William Cobbett Cottage Economy (1821): A Basic Bread

William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1821) is an opinionated, eccentric, and certainly to a modern reader, a work marred by an offensive tone.  Cobbetts’ attitude towards the Irish is contemptuous and his tone towards the English poor can, at the least, be described as condescending. Charles Dickens must have met many William Cobbetts, do-gooders with attitude. Self-awareness and irony were not amongst Cobbett’s strenghts. With a straight face he is able in the same paragraph to both complain “that I hoped it was unnecessary for me to give any directions for the mere act of making bread” and also reveal that he himself had had to get the instructions for making bread from someone else. As readers from the future we are lucky in his source, an apparently conservative baker who shared Cobbett’s view that bread for the poor is more like grain in a lump than an aesthetic product for people a palate worthy of respect.

I think that inadvertently Cobbett offers his readers from his future a real gift. He offers us is a glimpse into two baking traditions — one is the breads of poverty that have virtually no documentation even though in terms of volume they were the breads that fed Europe — and quite by accident I am pretty certain he documents a bread baking tradition from the late 16th century which itself may be part of of a much older tradition. This recipe, which is so exceedingly clear on rising times and lack of proofing after forming confirms the literal reading of the two white bread recipes in the anonymously written 1594 cookbook, The Good Huswifes Handmaide in the Kitchen.

As with Gervase Markham’s much earlier brown bread recipe published in The English Housewife (1615) this recipe is one written by a person of one social station for people occupying a much lower social station. Just as Markham’s recipe cut corners and produced a barely palatable bread for people who in the social system of his time didn’t warrant good bread (that bread can be characterized in part as a loaf soured slop) so this recipe may have been conceived by Cobbett’s source as “good enough” for the poor. And yet, the parts of the recipe that seem most expedient — the quick rising time and the popping right into the oven after forming without any time being allotted for proofing — are similar to instructions found in the two Good Huswife recipes, although in that context no corners were being cut.

The Huswife’s recipe for Fine Manchet calls for a 30 minute rising time in the context of one pint of yeast (ale barm) per 20 pounds of flour. This recipe calls for “15 to 20” minutes rising time for one pint of yeast for 50 pounds of flour. Cobbett’s source is pushing the efficacy of the yeast. On the other hand, Cobbett’s loaves are large ones that bake in two hours. There was plenty of time in the oven for enough fermentation to take place to produce a bread that was aerated enough to produce a loaf of bread and not a doughy brick. Perhaps our own focus on proofing is a cultural bias against dense breads. However, there is adjustment that needs to be made in interpreting the short rising time. It took time, at least thirty minutes, to thoroughly work by hand in a dough trough some 70 pounds of dough.

Cobbett tells us that one Winchester bushel weighing 60 pounds of grain will yield 65 pounds of bread. He also says that about 10 pounds of bran is sifted out. Firstly, 60 pounds was and still is the weight of #1 grade wheat. I think it a little out of character for Cobbett to recommend the best ingredient for the poor, but it seems in this case knowingly or simply from repeating what someone told him he did. He then advises sifting out 10 pounds of bran to leave 50 pounds of flour. This is an 83% extraction rate which is much more than required to just remove the bran. Cobbett may not have known exactly what he was specifying. To offer some perspective, in modern milling a 75% extraction rate produces white flour so 83% is a pretty refined wheat flour. If one uses the 44% hydration (water plus liquid yeast) that is given in the recipe for “Fine Manchet” in the Good Huswifes Handmaide in the Kitchen you get 22 pounds of water for 72 pounds of dough. If you suppose 10% shrinkage in the oven one gets precisely 65 pounds of bread. 44% hydration creates an exceedingly stiff dough. Slightly more water in the dough and more shrinkage would also net 65 pounds of bread. This is something to play with, but is clear is that the dough hydration percentages we are familiar with today — 60% to 78% or even more for certain versions of ciabatta, for example, don’t have a place here. There is another hint in Cobbetts text that the dough should be exceedingly stiff. He complains that in some houses of the poor their bread is poorly mixed and still has raw flour baked into it. It is very difficult to thoroughly mix stiff doughs in the quantity called for in this recipe so I would read raw dough in the bread as both supporting the the idea that the dough is stiff and suggesting that people didn’t always have the time to prepare bread carefully.

Recipe in Bakers Math: 100% wheat flour sifted to 83% extraction, 2% yeast in the form of ale barm, 40% warm water.

101. IN the last Number, at paragraph 86, I observed, that I hoped it was unnecessary for me to give any directions as to the mere act of making bread. But, several correspondents inform me, that, without these directions, a conviction of the utility of baking bread at home is of no use to them. Therefore, I shall here give those directions, receiving my instructions here from one, who, I thank God, does know how to perform this act.

