A quick history of bread
Bread is one of the oldest human-made foods in our world and remains one of our most highly consumed foodstuffs today. There is evidence that bread has been around for a staggering 30,000 years.
The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians ate leavened bread, which is generally what we tend to eat in England today. Leavened bread means that yeast has been added to the dough mixture, making the bread airy with a lighter texture.
Bread. is, of course, a basic food product in the U.K. Nowadays we consume bread as toast, in sandwiches, or to accompany a meal, but in the Middle Ages, the bread itself was the plate for the meal, and known as a “trencher”.
The word “trencher” is derived from Old French “tranchier”, meaning to cut. The heavy coarse bread was cut into slices and became edible tableware. As time passed, the trencher was no longer made of bread but evolved into a circular wooden plate, similar to, say, a cheeseboard.
After the meal was over, the usually stale and hard bread was generally used as livestock feed although it was sometimes eaten as well, or sadly, donated to the poor. No waste, unlike today. And obviously we are not talking sliced white bread with fluffy air pockets here. This no doubt, would have significantly decreased the enjoyment of your food as well as the state of your attire…..
Sliced bread was still far away in the future at this point. Everyday bread for the peasants was rough, grainy, hard and not always easily digested. It was, however, considered to be a step above the wholegrain “trencher” bread used as plates, which was commonly given to animals after the meal was finished.
The financially better off consumed bread which was made from milled wheat, or oats, or both. The ingredients were either processed at home or a local miller would grind them in return for a small portion of the goods. Breadmakers and millers prospered as few people had ovens and it was difficult to conserve flour. By the 16th century, the terminology of bread reflected not only the ingredients, but was linked to social class. The whiter the bread, the finer it was considered, reflecting on your place in the social hierarchy.
Brown bread was handed out to the Irish during the Great Famine of the 18th century. Fibrous, rough brown bread was strictly for the lower classes and the poor.
When England became more industrialised in the 18th century, more factories started to manufacture white bread and the working classes, after being denied this item for so long, were more than willing customers. It made sense – people could afford it, it was easier to chew and digest than its wholegrain counterpart, particularly important at a time where teeth were often sadly neglected.
White bread was filling and therefore value for money. It was often suspected that brown bread had been adulterated but it was thought that as white bread was …well, white … additives would be easily detected. Not actually so, as bread manufacturers in the 1930’s actually used chlorine and peroxide to make their bread even whiter. Don’t worry, these additives are banned today in the U.K………at least for the moment….
The Aerated Bread Company (also known as A.B.C.) was established in London in 1862 by John Dauglish, who used his medical studies to replace yeast with carbon dioxide, removing the requirement to knead the bread. This, together with mechanical processes, made the procedure more hygenic and quicker as there was no longer a yeast fermentation period.
In 1967 the Chorleywood bread process, developed in, yes, you guessed it, Chorleywood in Buckinghamshire, reduced breadmaking time even further, and according to Wikipedia, “As of 2009, 80% of bread made in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and India, used the process.”
And in 1928, across the Atlantic, the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri sold the very first sliced loaf. In England, the delights of the sliced loaf arrived in 1937, courtesy of the Wonderloaf Bakery in Tottenham, London. By the 1950’s, the majority of bread sales were both pre-sliced and pre-packaged.
The tide had certainly turned for the working classes with widely available and affordable sliced white bread in all its sandwichy glory and convenience.
But even as white bread began its journey into everyone’s homes, slowly but surely a section of educated people in England were beginning to turn their backs on white bread and recognise the nutritional value of brown bread.
As early as 1800, George III ate brown bread in an attempt to convert people to its value, but the crowds responded to his iniative by simply nicknaming him ” Brown George”.
But in 1865 the discovery of the advantages of bran on health meant that brown bread had commenced its comeback. From its lowly beginnings, brown bread slowly shrugged off its negative image and rose again in popularity as the public gained more knowledge and information on food and nutrition. Food could be questioned once people did not have to worry where it was coming from and had options, unlike previous eras.
We all have our preferences for types of bread but today it is generally held that brown bread is indeed of a higher nutritional value than white, and certainly more so than pre-packaged sliced white bread. The wheel has come full circle.