Galen (129 – c. CE 216) The Key to Early Modern Bread Recipes

Galen was the most important medical writer prior to the modern era. All of the Early Modern health manuals and medical texts relied on his work. The shadow of his writings on bread influence us still. When one goes to a bakery and fails to find barley bread, rye bread, and flatbreads one is seeing some of his influence. Galens bread and grain texts tend to be longer than what we find in the health manuals. Thomas Cogan’s Haven of Health (1584), has more extensive bread passages than most, but it is almost entirely derivative. Galen, writing writing 1400 earlier was the definitive source. Well there was some tension around the issue of yeast and leaven, Galen being a proponent of leaven, and the English in practice being proponents of yeast, most of what we find in texts focustone health and medicine artworks that rely on Galen for the core of their message Kummer even into the 19th century. Galen’s ideas about food, in this case bread, are so woven into western culture that the influence has become invisible. I recommend the translation of Galen’s work On Foodstuffs by Owen Powell published by Cambridge University Press.

I am not an historian of medicine and my interest in Galen and the medical literature he inspired is not in the medical ideas except insofar as they inform our understanding of bread from Greece, Roman, and Euro-centric culinary cultures. Because bread was so important, Thomas Cogan poetically referred to it as the “meat of meats,” there are often extended passages that include technical information on how to make bread within medical texts. Individually, many of the texts seem cryptic. Taken together, however, I think that the medical literature, and especially Galen, enables us to round out the recipe literature to enumerate the general rules on which breads were formulated up until the industrialization of flour production, the adoption of the germ theory of disease and modern ideas about how the body works, what are the way we think about the foods we eat, including bread. I am preparing this document in preparation for my 31st Bread History Seminar on Thursday, April 14. I am beginning this post on April 12 and expect it to expand today and tomorrow.

Correlation Between Flour Refinement, Amount of Leaven, Amount of Kneading, and Baking Temperatures and Times.

These latter have the most bran and, when milled, if one sifts out the very fine meal and makes what are called bran loaves from the remainder, trial will show that while they are poorly nutritive they produce much residue in the stomach and consequently it is passed easily. At the same time, because the bran has a cleansing property, elimination of the residues, as you would expect, takes place quickly since the bowel is stimulated to excretion. 

This the the core observation on the effect of bran on human digesting that underpins Galen’s medical system. Note, in this case, that the observation is a real observation — “trial will show…” Until fixed sit-down toilets were installed in all houses people were very close to their shit. Pretty easy to observe that eating a bran bread quickly leads to a bulky soft turd when one is shitting into a bowl. Many of us today whose diets are weak on natural fiber consume fiber as medicine at the behest of our doctor. In the United States, “Metamusil” is a brand of powdered fiber many of us are asked by our doctors to consume daily to soften our fecal matter and to speed its progress through our digestive system. The elite’s love affair with white bread was a problem given the lack of fiber in the rest of their diet. The consumption of breads that are less than white may not be implied by recipes in cookbooks, but is implied by the health manuals.

The loaves that are the opposite of these are extremely pure, bringing
the greatest weight to the smallest bulk, but of all the breads they pass through the most slowly. Indeed you will also observe that their dough is quite tenacious, since, when it is drawn out to the greatest extent, it is not torn apart, which is characteristic of a tenacious substance. And so these naturally need more leaven and require more thorough kneading, and should not be baked soon after leavening and kneading.∗ But with bran loaves a small amount of leaven, light kneading and a short interval are sufficient. So too, while the pure loaves need a longer period of actual baking, the bran loaves need a shorter one. Between the most pure and
the least pure is a wide range where there is more or less purity, some called, and in truth being, pure, and others impure. 

I have not yet checked this passage in Greek. The words that need confirming in Greek are “pure” and “impure.” In the Maison Rustique English editions of the early 17th century we came across a passage in which the flour from one of the French regions is described as “vile” and “dirtie.” It was a branny flour — one in which it was apparently difficult to efficiently extract flour from the bran. In this period, the first meaning of offal was bran. I think it worth thinking about whether on top of everything else there was an understood correlation between the white of white flour and the white of the pure and the brown of bran withe brown of dirt.

This passage offers up a structure for bread recipes that we can marry to the recipe level information found in Maison Rustique — the French and English editions to find the rules that shaped bread recipes that fall outside the narrow group of breads that found their way into print.

