The beautiful history of bread
Bread was first produced when people discovered that they could use dough which had fermented naturally to make flatbreads rise, giving them a new taste and texture.
Today, bread is still as simple and essential as it was then, just like the air we breathe and the water we drink. It is staple food in many countries! Now, thanks to a return to traditional values and cooking for pleasure, good quality, homemade bread is something many consumers enjoy, happily sharing their many recopies for breads which are always delicious, sometimes surprising and which vary greatly from one country to another.
With a wide selection of ingredients available, including environmentally-produced flours, the desire to discover their inner baker and 'get their hands dirty', is leading consumers to rediscover a real passion for making their own bread, by hand or with the help of a machine!
Prehistory: For starters: harvesting and bread making...
Bread was invented around 5000 years ago. Before bread was discovered, cereal-based foods, gruels or flatbreads, were the basic components of people's daily diets.
In Neolithic times, harvesters would gather wild cereals which grew plentifully at the time. These were crushed to produce a coarse flour, used to make rudimentary flatbreads which were cooked over the open fire.
The 5th millennium is marked by the appearance in central Europe of the first domestic wheat crops. In the Near East, it was during the 8th millennium, that the nomadic hunter/gatherer lifestyle was gradually replaced by one of sedentary farming. Thanks to the particularly favourable climate they enjoyed, farmers were able to cultivate many varieties of grass. It was in this same area, that the first tapered ovens appeared (7000 BC). These ovens are still used in Afghanistan where they are called 'tanur' or 'tafur'.
Ancient Egypt: Bread: the start of something big.
Historians believe that bread was invented by the Egyptians in the fifth millennium BC.
Legend would have it that an Egyptian baker who was very forgetful (improvidence sometimes being the source of invention) left his cereal paste in a corner somewhere instead of cooking it. This gave it the time to ferment, producing the world's first leavened bread.
Egyptian territory included some very fertile land on the banks of the Nile where they soon developed cereals in abundance. We have them to thank for numerous inventions, including the flour sieve.
The Ancient Greeks: creators of the first bakery chains!
The Greeks also discovered bread and their ingenuity enabled them to rapidly improve their production techniques and diversify their products. They invented the Olynthian mill comprising 2 square millstones which were stacked one on top of the other and driven by slaves using a lever (around 2,700 years BC).
It was also in Ancient Greece that the baking profession first came into being. Greek bakers made bread and produced the first pastries. By the 2nd century BC, they were able to produce up to 72 varieties of bread. This is evidence of how important bread was in this major civilisation.
The Romans: the challenge of bread
It was through their contact with Greek civilisation that the Romans discovered how to make bread. They took Hellenic bakers back to Greece as slaves who would them the art of bread making. The Romans developed wheat cultivation to the point that by the 1st century BC, it was being grown throughout the Roman empire!
The Romans improved the Greek techniques by adjusting the way they mixed the dough, and even making bread in the shape of lyres, birds, stars, for example. Bread was praised like a god.
In the 1st century A.D., Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, tells how 'Gaulish and Iberian breads, to which beer foam is added (the yeast which rises to the surface of the liquid during beer fermentation), are renowned for their levity'. This is a good illustration that bread and beer production were connected for many years.
The 18 and 19th century: progress underway
The 18th and 19th centuries, periods of industrial and scientific progress, were conducive to the modernisation of bread production methods, which were slowly brought into the industrial era.
Gathering the harvest, an exhausting job for labourers, was made easier thanks to the machines which came to replace them and which harvested more quickly. The first steam mills were also installed.
With advances in yeast production, modernisation of mechanical dough mixers, and important improvements to ovens the industrial era had arrived for the bread industry, for the better and sometimes for the worse.
First and Second World Wars: bread in times of war
During the 1st World War, because it was so scarce, bread became a luxury food item. There was no more wheat since the fields had been turned to battlegrounds. Sending bakers to war posed a problem: where to find people who would be physically capable of manual dough mixing. Women replaced men in the workplace. However, they used tools to make their jobs easier. Hence the rapid development of mechanical mixers during this time!
Another reason for Europe's survival was the importation of American wheat. The United States refused to supply Germany and Austria. Cereals had become a tool for exerting political and economic pressure.
The 20s were a carefree and light-hearted time. Bread was readily-available once again. It was in this context that the baguette was first produced, going on to become hugely popular. Since then, it has become the symbol of France, recognised all over the world.
LThe years to follow were much less cheerful. The Second World War erupted, delivering its share of devastation and deprivation. Bread was rationed and very poor in quality. It was grey in colour and produced from a mixture of whole-wheat flour, wheat and flours derived from beans, maize, barley, potatoes and rice.
Suffice it to say that this bread did not taste as it had during happier times!
From the 50s to today: from mass-produced bread to the cult of the loaf
After the Second World War, white bread became hugely popular. Brown bread reminded people too much of the war years. People were sick of the sight of it! However, the 50s were a time of prosperity. The increased average salary meant people were able to access a range of food products such as cheese, meat and fish. Bread fell out of favour and bread consumption was drastically reduced.
It was accused of causing weight gain and of being the food of the 'poor'. Even the 'nouvelle cuisine' of the 80s was unable to tolerate bread being served at the table!
Thankfully, bread has become fashionable once again, although not just any bread! Consumers increasingly demand and expect bread which is authentic, tasty and which is good for both the health and the waistline. This wave of health consciousness produced an appetite for home baking. People wanted to choose the ingredients, experiment with new combinations and have fun trying their hand at baking their own delicious, hot, crunchy bread.
Today, globalisation, migratory flows, international commerce and the opening of boarders have contributed to exchange between cultures. People from all over the world take bread with them when they travel, something which has contributed greatly to expanding the horizons of our tastes.
New consumer trends have emerged over recent years and advances in bread making techniques mean that new bread products are available to meet people's needs such as healthy bread, bio bread, low-salt bread and gluten-free bread.