From ancient times, starting a new project has been celebrated with bread. Our prehistoric friends used to make unleavened flat breads and porridge for centuries, until fermentation came into the picture, circa 4000BC.
For a while, fermentation remained a mystery, keeping the whole world in fear of what decaying food looked like. All, but the Egyptians. In fact, Egyptians were so fascinated with the process that they would intentionally mix in old breads into the new loaves or leave the flour-water mixture uncovered in the sun. The effects on the quality of bread as well as on health were so astonishing that praise was given to the lords of bread and, from then on, the practice of sourdough leavening began.
The Roman Empire was built on bread. Romans by nature were no gourmets, and it took them a long time to develop the taste for bread. But once they learned it, they did it well. At the beginning, it was mainly the wives of soldiers seeking an occupation who were suppliers of bread. With time, baking established itself into a respectable profession, equal to civil officials, with guilds and bylaws.
Bread was a subsistence for all. During medieval times, it played a special role that was known as a ‘trencher’. A trencher was a square slice of bread, placed underneath the plate or used instead of it, to be later shared with those in need. There is a theory that pizza originated from the trencher, but evidence is debatable.
As history pressed on, bread took the centre stage during the events of the French Revolution. According to Voltaire, the French found agriculture boring but necessary. So, it does not come as a surprise that it was the French who achieved the lighter loafs by perfecting the milling process to separate the coarse parts of the grain.
Whilst this improvement percolated to the tables of the nobility, the poor were surviving on coarse loaves that were equally hard to get. Convinced of the idea that aristocracy was hoarding grain, the masses rebelled at the Bastille and revolution engulfed the state.
The importance of bread is so paramount that during the 900 days of the siege of Leningrad, the hungry locals refrained from eating specimens stored at the Vavilov seed bank, so that its 200,000 items would be available to future generations.
Regardless of whether bread is used to celebrate or to mourn, to observe war or peace, to praise or to give thanks, it is the staple of any diet. It has been with humankind since the dawn of time, signifying nourishment and companionship, to the extent that in Latin languages the word companion actually comes from Latin com- “with” + panis “bread”.
Perhaps, it is for these reasons that I chose bread to open the bi-weekly conversations ‘In Company of Food’, the column that is dedicated to food facts, stories, traditions, recipes and much more. There is a great deal to discover and discuss, but since we started with bread, I suggest we keep it in the spotlight for the forthcoming editions, and focus on the intricacies of baking bread, particularly in the hot Portuguese climate. Celebrating the occasion of this launch, I also made a morning bake and I welcome you with it to spend some time in company of food.
Dr. Irina Mikhailava, a chef and a good food champion, happily residing in the Algarve and eating all over the world with an appetite for learning, sharing and writing. Instagram: incompanyoffood