Practical Bread-making (1897)

Rolls from Frederick Vine's Practical Bread-making
Frederick Vine illustrates many techniques including how to make over two dozen different rolls from the same dough.

Frederick Vine’s Practical bread-making was published in London in 1897. It is a small  book in a series of small books that Frederick Vine wrote for bakers in the last decade of the nineteenth century covering all aspects of the baking trade including biscuits, pastries, and standing pies. Practical bread-making is in the genre of  inexpensive self-improvement manuals for  professionals. My guess is that Frederick Vine was writing for British village, small town, and neighborhood bakers who felt the limitations of their skill, and in particular were looking for some simple new products for the display case.  This is a small and accessible book and I can’t imagine any baker not finding something of interest in it. It can still serve its original purpose of offering artisan bakers ideas for new products.

In the tradition of modern self-help books, Vine opens by telling his readers to look into their own hearts, to face up to their limitations, and then accept his helping hand by buying his book, which he wrote for the sole purpose of helping them. In his own words.

Although no doubt you are prepared to maintain that as a rule your bread is the best on earth, yet do not forget that you have been wrong sometimes, although you are loth to admit it, and would not stand to be told it from your best customers, let alone a rival in trade. But such, however, is the case, and to help you out of this difficulty shall be my endeavour.

Vine offers a few recipes — they are very simple — and lots of advice on forming and shaping. His implicit promise to this readers is that he will help them improve their business. The simplicity of the recipes and the clarity of the many illustrations makes this a good book for home bakers .

Frederick Vine illustration for "Colla"

Practical Bread-making’s strengths are the many bread forms that he illustrates. Most of them are no longer made. Working through Vine’s eighty-five-some bread shapes, including a couple dozen rolls, would make for a rewarding project. I think that both British and American bakers have, over the years, settled into a rut when it comes to loaf and roll forms. I once visited a bakery in Guanjuato, Mexico, that sold rolls in a couple dozen shapes. Vine can be like ones personal trainer — making one stretch and learn new things.

The plethora of bread and roll shapes based on a small set of recipes differentiates this small book from most bread books. The current book that is most like it in the sense that simple suggestions are given for elaborating a very few recipes is Ciril Hitz, Baking Artisan Bread: 10 Expert Formulas for Baking Better Bread at Home.

Frederick Vine is a stickler for craft. It seems clear that in his mind a given bread has an ideal technical execution. In this excerpt he is speaking about the absolute undesirability of producing a bread with large irregularly shaped holes when the bread is supposed to be fine-grained.

If there is one thing more annoying than another to the baker, it is to cut a handsome-looking loaf and to find it full of large, unsightly holes, especially when, as is generally the case, you desire it to cut extra nice. (176)

Vine brings an animus against those holes. They are annoying, but worse, they are unsightly. As of this writing, big irregularly shaped holes are considered desirable in many loaves of bread — though not in a fine-grained sandwich bread. I sense that for Vine there is no properly made bread with large holes, that good bread, and irregular holes are contradictions. This is nearly the opposite aesthetic that one finds among many artisan bakers today.

In terms of what he offers his readers, being honest about what a small book can deliver, and apparently what the bread-making technology of the time could deliver, he promises to offer some insights, but no sure resolution to the problem of large holes in bread. His solution goes some way, I think, to explain many Anglo American bread recipes.

This is no new thing, but has been with us to plague the bakers’ life for many years, and very many schemes have been tried to banish it, but all to no purpose; it is still unfortunately with us, and I am not sanguine enough to predict its banishment from reading this chapter. However, I will endeavour to reason it out to you, and give my own theories upon it, together, with the many remedies I have tried and suggested for its cure. (176)

This era baking book often includes fantastically interesting hints at how 20th-century breads in the UK and the US got to be the way they did. Vine goes on to suggest that the one remedy that he knows that always reduces holes, even if it doesn’t always eliminate them, is fat. (178) His suggestion is “1/2 lb. to 56 lb., or a bushel of flour.” In baker’s math, this is 1.4% fat. One of the big differences between British and American bread, excluding the artisan bread movements interest in unenriched breads, is that British and American breads usually have a little fat in them (and some sugar) while, for example, French and Italian bread doesn’t. But, then their bread often has large holes! We may be seeing in Vines’ concern regarding holes one of the cultural forces that drove the change in British bread recipes to include fat in most doughs, something that one  did not find prior to the latter decades of the 19th century.