102. Suppose the quantity be a bushel of flour. Put this flour into a trough that people have for the purpose, or it may be in a clean smooth tub of any shape, if not too deep, and if sufficiently large. Make a pretty deep hole in the middle of this heap of flour. Take (for a bushel) a pint of good fresh yeast, mix it and stir it well up in a pint of soft water milk-warm. Pour this into the hole in the heap of flour. Then take a spoon and work it round the outside of this body of moisture so as to bring into that body, by degrees, flour enough to make it form a thin batter, •which you must stir about well for a minute or two. Then take a handful of flour and scatter it thinly over the head of this batter, so as to hide it. Then cover the whole over with a cloth to keep it warm; and this covering, as well as the situation of the trough as to distance from the fire must depend on the nature of

the place and state of the weather as to heat and cold. When you perceive that the batter has risen enough to make cracks in the flour that you covered it over with, you begin to form the whole mass into dough, thus: you begin round the hole containing the batter, working the flour into the batter, and pouring in, as it is wanted to make the flour mix with the batter, soft water milk-warm, or milk, as hereafter to be mentioned. Before you begin this, you scatter the salt. over, the heap at/the rate of half a pound to a bushel of flour.. When you have got the whole sufficiently moist’, you knead it well. This is a grand part of the business; for, unless the dough be- well worked, there will be little round lumps of flour in the loaves; and, besides, the original batter, which is to give fermentation to the whole, will not be duly mixed. The dough must, therefore, be well worked. Thefists must go heartily into it. It must be rolled over; pressed out; folded up and pressed out again, until it be completely mixed, and formed into a stiff and tough dough. This is labour, mind. I have never quite liked baker’s bread since I saw a great heavy fellow, in a bake-house in France, kneading bread with his naked feet! His feet looked very white to be sure: whether they were of that colour before he got into the trough I could not tell. God forbid, that I should suspect that this is ever done in England! It is labour; but, what is exercise other than labour? Let a young woman bake a bushel once a week, and she will do very well without phials and gallipots.

103. Thus, then, the dough is made. And, when made, it is to be formed into a lump in the middle of the trough, and, with a little dry flour thinly scattered over it, covered over again to bo kept warm and to ferment; and in this state, if all be done rightly, it will not have to remain more than about 15 or 20 minutes.

104. In the mean while the oven is to be heated; and this is much more than half the art of the operation. When an Oven is properly heated can be known only by actual observation. Women who understand the matter, know when the heat is right the moment they put their faces within a yard of the oven-mouth; and once or twice observing is enough for any person of common capacity. But this much may be said in the way of rule: that the fuel (I am supposing a brick oven) should be dry (not rotten) wood, and not mere brush-icood, but rather fagotsticks. If larger wood, it ought to be split up into sticks not more than two, or two and a half, inches through. Brush-wood that is strong, not green and not too old, if it be hard in its nature and has some’ sticks in it may do. The woody parts of furze, or ling, will heat an oven very well. But, the thing is, to have a lively and yet somewhat strong fire; so that the [oven may be heated in about 15 minutes, and retain its heat sufficiently long.

105. The oven should be hot by the time that the dough, as mentioned in paragraph 103, has remained jii the lump about 20 minutes. When both are ready, take out the fire and wipe the oven out clean, and, at nearly about the same moment, take the dough out upon the lid of the baking trough, or some proper place, cut it up into pieces, and make it up into loaves, kneading it again into these seperate parcels; and, as you go on, shaking a little flour over your board, to prevent the dough from adhering to it. The loaves should be put into the oven as quickly as possible after they are formed; when in, the oven-lid, or door, should be fastened up very closely; and, if all be properly managed, loaves of about the size of quartern loaves, will be sufficiently baked in about two hours. But, they usually take down the lid, and look at the bread, in order to see how it is going on.

106. And, what is there, worthy of the name of plague, or trouble, in all this? Here is no dirt, no filth, no rubbish, no litter, no slop. And, pray, what can be pleasanter to behold? Talk, indeed, of your pantomimes and gaudy shows; your processions and installations and coronations! Give me, for a beautiful sight, a neat and smart woman, heating her oven and setting in her bread! And, if the bustle does make the sign of labour glisten on her brow, where is the man that would not kiss that off, rather than lick the plaster from the cheek of a duchess?

107. And what is the result? Why, good, wholesome food, sufficient for a considerable family for a week, prepared in three or four hours. To get this quantity of food, fit to be eaten, in the shape of potatoes, how many fires! What a washing, what a boiling, what a peeling, what a slopping and what a messing ! The cottage everlastingly in a litter; the woman’s hands everlastingly wet and dirty; the children grimed up to the eyes with dust fixed on by the potatoe-starch; and ragged as colts, the poor mother’s time all being devoted to the everlasting boilings of the pot! Can any man, who knows any thing of the labourer’s life, deny this 1 And will, then, any bod)?, except the old shuffle-breeches band of the Quarterly Review, who have, all their lives, been moving” from garret to garret, who have seldom seen the sun, and never the dew except in print; will any body e.xcept these men say, that the people ought to be taught to use potatoes as a substitute for bread!

William Cobbett’s entire book, Cottage Economy, follows:


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