Monday, August 03, 2009

Pease, porridge....bread?

Lammas means harvest season is underway, and a very important group of crops being harvested now are grains. Whenever possible, our ancestors transformed these grains into bread. And bread often wasn't soft squishy white stuff we see at the grocery store. Depending on one's station in life (and during times of famine), it could be rather "hearty", with pea, bean & acorn flour added for bulk.
Look at this "meadow" in the French Alps. It's actually an old wheat field. Medieval agricultural methods weren't terribly precise, and crops often had other plant species mixed in. Sometimes the mix was intentional. Rye, oats & barley might be sown along with the wheat, the resulting blend of grains called maslin.
Here's a modern wheat field, in contrast. Pretty boring, but easy to cultivate with giant expensive machinery. Bread made from mono-crops like this may be cheaper, prettier and more uniform, but not necessarily more nutritious. Agriculture on this scale also removes individual humans from the ability to grow, process and bake their own bread. A wonderful author and garden-farmer, Gene Logsdon, has just written a new edition of Small Scale Grain Raising that just might inspire you to reclaim your peasant past and grow your own bread. We're planning to give it a try at Seven Trees next year.
Please excuse the watermark on this picture, it's the only one I could find showing a variety of grain seed heads. From left to right: oats, spelt, wheat, barley. Rye, not pictured here, was another very important grain crop, mainly because, like oats, it could grow under conditions too harsh for wheat.
These loaves were baked by a member of the SCA for a period cooking competition, recreating medieval recipes. On the top is wastel, period "white" bread made from sifted wheat flour. It was sometimes called manchet (more info & recipe at link). In the middle is maslin, a whole-grain loaf made from mixed rye and wheat flours. On the bottom is horsebread, a recreation of the mixed-grain breads eaten by peasants, workers, and servants. All are sourdough leavened, and baked them inside an enameled cast iron Dutch oven.

Horsebread was a very coarse loaf, baked with roughly milled grains, pea & bean flour, with a ratio of 2 parts pea/bean to 1 part grain flour. The loaves were baked until very hard, like modern-day biscotti, so they would keep a long time. They were used as concentrated horse food, as the name suggests, but also eaten by poor people and during times of famine. Bread was the main source of calories for a medieval laborer. Records kept at Peterborough Abbey Manor at Kettering, Northamptonshire in 1294 shed some light on a farm servant's daily rations:
- 1/2 oz. cheese
-1/4 oz. butter
-2 3/4 oz. oats
-less than 1 oz. peas & beans
-5 1/4 lb. rye bread
All this comes to 6,035 calories, with the bread making up a whopping 5,440 of them. The first 4 items most likely went into a pottage or soup with kale, onion, garlic and/or wild greens gathered & grown by the worker, one can hope. Otherwise this would be a depressingly monotonous diet. Meat and eggs were not commonly part of a peasant's diet, unless it was a holiday and provided by the manorial lord.
It gets worse.
This is bark bread from Finland. It's now a traditional food, baked to keep alive the memories of harsh famines of the past. One of the worst occurred in 1596-1598:
"Spring and summer brought a lasting wetness. Day after day the heavy rain fell. Clothes rotted on the farmers' bodies as they worked in the wet weather. No dry hay could be brought in. It rotted and turned moldy in the barns. And the cattle, affected by the ruined fodder, sickened and died by the hundreds. The meat could not even be used to feed dogs and cats.
As autumn came and supplies ran out, no new grain could be harvested. The bins and pork barrels were empty. People looked for every possible substitute for their normal diet. They ate bark, buds, leaves, husks, nettles, hay, straw and roots. They ground up bones for flour."

Sounds awful! But people being people, they used what they could find to survive.
Not everything about medieval bread was so indigestible. This article, Early Period Grains and Their Uses, has more information about grains, and also some historically authentic recipes that don't sound too hard to try at home.
More medieval bread recipes at Gode Cookery, plus all kinds of period cookbook translations in case you find yourself wanting to recreate an entire medieval menu.
The bakers at Seven Trees have attempted historical cookery, with varying results, and will no doubt keep trying. As seen in our Smokin! post, an outdoor bread oven is on our hotlist.
Stay tuned for an update on Uncle David's monstrous rampage over, under & through the garden. This squash has even suborned the pie pumpkin and delicatas into its world-domination attempt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

saw your complaint 'bout the flannel wearing "family" on CR...There's plenty of sexy lesbos in Seattle, the problem is, a lot of time we get taken for straight. Can't tell your age group but I'd definitely try Places like Victrola on 15th...forget "formal" groups -- you will find lots of flannel there...Gosh I miss seattle :(