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

Writing a History of Bread for UC Press!

I would like to announce that I am now under contract with UC Press for a comprehensive history of bread. This work work, due in October 2016, expands on the history I wrote for Reaktion Books, Bread: A Global History (Reaktion Books – Edible) The book is in three parts, the first section offers a history of bread from the period before agriculture up to the present. I talk about bread in the context of the major bread-based civilizations in as many was as I can — a general who, what, when, where, and why of bread through the ages. If you read my current book on bread you will see that I am interested in bread as both a material object, something very real that we can bite into and taste, and bread as invention of culture that we can us to ask questions about how people saw themselves at various points in history. I am very interested in the breads of today and how we got to where we are. The book will be very strong on the history of bread in the last couple hundred years, particularly in France, as French ideas about bread are so important today in the international self-described artisan bread movement. In addition to this more general and traditional historical narrative, the book includes a recipe section and an extensive glossary of historic bread terms. The recipe and the glossary sections will also, in their own way, tell the history of bread.

Bread Talk in New York March 19!

I am giving a talk on the history of bread at the Roger Smith Hotel, in New York, on Monday, March 19. It is a joint program with the Culinary Historians of New York and the Edible Conversations Series. The talk includes dinner, a book, and costs $50. Registration closes the day of the even. I hope to see you there!

“Bread: A Global History” with William Rubel

Bread was the most important food for thousands of years—and arguably the food that built the civilization that we enjoy today. Bread has been a food for humans, a food for gods, and a manufactured object carrying multiple layers of cultural meaning. While it is no longer a staple in Europe and North America, bread continues to be very important to us, as the care with which we select the loaf for dinner attests. William Rubel will talk about issues of crust and crumb, of white versus whole-wheat flour, of yeast versus levain, offering historical context for current debates. What is good bread? What bread is best for us? A history of bread is largely a history of attitudes regarding what constitutes the best loaf.

William Rubel is the author of “Bread: A Global History.” It offers a wide ranging revision of what—up to now—have been the accepted facts about the history of bread, as well as a fresh view of bread culture today. In this talk, William Rubel will discuss what he has uncovered about the history of bread from 10,000 years before the invention of agriculture through to the twenty-first century bread revolution currently underway. Using a combination of different research methods, including traditional archival searches, online databases, agricultural records, paintings, contemporary descriptions and other sources, as well as extensive milling and baking experiments in his own kitchen, Rubel has delved deep into the history and culture of this staple food. He will share some insights into his methods as well as some of the historical recipes he has discovered. Moderated by Andrew F. Smith.

Location: Roger Smith Hotel
501 Lexington at 47th Street
New York, NY 10017

Time: 6:30-9:00 pm
Fee: $50, which includes a copy of Bread: A Global History, a four course tasting dinner inspired by the book, and a beverage

Advance registration required. Please note different time and cost. To register: http://bread.eventbrite.com/

Working Papers

I have a dozen feet of notebooks with research on English and French breads, from between 1550 and 1800, and American breads from 1620 to the end of the 19th-century. I have published a small book on bread called Bread but am working on a much larger history.

The working papers I publish here are ideas that I’d like to share with you but that might still be somewhat provisional. I welcome comments and suggestions.

I usually interpret historic recipes in terms of  “bakers’ math.” If you are not familiar with the system, it records recipes in the form of percentages. Flour is always 100% and the other ingredients are recorded as a percentage of the flour. Baker’s math makes it possible to easily scale recipes up and down, which is why bakers like it, but  importantly it lets one get a sense of the basic relationships between ingredients. For those of us interested in historical recipes it helps us see how recipes relate to each other. For example, if you find a recipe  calls for 45% water by weight of flour and another 75% water by weight of flour it is clear one is working with two very different styles of bread. If one recipe suggests a short rising time and another a longer rising time but then you notice that one has 4% yeast in relationship to the flour and the other 2% yeast you start to get a sense for how the recipes actually worked.

The problem with many historical recipes is often not that they don’t have measurements, most do, but with some other aspect of the recipe — like just exactly what flour is being called for or just exactly how is the recipe processed. Or, all that might be clear but one wonders why is this recipe in the the cookery book? Is it a recipe that is made a lot or is it an unusual recipe that the author hopes will interest the reader, but may not.

These working papers, though mostly about recipes, are intended to develop ideas, to follow where the old recipe leads, but are not designed to offer a simple recipe for you to follow. Read these papers for more general ideas and inspiration. I will be publishing more formal recipes on this web site and then also in subsequent books.

Baked on a Griddle

This is a disquieting video of flatbreads being baked in Afghanistan.  In it, we see a young baker forming and the rolling out a bread to beaked on a griddle. The focus is on the rolling out which is done slowly. The film maker seems to get bored with the rolling-out process and so he pans to the breads being baked on griddles, our one hint of how the breads are baked, and then walks outside the door. It turns out that the bread is being baked behind blast walls in military base.