers.  

The breads that they made were completely essential to their communities, and were the most important element of every meal. 

 

Since the earliest days of bread making, the basics of what happens when you combine grains, water and yeast and leave them for a few hours in a pot remain unchanged, and breads from the start of history changed remarkably little until we got to Chorleywood.

In recent years, we have begun to see the emergence of campaigning bakers, who are rediscovering bread as a basic element of how we eat. I play a small part in this. 

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