That is how to think of the Quartern Loaf. It was “just bread.” A workaday loaf. Nothing to write home about. Nothing special. Like the American peanut butter and jelly sandwich, its importance cannot be found by surveying cookbooks.
The Quarern is defined by its size. It weighed 4 1/4 pounds. In its day, it was the cheap bread. For a very large number of people in England, and for a long time, Quartern was synonymous with “bread.” This is made very clear in the 1860s children’s illustrated rhyme, History of the Quartern Loaf (1860). (See the illustration both above and below this text.)
Historically, bread size has mattered. For centuries, there was an inverse correlation between loaf size and its social status. We feel its shadow. Have you ever seen a four pound (2kg) loaf? Does any bakery in your city even sell one? Have you purchased one, anywhere? Have you made one? For most of us, the answers are, “no, no, no, and no.” Extraordinary! From 1760 to 1860 the Quartern was common. Between 1860 and 1960 it disappeared from the Anglophone world.
The recipe I will share for the workshop is one I dervided from 18th and 19th century Assize tables. As a British bread, it was a yeasted bread. As it is defined by its size, and not its leavening system, we should assume that French bakeries in Paris made theirs with levain.
While in its day, a Quartern Loaf was not festive, the loaf you make for Seminar/Workshop will be the crown jewel on your dinner table. If it weren’t for Covid, I can say that your dozen dinner guests would have been super impressed! They would have taken lots of Instagram photos.
Join me on March 25, 9am Pacific, registration on EventBrite, for a journey back to the Quartern loaf, the bread that millions of British ate at home for their daily bread, year in, and year out, decades in, and decades out. It was big. It was cheap. It couldn’t compete with the coveted breads displayed in posh bakeries. Those posh breads, and their derivatives, ended up dominating 20th century bakeries.
By a nice shift in fashion, we are all going to enjoy our Quartern loaves for their size, and because of the grades of flour used, their sensory qualities.
Looking forward to seeing you at the Seminar!