Bread has been around for thousands of years as a food that is easily made from a variety of ingredients, readily available to bakers, depending on where they lived. Ancient people learned how to grind cereals and mix it with water, leaving this mixture to attract natural yeasts, which would slightly aerate it. These were the origins of flatbreads we know and still use today throughout the world as tortillas, chapatti s, naans and rotis amongst many others.
Trenchers also originated from flatbreads. In medieval times stale flatbreads were used as plates, a precursor to wooden trenchers. When the meal had been consumed the trencher, or “plate”, could be eaten by the diner, or given to animals, or the poor. They were very stale in order to mop up any moisture from the food, so not the most desirable bread!
In the Victorian era, white bread was most desired by the gentry. Brown bread was considered to be peasant food. Ironically of course, the less refined bread is more nutrient dense! Unfortunately, flour, and white flour in particular, was often “extended” by using additives such as chalk, plaster, sawdust, or of less concern, potatoes. Flour could also be whitened with bleaching agents to make it appear even more desirable. Food safety laws ultimately were brought in to stop this adulteration and vitamins and minerals which have been removed during processing added to fortify the flour.
So, in the 21st century what are we consuming? Let’s look at the top breads in the UK.
Shop bought bread is still the most popular with bakery companies being fiercely competitive. Leading national brands selling from the main supermarkets have secured the major market segment with white bread and 50:50 (mixed white and wholemeal/brown flour) loaves as the main products purchased. These loaves sell as sandwich and toaster bread, due to the convenient and familiar shape of sliced bread. Own label supermarket brands are also popular in this category. The average UK household is though to purchase over sixty of these loaves sliced and unsliced each year.
Sour Dough Bread
The first Egyptian bakers experimented and were thought to be the first bakers to produce a reasonably consistent result with sourdough bread. They did this by saving a piece of dough from each batch to use the following day to “seed” the next bread production session.
Today sour dough is a really popular bread, usually sold as sandwich and toaster bread.
One of the advantages of sour dough is thought to be based on digestibility, as the raising agent is a “starter” predating the use of manufactured yeast. This starter is developed with natural yeasts attracted and developed by a mixture of flour and water, in much the same manner as the Egyptian bakers in ancient times. Sourdough is considered to be gentler on the digestive system, resulting in less intolerance and bloating associated with bakers, or brewery yeast. It’s also very tasty and has a distinct flavour of the sour starter.
So away from the traditional sandwich and toaster bread what do we love?
Ciabbatta is an Italian wheat bread made with olive oil invented in 1982 by an Italian baker often used for bruschetta. In Italian ciabbatta means slipper which is the shape of this floury crusty bread.
Foccacia, another Italian bread is commonly flavoured with rosemary. It’s a flat bread which is frequently enjoyed on its own or drizzled with olive oil and served with olives.
The baguette, or French stick, is a long thin bread with a crisp crust and beautifully soft interior. It is typically used to mop up delicious soups, or eaten with soft cheese and cooked meats on a cheese board.
Another bread with French origin enriched with egg and butter. Brioche has become more popular recently and is not just used for desserts, or sweets but is now frequently found as a burger bun, or a round bun may be carved to make a soup bowl!
What could be more quintessentially English than English muffins? Soft, round and uniform shaped, with a lightly floured exterior, English muffins can be toasted and used for jam, poached eggs, eggs Florentine, or smoked salmon and cheese. Traditionalists will insist that the muffins are not split with a knife, but torn with fingers, or a fork to preserve the texture of the muffin without flattening the inner surface.
Barm cake, from the north west England, stottie bread from the North East of England and bannock bread from Scotland are examples of northern regional breads. The stottie is a large round bread, which is cut up like a cake and the barm cakes are individual large airy bread rolls. Both the stotties and barm cakes are often sold in sandwich shops, with a variety of savoury fillings. The Scottish bannock is a large round flatbread which can be cooked in a skillet. Traditionally bannock is portioned into wedges and served warm with butter.
There are so many choices! Perhaps you need to make a change to the usual shop choice and try something new, or even have a baking session and make your own!