For reasons that I am not yet perfectly clear about (see note, below) in the 19th century the Scottish baking trade did not use brewers or distillers yeast to leaven their breads. Instead, they either used patent yeast, a nutrient rich slurry in which yeast is grown, or a sour starter that was made according to one or another recipe and given fanciful names such as Virgin Barm, Scottish Barm, or Parisian Barm. It is to these “barms” that Vine is referring in this passage.

I do not think it is the science that has been fatal to its general adoption in this country, for the average English foreman baker is no doubt equal to his Scotch or Irish confrere; therefore we must look to other causes of failure. The principal reason is, no doubt, on account of the flavour, which is decidedly acid and very salt to the palate. The average baker, when examining a Scotch loaf, will admire its silky texture and bold appearance; but will vigorously condemn the loaf as sour and salt (sic.) after tasting it, and end by pitying the people who are compelled to eat it, forgetting that the flavour of this particular bread has been very generally acquired by Scotchmen, with the result that, when visiting London, they condemn London bread as tasteless and insipid, and wish for their own well-flavoured loaf. On the other hand, I have known Scotchmen declare that London bread was far too sweet, and not at all palatable. (p.66)

As Vine seems to perceive it, the “average baker,” while admiring the Scottish loaves for their apparent technical mastery, “vigorously condemn the loaf as sour and salt (sic.) after tasting it.” We have here  on Vine’s part a clear separation of the craft of loaf structure from taste. I think this is a healthy separation. While Vine himself  will probably not have made sour tasting bread he  offers a voice in favor of tolerance for differing tastes in the taste of bread. His advice to bakers is within the context of technical perfection in purusit of a clear and unvarying aesthetic while retaining tolerance for radical differences in taste.

As of this writing, at least in Britain, America, and Canada there is a new found taste for sour in bread. Sour was not appreciated until the last few decades. In fact, I think these unenriched holey often sour-leavened sour -tasting French-style breads that are so popular today may in a deep way be formulated to be the the not-bread of our parents and our own childhood (or for younger bakers), of their grandparents. In rebellion against soft sweet breads we embraced chewy sour ones.

Vine seems to have loved bread and had at least a passing interest in folk traditions. He actually opens the book (pages 10 and 11) with the description of an ancient baking practice. Those of you familiar with Elizabeth David’s book, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, will be familiar her description of baking bread placed on heated ground under an iron pot covered with burning chaff. Vine’s book is in Elizabeth David’s bibliography and he is probably the source for her mention of the method.

Vine’s story, as he tells it, is that he goes to the countryside and is astonished to find a farmer baking bread on heated ground under a heated pot. While Vine’s description, included below, seems well observed, he may be less reliable on the social context for the bread and on evaluating why the bread was so good. I think this is a passage worth studying because I think it offers a glimpse a class of bread that could be revived.

Vine was not an ethnographer. It is impossible to tell from Vine’s text whether his astonishment at finding this bread baked on the ground under a heated pot is warranted by his finding an isolated pocket of rural poverty where old ways persisted as a matter of habit, or whether he fails to recognize that the farmer he has been brought to for the demonstration is well aware that baking bread under a pot heated by the waste material from winnowing is archaic, and he does so on purpose because of its obvious direct  links to the past.  In other words, the farmer himself may be charmed by the archaic system and is consciously maintaining it as a link to old practices in the context of celebrating the end of the harvest and the receipt of the first new crop flour. In either case, it is a rare description of baking bread under a pot, a system that would leave no trace for archeologists to follow but enables the baking of large leavened loaf breads even without an oven.

