Ubi panis ibi patria… Where there is bread, there is my home.
In his “Histories”, the Greek writer Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC), dubbed by the great Roman orator, Cicero (106-43 BC), as the father of history, relates a story about an Egyptian king, Psammetichus (Reign 664-610 BC), who set about an experiment to determine if the language of the Egyptians was the oldest spoken. a
At that time, the Egyptians believed that they were the original people, predating all others. It was thought that language was innate and Psammetichus reasoned that the first words one naturally uttered would therefore be that of the progenitor of all people.
To conduct this experiment, Psammetichus instructed a shepherd to raise two newborn children among his flocks, alone, away from the influence of any spoken language:
… Psammetichus did this, and gave these instructions, because he wanted to hear what speech would first come from the children, when they were past the age of indistinct babbling. And he had his wish; for one day, when the shepherd had done as he was told for two years, both children ran to him stretching out their hands and calling “Bekos!” as he opened the door and entered. When he first heard this, he kept quiet about it; but when, coming often and paying careful attention, he kept hearing this same word, he told his master at last and brought the children into the king’s presence as required. Psammetichus then heard them himself, and asked to what language the word “Bekos” belonged; he found it to be a Phrygian word, signifying bread. Reasoning from this, the Egyptians acknowledged that the Phrygians were older than they. (From The History of Herodotus, Book II, Ch. 2)
Whether this story in reference to the Anatolian kingdom of Phrygia (12th-7th century BC) is true or not, one important message stands out: the universality of bread.
Three ingredients: flour, salt, and water. Together they combine to create a staple that is ubiquitous around the world. Originally unleavened, the fortuitous accidental seeding of wild yeast transformed a sticky gruel into a bake full of texture and flavour. While the date of the first bread will never be known, archaeological research points to footprints within primitive hearths erected by our ancestors.
Bread making dates back to the birth of the Fertile Crescent, which was resplendent with wild grasses, such Emmer wheat, Einkorn, and barley.
In July 2018, archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen, University College London and University of Cambridge published their findings of fragments of charred bread excavated from a site in northeastern Jordan, named Shubayqa 1. b The site was occupied by the Late Epi-Paeleolithic Natufians, hunter-gatherers who lived in the Eastern Mediterranean between 12,500 and 9,500 BC. It had long been thought that the use of grains would have come after the domestication of cereals, but these petrified breadcrumbs found in stone ovens at this pre-historic site proved that bread preceded an agrarian lifestyle.
At a location dating even earlier than the one in Jordan is Ohalo IIc, a campsite about twenty-three thousand years old, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Remnants of ground indigenous grains (though no direct bread crumbs) together with tools that were left preserved at this site suggest that these Upper Palaeolithic peoples may have been one of prehistory’s earliest bakers, however rudimentary their product.
Numerous sites across Europe and southwest Asia have yielded evidence of bread remains: Romania (5500 – 3000 BC), Bulgaria (7000 BC), France (5000 BC), and United Kingdom (3500 BC), to name a few. The oldest perfectly preserved loaf of bread was discovered at Lake Bienne, Switzerland, which was made of finely ground wheat from 5500 BC. Clearly, archaeology shows that bread baking began early, and was an essential part of human existence.
Our knowledge of ancient bread making comes from the elaborate reliefs and detailed hieroglyphs left by the Egyptians. Owing to a fertile soil brought by the Nile, cereal plants grew easily. Grasses had been domesticated in Mesopotamia several thousand years prior. The Egyptians learned to cultivate, harvest and mill these ancient grains. They used a saddle quern to grind the kernels into flour, which involved rubbing a hand stone back and forth over a larger roughened stone.
It is believed that they were one of the first to have used yeast in their breads, along with brewing beer, the two often going hand in hand (see our Chocolate Ale Wheat Bread recipe). They baked the breads in clay ovens, a bee-hive shaped portable construction with a partition in the middle, heated by burning wood or dung at the bottom.
The Egyptians produced bread for domestic consumption and for funerary and religious purposes. They also exported their flour to other countries in the Mediterranean. Bread was such an important commodity that they even paid their workers in loaves.
The Greeks learned bread making from the Egyptians. But, unlike the Fertile Crescent, Greece’s conditions were more suited for barley, hence most of the population fed on a coarser, unrefined bread. Wheat flour was expensive as it was imported from Egypt, and white bread was highly coveted and eaten mainly by the wealthy. One of the Greeks’ invention in the third century BCE was that of a water mill (perachora wheel) to grind grain. This significantly improved the quality of their flour, and their bread.
These techniques passed from the Greeks to the Romans, who adapted their own ovens and mills, introduced a horse powered mechanical mixer, and elevated bread making to a grand scale. Baking bread became a revered craft such that bakers, professions which were originally relegated to slaves, eventually attained higher status within the Roman society. Breads were stamped to indicate the baker and source. Bread making became a protected industry and Rome created the first baker’s guild, the Collegium Pistorum, which gave bakers certain privileges and rights, including a seat in the senate.
