Manchet! The Long-time “Best Bread”

There is no question about this. Manchet was the “best bread” in most of Early Modern England, with a comparable bread considered “best” in Continental Europe, as well. This will have been the case for hundreds of years. Precision is not possible, as documentation is so scarce, but there is no reason to suppose the concept of a small white loaf or roll made with flour “as white as snow,” a phrase we can pretty reliably attribute to Gervase Markham as an editor of the 1616 English edition of Maison Rustique.

Manchet was understood to be a small loaf or rolls with a fine crumb. The dough is relatively stiff. It was too stiff to knead with hands. It was kneaded with the baker’s feet or with a break. I speculate that it was kneaded to the point the dough oxidized, further lightening the crumb.

There were at least two grades of manchet: manchet, and fine manchet. The primary difference seems to have been in the flour. Regular manchets were made with a standard high grade white flour. Fine manchets were made with that high grade white flour re-sifted to only keep the whitest portion of the flour. The whiteness of the flour was issured by the use of white wheat, this is not a what species. White wheat are wheat varieties that produce a seed that has a light colored bran coat. Today, most wheat is “red” wheat, but “white” wheat has a significant niche market. Today, it is used to make a whole wheat flour that looks much lighter than a whole grain flour made with a standard red wheat.

If you are grinding your own flour for manchet, then start with white wheat and then dampen it with water to bring its moisture content up to 15%. After milling, sift twice through a 300 micron screen, but the second time, take care to stop sifting as soon as the flour stops being snow white.

The flour for manchet weighed one pound per wine quart – this is one pound avoirdupois per what is now the American quart measure. That is the weight of stone ground flour hadn’t sifted through a 300 micron screen. Today’s commercial white flour weighs a little more than one pound per quart. Its particle sizes are smaller, so it packs tighter.

There are several recipes for Manchet, most of them published between 1575 and 1615. I selected this by Thomas Dawson, 1594, one of the first bread recipes published in English because it has the most precise ingredient list — so no guessing at the basic structure — and it is also a direct dough system — you just put all the ingredients together, mix, knead, let rise, shape and bake. So, it is a good recipe for the workshop setting. 

The Making of Fine Manchet, The Good Hus-wifes Handmaide in the Kitchen, Thomas Dawson, 1594

Take half a bushel of fine flower twice boulted, and a gallon of faire luke warm water, almost a handful of what salt, and almost a pinte of yeast, then temper all these together, without any more liquor, as hard as ye can handle it: then let it lie half an hower, then take it up, and make your Mancheetts, and let them stand almost an hower in the oven. Memorandum, that of every bushel of male may be made five and twentie cast of bread, and every loaf to way a pounde before the chesill. 

100% white flour

58.3% water

1% – 1.5% yeast (the ale yeast used in the recipe was sufficient to leaven the bread in half an hour!)

.6%-2% salt (the period recipe calls for “not quite” a handful of white salt. Given information extraneous to that instruction my own “not quite” a handful weighed .6% of the flour called for in this recipe. The amount of salt is not intrinsic to the meaning of manchet — one might say that more or less salt doesn’t alter its soul. I usually make bread with 1.5% salt. Many people prefer 2%. Work out the ratio salt to flour in one of your favorite bread recipes and use that. 

Ingredient weights. 

500g white flour (if you mill and sift your own the white flour should weight around 16 ounces per quart)

291g warm water

5g – 8g dried yeast depending how how fast you want the dough to rise, so this correlates with your climate on the day you are baking. This number is not critical to the recipe. A standard yeast packet is 7.5g.

3g – 10g white salt. If you are making this bread for a period performance where you need the taste to be the same as it was in 1600, then I advise keeping the salt in the range of .6%, the 3g with the 500g flour. Otherwise, go for up to 10g as that is what you, your friends, and family are likely to prefer.

Mix the ingredients and let the dough rise, covered, until double in bulk. Form into 1 pound loaves or into rolls. William Harrison, writing in the 1570s mentioned manchets that went into the oven at 8 ounces and came out at 6 ounces. We have little information on how manchets were shaped. The information we do have is probably for the larger loaf size. Form the dough in to a ball. Gently flatten it. Then, run a razor around the dough’s waist and using a knife, make a circle of 6 knife stabs in the top. Bake in a slow oven — 105C or 225F. The bread should bake for roughly an hour. The crust should not brown.

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