As Vine was a well known expert baker, and as the farm he was taken to was a very small one — “they had been thrashing out their little stock of wheat” – Vine was taken to this farm specifically to see the baking of the bread under the pot. As an author, and as someone from London, he is an important visitor, and after the bread is baked he is served the bread for tea with “excellent fresh Devonshire butter.” One can be sure, nobody from London had ever sat in that farmhouse parlor to taste bread.

Had Vine not been there we don’t know how the loaf would have been served, but I think it clearly a ceremonial loaf. It is the first loaf baked from flour ground from the new crop of wheat. I think that for the many small farmers who are now beginning to grow wheat again this might be a rewarding tradition to bring back. Here is Vine’s original text.

That some folks yet have a very primitive method of making bread I had well understood, but a visit paid a short time ago to the country disclosed, to my astonishment, what is, perhaps, the most primitive arrangement, and I think my readers will be interested in it; so here it is for them. It was early in the spring of the year, and they had been thrashing out their little stock of wheat with a FLAIL on the floor, and then it was separated, the chaff from the wheat, by simply lifting a shovelful of grains and dropping them again, the wind taking out the chaff, which was collected against a canvas stretched from uprights set in the ground. When they had cleaned it to their satisfaction, the wheat was collected in a sack and carried to the mill to be “ground.” The chaff, hulls, and all waste was also collected and saved in a sack. Now, a few days later, the wheat was returned, ground to flour, together with the offal, or bran and pollard, as perhaps the majority of my readers know it by that name. The flour was in part turned out into a large red earthenware pan, some salt, yeast, and water added, and turned into dough by the industrious housewife. Now some of my readers have, no doubt, seen these large round pots, with three feet, which usually are swung upon a tripod stand, something like the witches’ cauldron in “Macbeth,” but not so large. That, however, is the shape. Now the “leese,” or ” chaff,” is turned out of the sack upon the ground outside the house and set on fire. It burnt away briskly, till at last it consisted of only a heap of very hot ashes. This was swept aside with a broom, the prepared dough set in the centre on the earth, the pot turned down over it, and then the live embers piled over the pot; more fuel was placed upon it, and thus the bread was baked. When a portion was served for tea with some excellent fresh Devonshire butter, I had no hesitation in saying that I had never tasted sweeter bread. It was, indeed, perfection; and in this case you see the waste from the wheat had been utilised to cook it with, which, no doubt, contributed somewhat to its unique flavour. Of course it would be impracticable to feed London in this way, and so we will get along to more modern, and, let me hope, more profitable, methods.

Vine says of the bread that while he can be expected to have offered a compliment to the hosts, in fact, it is true what he told them “that I had never tasted sweeter bread.” And addressing his readers he adds, almost like a defense of the compliment he paid his hosts, or a sigh at the memory of the taste, that the bread “was, indeed, perfection.”

I tasted this perfection some years ago in Ethiopia.  The bread I tasted was baked in a pot with fire both under the pot and on the lid. The flour  had been ground on a saddle quern. It was, and still is, the sweetest bread I have ever tasted. It tasted like the sweetest rye, and so I asked whether it was rye, but of course there is no rye in the Ethiopian highlands. It was made with wheat.

As a baker, Vine seems focused on the technical aspects of the baking and attributes the goodness of the bread to the way the impromptu oven was fired. But think about it. The ground is heated by burning chaff which is swept away. There is no flavor coming from the heated bare earth. It has been converted to a clay griddle. The pot itself is iron. No smoke leaks in through the iron and if it had Vine would have associated the taste with smokiness – and while he may still have liked the bread – he would have mentioned that primitive means leads to primitive results rather than what he does say – primitive means do not imply primitive results.

