Spit Roast Bread — The Kneaded Loaf of 1823

Today, as part of my work on the glossary section of the history of bread I’m writing for UC Press, I have been researching the British Northern dialect term knodden cake, and its Standard English parallel, kneaded cake. I’m still working on the words and can today only say that I think they were enriched breads made by kneading fat, usually butter or lard, into dough removed from the day’s batch. In the course of this research I came across this fabulous text that I’d like to share with you. It combines my move of the hearth fire with my love of bread. This is an excerpt from a story The Fairy Miller of Croga publshed in The London Magazine in 1823. It is in part written in a Scottish dialect. It is a rare reference to a spit roasted cake and the only one I am aware of being described in a poor person’s household. But what also makes this passage incredibly rich in historic detail is the fairy’s attraction to the “new-meal” bread, a rare literary reference to the period preference for fresh flour.

So as the sun was setting I baked a cake, and put it over the embers.

Except for roasting very large animals, like goats, pigs, and oxen, spit roasting takes place just in front of embers, not over them. I would thus not take the over ember description as literally true — at least if Barbara Macurdo is burning wood.
But what also makes this passage incredibly rich in historic detail is the fairy’s attraction to the “new-meal” bread, a rare literary reference to the period preference for fresh flour. Fresh flour, particularly if it still has some bran in it, is much sweeter tasting than flour that has been stored and has oxidized.

And kindly loved I our goodman; never thought of another,though I was in my prime when lost him;—and I made it a point to have a kind look, and something comfortable and warm for him when he came home at even. So as the sun was setting I baked a cake, and put it over the embers,—for weel he loved a kneaded cake, and aue brander’d brown ;—I never knead a cake now but I think of him. So the cake was on the embers, and’ a sweet smell it made;—for the meal was white and warm from, the millee, and I sat beside it to watch and turn it. As I sat I thought I heard a foot on the floor, and looking o’er my shoulder who saw I but a wee wee womanie! A wee wee womanie, and snodly was she clad, ami fair was her face; ami without halt or cure hoc close came, she to my side. I think I see her yet. and hear her words, ‘Barbara Macmurdo,’ said the wee wee womanie, using my maiden name, ‘I live nigh thy house, —I live on the same bread, and drink of the same water. But water waxes scant, and bread is far from sure; and those who gather earth’s sweetest fruits for me are now in Guiana and Araby, seeking spice, and cloves, and myrrh, and will not be with me; sooner than morning. The smell of thy new-meal cake is sweet, and we felt it underground, and my little babes love it. Therefore give me some, and when the next meller is ground in Croga mill I will repay thee. Give and prosper– refuse and pine.’

You can find the entire store here: http://books.google.com/books?id=aewRAAAAYAAJ

Bread in Italy circa 1894

I was searching Google Books for information on military bread ovens in the 19th century, a process my girlfriend refers to as “wooden cowing,” and came across this sketch regarding bread in Italy circa 1894. It was written by Olive May Eager, a minor American writer who lived in Italy and seems to have supported herself, at least in part, by selling short pieces on Italian culture to American magazines. The piece I include here was published in the May 1894 issue of the journal, The Roller Mill. She published in a  wide array of magazines including, for example, the children’s magazine, Saint Nicolas,and the Journal of Hygiene and Herald of Health,where she has an excellent essay on the chestnut cuisine of the Apennine. Continue reading “Bread in Italy circa 1894”

A Simple Military Clay Oven circa 1895

Armies march on their stomachs. Historically, this often meant that armies marched with their bakeries. Military field manuals are a source of information in simple impromptu oven construction. The simplest oven is the item 496: An oven may be excavated in a clay bank (Fig. 6) and used at once. Few of us have sloped clay banks in our yards that can be dug into for an oven, but this suggests the possibility of ovens as a technical possibility long before there were even mud earth structures. But a more practical oven is the first of the two ovens described in item 495. It is an oven built by slathering clay over a barrel. This is so similar to the Sunset Magazine’s oven built over a cardboard trash barrel that I would not be surprised if a military oven were not the inspiration for Sunset’s instructions. Continue reading “A Simple Military Clay Oven circa 1895”

The Dislike for the Sour Taste in Bread (1903)

LEAVEN is nothing more nor less than flour and water, stirred together and kept in a warm place until fermentation commences. Every time the baker makes bread, a certain quantity should be kept back in an earthen pot for the next sponge.

The use of leaven is supposed to have originated in Egypt. It is very seldom used in this country now, although in some parts of Cumberland it occurs in the manufacture of a particular kind of brown bread. In some European countries where yeast is not easily obtained leaven is used. Sailors use it on long voyages. But, like most things where fermentation is concerned, care and cleanliness must be observed. But let leaven be ever so well manufactured, the bread made from it has always a rank, sour taste, and is not to be compared with yeast-made bread.

The new system of making bread: a concise and practical treatise on bread and how to make it, with a large quantity of other useful and practical matter, including all the latest systems of quick sponging by Robert Wells, London, 1903, pages 16.

Explicit references to the taste in bread are few and far between.  I point out in my book, Bread, a global history, that the adoption of sourdough bread as a high status bread in America, Britain and other countries with an  Anglo-bread tradition, such as Australia, represented one of the more radical changes in bread preference for which we have documentary evidence. Both British and American 19th-century cookbooks are clear that sourness in bread is a bad thing and that yeast is the premium leavening.

This recipe for leaven by the English author Robert Wells from 1903 makes clear that he saw leaven as a leavening of last resort — you live in France where brewers, the traditional source of yeast are few and far between — or you are stranded in a boat on a long sea voyage. Of course, the sourness of a leaven leavened bread is largely determined by how the recipe is managed. Sourness is generally not appreciated in today’s France thus even though their artisan bakery breads are almost uniformly risen with levain they never taste sour.

Also of interest in this quote from Wells is his assumption that leavened bread originated with the Egyptians. There is no factual basis for this assertion, but you still find it a given in most bread histories that leavened bread was invented in Egypt.

An American Apple Bread circa 1860

A very light pleasant bread is made in France by a mixture of apples and flour, in the proportion of one of the former to two of the latter. The usual quantity of yeast is employed as in making common bread, and is beat with flour and warm pulp of the apples after they have boiled, and the dough is then considered as set: it is then put in a proper vessel, and allowed to rise for eight to twelve hours, and then baked in long loaves. Very little water is requisite; none, generally, if the apples are very fresh.
The Practical Housekeeper (p 469)Mrs. Ellet, NY 1857 Continue reading “An American Apple Bread circa 1860”