Give us this day our daily bread: A short history of an international food staple

Food Facts

Where: From a 5000 year old Egyptian slave’s misdemeanor to 1000′s of variations around the world from sweet and light to dense and nutritious
Serving Suggestion: Most breads taste at their best served warm, straight from the oven with just butter.

Although there’s hundreds of different types of bread and bread-making traditions throughout the world, virtually every variety is a nutritional, inexpensive and versatile food. As popular in times of poverty as it is in times of plenty, bread is a universal staple.

Origins of Bread

According to ancient legend, the first loaf of bread was baked accidentally by an Egyptian slave in about 2600 BC. The slave was making traditional flour and water wafers, but he fell asleep and didn’t notice that the fire had gone out before his thin, hard little cakes were baked. The dough rose overnight and in the morning the slave was delighted to discover that he’d made a much tastier meal than he’d meant to. Bread became so popular amongst the ancient Egyptians that they used to bury bread with their departed loved ones, to sustain them on their long journey to the afterlife.

In other cultures, too, bread has had important ideological connotations. Muslims used to believe that bread was a gift from Allah, and it was not allowed to be sold, but only given away. Even today bread plays a fundamental role in the Christian Eucharist, where it symbolises the body of Christ. At the time of Passover Jews eat only unleavened bread, to commemorate their ancestors’ flight from Egypt, which was so hasty that there wasn’t time to wait for the bread to rise.

Breads From Around the World

Many of the world’s different varieties of bread developed due to the peculiar customs, beliefs, means and tastes of a community. Some have proved so popular that their recipes have spread throughout the world.

French Baguette

The baguette has come to be something of a symbol for France. Enjoyed throughout the country with butter, jam, any one of France’s 365 varieties of cheese and a nice glass of vin rouge, anyone who’s sampled an authentic French baguette will be well on the way to understanding the nation’s obsession.

The typical two foot loaf is actually a relatively new invention. At the beginning of the 20th century, bakers sought a way to meet customers’ demands for bread which had the maximum amount of crust, and the elongated loaf known as a baguette (literally ‘stick’) was born. Its dimensions, texture and taste are strictly monitored to ensure that every baguette measures up.

Though it has captured the imagination of the nation, the baguette is certainly not the only variety of bread available in France. Even before the days of baguettes bread had a part to play in the country’s national identity and history. Few history scholars will be unaware of the infamous words of Marie-Antoinette who, having been told that the peasants were staving because they had no bread, proclaimed ‘Let them eat cake!’ . Her ill-advised attitude is regarded as one of the factors which precipitated the French Revolution.

Bagel

The invention of the small round roll known as a ‘bagel’ is attributed to a Jewish baker who lived in Vienna, Austria in 1683. The Polish King Jan Sobieski had successully protected the people of Vienna from Turkish invaders, and the baker wished to express his heartfelt thanks to the monarch. As King Jan was a keen horseman, he baked him a special roll in the shape of a riding stirrup (called beugal in his native language).

Bagels have remained a favorite of the Jewish people since that time, and Jewish immigrants brought bagels with them when they settled in other countries, including America, at the beginning of the 20th century. These days a bagel bakery is a familiar sight on high streets in many countries.

Irish Soda Bread

Soda bread is a traditional Irish bread which has been baked on the Emerald Isle for centuries. Ireland’s climate is entirely unsuited to the cultivation of hard wheat, from which yeast is derived, so Irish peasants began to use baking soda instead. Soda bread is simple to make and country folk didn’t need to rely on commercial bakeries but could bake their own bread at home, over a wood-fired hearth.

Over the years two main methods of making soda bread developed: it could be baked either in the pot or on a blackstone, an iron tray placed over the embers of the fire. Plain soda bread is still a popular accompaniment to any meal in Ireland, but the sweeter variety containing raisons, currants and caraway seeds is generally reserved for tea-time.

Brioche

Brioche is another popular French bread, which is often served with jam or a savory fillings as an accompaniment to tea or coffee. The Parisian brioche is made by placing a small ball of dough on top of a larger one, and the strangely shaped roll became known as brioche a tete (literally ‘head’).

Some claim the bread was called brioche because it was first baked in the town of Brie. Others assert that the first brioche was kneaded using brie cheese. In fact, it’s most likely that it was named after the old Norman verb broyer, meaning ‘to pound’, referring to the vigorous preparation of the dough.

Ciabatta

The Italians are among the world’s most experimental cooks. Almost every region has its own variety of ciabatta bread: ciabatta from Lake Como is light with a crisp crust, in Tuscany and Umbria it is denser and in Rome it is usually seasoned with olive oil, salt and marjoram.

The word ciabatta comes form the Italian word for ‘slipper’, referring to the shape of the bread. However, experts can’t agree on where the first ciabatta came from: some claim it was Lake Como, others think it was Trentino and still more maintain it was Padua. Whatever it’s origins, ciabatta has become a popular sandwich bread or accompaniment to Italian dishes all around the world.

Challah

Challah is traditional braided Jewish bread, which is loaded with religious symbolism. It is baked for the Sabbath and religious festivals (excluding Passover) throughout the year, and is often known as egg bread, since just one loaf requires at least half a dozen large eggs. This gives the bread a light, slightly sweet flavour.

Strictly speaking the word challah doesn’t actually refer to the finished loaf, but to a small piece of dough which is baked separately, then burnt to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

There are a great many different recipes for challah. Some cooks sprinkle the read with poppy or sesame seeds before baking, to symbolise the manna which fell from heaven to sustain the Israelites when they wandered in the desert.

More Information

Breadrecipe.com
Excellent resource with recipes for different breads from all around the world

Bread.com
The ultimate source for bread related info, including recipes, nutritional facts and shopping tips.

Books:
Bread Alone : Bold Fresh Loaves from Your Own Hands, Daniel Leader, et al: William Morrow & co 1993

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