So, why was the bread so good? And specifically, why was the bread so sweet? There are two factors. The first is that the flour is made from new crop wheat. Flour is sweeter when made within the first few months of a harvest. Secondly, the bread is made with fresh flour. The farmer is not baking with whole grain flour. Given that both bran and pollard (middlings) are returned along with the flour suggests a fairly substantive extraction rate. This may not be white flour but it is also not whole wheat flour. Since the last quarter of the eighteenth-century, commercial bakers have preferred aged flour over fresh flour. But fresh flour, and particularly flour from new-crop wheat, has more intrinsic flavor. Lest we forget, the primary ingredient in bread is the flour. Thus, I think that Vine fails to recognize the source of the sweetness: the essence of the bread’s perfection was the fact that it was made with freshly ground new crop wheat. It was also probably leavened with yeast.

In terms of simulating an oven baking under a pot simulates the steamy atmosphere of a wood-fired bread oven when the door is hermetically sealed, which was the historic practice. In Vine’s time English exhibition loaves were baked in ovens under a pot. More recently, Mark Bitman of the New York Times, has been promoting a “no-knead” bread baked in a Dutch oven to develop a rich crust.

Vine leaves his story of the under-pot baked bread with a wistful glance but with the practical advice that one couldn’t possibly feed London on bread baked like that. In other contexts, too, Vine is direct in declaring compromises that must be made in an urban bakery. Of particular interest to both home bakers and to small-scale commercial bakers will be his discussion of different sources of yeast. In addition to our bakeries tending to have fewer distinct shapes of bread and rolls that bakeries during Vine’s time, we also bake breads that are leavened with fewer leavening systems. Today’s bakers use yeast and sourdough. But Vine describes many other leavening systems and, interestingly, he says that his favorite is the yeast that he makes at home.

It will be needlesss for me to tell my readers that the yeast I thus make for myself is my favourite yeast, but the exigencies of trade compel me to use another kind…” (27)

Vines instructions for the various leavens he describes are clear if in larger quantities than practical for the home baker. But if his leavens encourage you to try even one I think that you find that you will have introduced another layer to the breads you bake.

Vine offers an entire chapter on the bread technique common in Scotland. It based on various Scottish “barms.” The history of  the development of the various Scottish “barms” has not yet been worked out in detail. It is my understanding that some time in the very late 18th century something happened with the supply of brewers and distillers yeast to the Bakers of Edinburgh that caused them to go their own way.  Vine suggests it was a matter of an excise tax some 70 years prior to his writing  that caused Scottish bakers to develop an alternative to brewers yeast. However, this would place the shift to approximately 1820 and I have seen references to the barms of Scotland  dating to one-hundred years before he published. It is possible there was more than one event, an eighteenth century one and a nineteenth century one, but the upshot was that the bakers at Edinburgh were largely using sour starters at the time Vine was writing in 1897. The Scottish starters had fabulous names such as Virgin or Parisian barm and as they apparently produced a sour tasting bread they would be well within our own bread tastes.

Note: The use of  the term barm in this context  has caused some difficulty in recent bread texts as historically barm and yeast are synonymous but barm and starters were not.

Here from Google Books is the complete Practical Bread-making by Frederick Vine.

One Comment Add yours

  1. I came across your fascinating site while I was digging around looking for suppliers of Turkish heritage seeds, since my culinary/literary interests involve the Ottoman Empire. They were great veg men in those days. In Istanbul, one sees seeds for sale in the Spice Market – but they tend to be generic packets produced by Turkish firms under licence from germany, rather than indigenous strains. Whether one can find ‘heritage’ seeds in Turkey I no longer know. Or maybe they are everywhere except the Spice Market. Either way, my ambition was to raise a vegetable plot next year that focussed on the sorts of plants that the Ottomans would ahve grown, allowing for the climate of southern England. I do know that the Ottomans were great ones for intermingling flowers and vegetables, rather as we use artichokes or cabbages as ornaments as well as food.
    Anyway, I lingered at your site for longer than I meant, and will return (like Fu Manchu): thanks!


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