This paragraph can help us understand the breads from the ovens of Pompeii.

Setting aside the concept articulated here that the more extensible dough will pass through our body more slowly because of the tenaciousness we get the dynamic rule set for making bread.

White breads: Less bran requires more leavening, more kneading, and a proofing period after dough formation. This last detail – a proofing period for white breads – is not in most Early Modern bread recipes. Most recipes say to form the loaf and bake. My current interpretation of that common recipe instruction is that they were working in large quantities of dough so it took time to form the loaves. So if you formed the loaves and then start loading the oven using a first-formed-first-loaded system then there is a built-in proofing stage. My own experiments also suggest that at least when baking with fresh barm the proof stage is not required for success.

Bran Breads: As the percentage of bran increases, the amount of leaven required declines, as does the kneading time, the proofing time, and the baking time. As the text goes on to explain, the white breads need a relatively longer slow baking time with the need to be thoroughly baked absolute. This makes sense as an undercooked white bread has a sticky interior. The Maison Rustique text goes into some detail how undercooked whole or nearly whole meal breads are appropriate for the abject poor. One of the foundational principles of Galen’s medical theories is that different bodies thrive on different foods. In the case of the Maison Rustique text, bodies of laborers conveniently thrive on cheap poorly crafted bread.

A bread from Galen’s period, preserved by the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius.

In this bread from Galen’s period, we crisp demarcations between the wedges and fine detail in the stamp. To achieve crisp lines and to hold the stamp the bread has to have been minimally leavened. To be palatable minimally leavened it has to have a high bran content. Undercooking keeps the bread soft.

The best-concocted breads are those that have been most leavened and very well kneaded, and baked in an oven with moderate heat. Greater heat scorches at once when first applied, and produces a pottery-like appearance on the outside; and the loaf turns out to be of poor quality on two counts, with its inside raw and inadequately baked, and its crust overbaked, dry and like pottery. With heat that is less than moderate the bread is not well baked, but the whole loaf is left rather raw, the inside most of all. Those that are baked uniformly throughout in moderate heat for a longer time are also very well concocted in the stomach and are most suited to the sequence of activities that occurs following concoction. Clearly, the worst breads are those to which none of the above applies. 

In this passage we are deep into the dream of the perfect loaf. Most leavened means most white flour. While there was a style of high status manchet grade breads that were mixed, but not kneaded, they were lightly enriched breads — the English “French bread” class of breads — and the French pain de luxe class of breads.

What makes this Galen passage so interesting is that we find in the Early Modern English bread vocabulary words that describe the kinds of oven faults descried here — breads that are “half baked” for one reason or another, including because the crust formed too soon insulating the interior from the oven’s heat, and breads that are ” dazed” — simply not cooked enough.

Now that I have distinguished the extremes among them in both excellence and badness, it is no longer difficult for anyone on his own, without assistance from me, to grasp that some breads are close either to the best or to the worst extreme, that some are further away; and that others, as I said, are placed midway between both extremes. It is just as I was saying earlier about honey, namely that one should not say simply that it is good or bad for health, but rather that it is good for a phlegmatic nature, one that is moister or colder than a well-mixed nature, even if it is only colder without much moistness, or moister without much coldness; and that it is unsuited for warm mixtures, and even more so for warm, dry ones. So among breads too, while one that has not been very well baked nor has much leaven is suitable for an athlete, and one that has been very well baked in the oven and has much leaven  is suitable for an ordinary individual or an old person, one which is absolutely unleavened is not fit for anybody.

The language in this passage is very clear. While I have not checked the words in Greek, so we are relying on Owen Powell’s translation, Galen is clearly working from a good bread/bad bread concept. Which makes perfect sense culturally — the affluent Greco Roman world in which he circulated will have had their opinions, as we do today. A different is his system of ascribing digestibility to the nature of the body that is eating allowed for the assignment of even patently bad breads — even breads that were barely edible — to ones workers — to the enslaved of his period — with a freer conscience because to some extent good and bad were relative terms based on who the eater was. Galen uses an athlete to describe this. This is one aspect of bread culture that is, for us, totally alien.

So among breads too, while one that has not been very well baked nor has much leaven is suitable for an athlete, and one that has been very well baked in the oven and has much leaven is suitable for an ordinary individual or an old person, one which is absolutely unleavened is not fit for anybody.

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