For both the Greeks and Romans, bread was essential to daily life. The Greeks paid tribute to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and grain, whereas the Romans honoured Ceres (from which the word cereal is derived), both peoples making offerings of special breads to these revered deities.
Denarius of Tiberius (the Roman Emperor on the left and Ceres on the right
(Courtesy of Norfolk County Council, Erica Darch, 2014-02-18 11:38:4211)
In Roman society, bread was heavily subsidized and an astute emperor understood its importance in keeping his people happy. Indeed, it was common for rulers to have their portraits engraved on one side of their coins and Ceres holding wheat on the other. Bread had become a crucial element in politics, leading Juvenal, a satirical Roman poet in the first or second century after Christ, to pen the phrase “panem et circenses“, or bread and circuses, to describe the superficial policies used to placate the people.
Much of our knowledge about ancient breadmaking comes from Naturalis Historiae, authored by Gaius Plinius Secundus (23/24-79 AD), known commonly as Pliny the Elder. This ambitious compendium of thirty seven books in ten volumes is analogous to a Roman encyclopedia, covering topics such as astronomy, meteorology, geography, metallurgy, botany, zoology, mathematics, human physiology, medicine, and even art history. Pliny writes extensively about agriculture and farming, including a whole section on the natural history of grains. In Book 18d, he discusses the use of leavening. From him, we learn that the Gauls and Spaniards used foam from the top of their beer to rise their bread, and ancient bakers used a part of the previous day’s dough to make the next loaf.
“Galliae et Hispaniae frumento in potum resoluto quibus diximus generibus spuma ita concreta pro fermento utuntur, qua de causa levior illis quam ceteris panis.” (Liber XVIII, xii, 68)
(Translation: In France and Spain…they employ the foam which thickens upon the surface as a leaven: hence it is that the bread in those countries is lighter than that made elsewhere.)
Bread was just as important in Medieval England, where its price was heavily regulated. The Assize of Bread and Ale Law, enacted by Henry III in the 13th century, mandated that bread be sold by weight, and anyone short-changing the customer would be severely punished. As a result, the Baker’s Dozen was born. Since no two breads were of equal weight, sellers would throw in an extra one or two rolls or partial piece of loaf so as to meet the minimum weight required, and thus avoid penalty.
The importance of bread as a staple continued through to modern times. With population growth, this basic comestible became intricately woven into the economy. In times of shortage, due to inflationary grain or flour prices, revolts have resulted, as has happened in France (1775), in New York (1837) and Alabama (1863), in modern Egypt (1977), and more recently in the Arab Spring (2008-2011). For countries where bread is almost synonymous with food, as the Romans so presciently realized, keeping its production (thus, wheat and grain prices) steady may be just as important as keeping a currency stable.
The demand for bread continued to rise with population growth. In the nineteenth century, the agricultural and industrial revolutions brought improved transportation, mechanization, and advanced technologies that reshaped the labour force.e Farming moved from a subsistence culture to a commercial one, ultimately resizing, innovating, and becoming more efficient in crop production. Factories made everything in large scale, including bread.
Since the 1970s, in the United States, bakers began returning to handcrafting artisanal breads. Today, we are lucky that these bakeries abound, creating sourdoughs to multigrain to light and dark breads. Many are even rediscovering the wheats of our past.
While we now live in a very different world, it is probably accurate to say that the instinctual pleasure and comfort one gets at the first whiff of a freshly baked loaf have remained the same. The long journey from the dawn of cooking, when hunter-gatherers roasted their ground grains on hot stones, to the cultivation of wild wheat in the Fertile Crescent, to the prolific bakeries in Egypt, Greece and Rome, we have come to appreciate the depth of character in a simple loaf.
As that Latin saying goes, Ubi panis ibi patria. At the heart of it, bread is akin to coming home.
A word about wheat.
The flour we use today to make bread comes mostly from the common wheat species, Triticum aestivum. It is a descendant of the wheat that thrived in the Fertile Crescent. Einkorn wheat, or Triticum monococcum, dates as far back as forty thousand years ago, and was the first wheat to be cultivated. Emmer, or Triticum dicoccum, was cultivated about ten thousand years ago, and is also a descendant of wild Einkorn. Emmer was the wheat used mainly by the Egyptians for their breads. Triticum turgidum, or durum wheat, is also an ancient species which is still used today for pasta, bulgar, couscous, and some types of bread flour. Semolina is coarsely ground durum wheat.
Apart from the genetic differences, modern wheat has lower protein content than Emmer and Einkorn, but also lower gluten content, contrary to popular belief. Common wheat also has lower carotenoid, which gives the ancient wheat, including durum, a more yellow colour.