“Cheat Bread”—Gervase Markham’s Everyday Loaf from 1614, an Urtext

“Cheat” bread is a bread that would be in great favor today. It is a bread that was made with a slightly less refined flour than the super white manchet, or even than the more workaday period standard white bread.

Manchet flour was, ideally, bolted twice—sifted and then sifted again to only retain the whitest, finest starch. Standard white flour was sifted once. While bolting cloths were not standardized during this period, the people would have known white cloth was needed to achieve an acceptable product. A baker looking for a white flour would have purchased the “finest” bolting cloth that he or she could afford or that was practical for them.

A standard white flour was slightly less than white. It was sifted through a cloth defined as “21-schilling cloth” in the later decades of the 18th century. That is a cloth with an approximately 300 micron mesh. Period description from the 1770s is a cloth with a 64X52 weave. Anyone making cheat bread would have known not to use that cloth. Because cheat bread is by definition run through a cloth that is coarser than that used for white flour. I suggest the 13-shilling cloth, 32X28, (military grade) or the 16-shilling cloth, 44X40, for cheat flour.

This recipe seems to have been written by Markham as an urtext. In a period when flour is what defined the bread, this recipe covers all breads made with a flour that period diners recognized as “courser.”

In the class-bound English society of the 17th century, you knew your place by the color of your bread. This is not an idea new to this historical period. We know that in classical Rome, for example, that people were tracked to braid styles based on their social class.

Cheat was a bread for the household staff, and I will go out on a limb and say, for most people at least the better cheat breads—ones made with wheat, only—were an everyday bread. Even for the most elite diner, one can safely imagine that some cheat will have passed their lips even on a regular basis.

Why? Because an 80% extraction flour makes a bread that tastes better than a pure white bread, and yet has the crumb of a white bread. Also, as now, people were concerned with their health and, like now, they associated more whole grain breads with health—though their focus was on fecal regularity rather than nutritional health.

Bran was thought to have no nutritional value—to just “pass through.” Then, as now, affluent people living within an English culinary culture were short on greens and roughage. The English diet, then, as now, was not Italian! So, a little medicinal bread now and then will have been what the doctor ordered. Cheat is not really what the doctors ordered. They ordered whole meal bread for constipated patients, but, hey, cheat isn’t white—so I think a reading of human nature points us to a willingness to eat cheat on a regular basis, while wholemeal breads would have felt truly medicinal because of how dense they will have been compared with cheat or white.

I’d put some cheat down as a breakfast toast option. And, if you are a novelist, you could safely put cheat down as the favorite bread of an eccentric earl. William Ellis, writing in the 1750s, mentions an aristocratic woman who favored whole wheat.

In terms of the history of English written bread recipes, there are a few in William Harrison’s history of England from the 1570s, a couple in the 1594 A Good Huswifes Handmaide in the Kitchin, with most published bread recipes up to this point having been horse bread recipes that Markham published in his earlier veterinary works. This recipe, the second of three Markham published for “man’s bread” in his 1614 The English Huswife, was published when all of the published bread recipes could still be counted on the fingers of one’s hands. It is an utterly brilliant recipe.

Markham was not a baker. Markham was not a cook. He was a horsey man—the expert on dieting race horses—an avid agriculturalist, a poet, and all around literary man. Markham was a prolific writer. It is unlikely he got his hands in dough. This said, the recipe is well imagined. It works. This particular recipe is a masterpiece of an oral bread recipe style. Read this aloud to yourself. Doesn’t it sound like you are being talked to?

I also find it interesting that Markham seems to be conscious that he is recoding cultural knowledge for someone who may not know it. You would think that his readers would know that the finest cheat is made with pure wheat. And that sheet encompasses all presentations of mixed grains. I think what we may be hearing here is this growing urge to systematize knowledge. But the thoroughness with which Markham goes through the possible flour types for cheat really does make this an urtext.

I would like to call out the use of a sourdough starter. The first cookbook to include bread recipes, A Good Huswifes Handmaide in the Kitchin (1594), includes a similarly structure recipe—add dough held back from a previous baking to a pre-ferment and add yeast for the final bulk fermentation. This practice is dropped from the cookbook literature at this point. It is therefore difficult to know where this method fit into actual practice and if it was a common practice in the early 17th century, did it survive into the 18th? We have no further record of it.

As an urtext, this recipe does not give any quantities. Like the Cato (190 BCE) recipe for a rolled out flatbread, this recipe assumes you know how to make bread, at least in concept. Markham calls for a “stiff” dough. Many recipes from this period that include quantities work out to breads with a 60% water content. Thus, for this bread, I’d weigh out water that weighs 60% of the amount of flour you choose to use, and go from there.

Markham’s Cheat Bread Recipe.

To bake the best Cheat bread, which is also simply of wheat only, you shall, after your meal is dressed and bolted through a more coarse bolter than was used for your manchets, and put also into a clean tub, trough or kimnel, take a sour leaven, that is, a piece of such like leaven saved from a former batch, and well filled with salt, and so laid up to sour; and this sour leaven you shall break into small pieces into warm water, and then strain it; which done, make a deep hollow hole in the midst of your flour, and therein pour your strained liquor, then with your hand mix some part of the flour therewith, till the liquor be as thick as a pancake batter, then cover it all over with meal, and so let it lie all that night. The next morning stir it and all the rest of the meal well together, and with a little more warm water, barm, and salt to season it with, bring it to a perfect leaven, stiff and firm; then knead it, break it, and tread it (as before said in the manchets) and so mould it up into reasonable big loaves, and then bake it with an indifferent good heat; and thus according to these two examples before Shewed, you may bake any bread leavened or unleavened whatsoever whether it be simple corn, as Wheat or Rye of itself, or compound grain as wheat and rye, or wheat, rye and barley, or rye and barley, or any other mixt white corn; only because Rye is a little stronger grain than wheat it shall be good for you to put your water a little hotter then you did to your wheat.

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