Bread is such basic food. Our paleolithic ancestors plucked wild grain heads, mashed them between stones, mixed the resulting meal with water and cooked it as a gruel or scraped it thin on hot stones for ur-bread. Dried flat breads were easy to transport, and could be chewed as way-bread, or reconstituted into a porridge by crumbling into hot water. By the neolithic, storage pits were dug or drilled into the hills to store semi-domesticated grains. Give us this day our daily bread. Jesus instructed his followers to include this in their prayers – bread for today, not to worry so much about tomorrow’s bread. God will provide. We modern Westerners, though, aren’t content with daily bread. We would like that bread to be sweet, flavorful, and wrapped around some broiled meat and a sauce.
Lent is a good time to reconnect with our ancestral foods. For people like me, from ancestors who walked and sailed Northern Europe, whole grain breads are foundational foods. My Highland ancestors didn’t always bother to get as far as baking the grain mixture; in a hurry while traveling, or when fuel was short, they would soak it in water briefly, and heat it in an iron pan. It doesn’t seem appetizing, but it is filling and nourishing. Cooked in milk or cream, it was called brose, and was the common food in the cottages.
Home baked bread is not difficult, but it can be a production and time-consuming. Instant dry yeast makes the task quicker, with less time waiting for a decent rise to the dough. But it doesn’t have the benefits of sourdough, which combines the yeast and its natural by-products to help break down the less digestible fibres and proteins of wheat and rye.
Commercial bread doesn’t taste like bread to me. It is more like an unsweetened cake, with no hint of the yeast which made it light and porous. Commercial breads often have other dough conditioners that keep the end product moist and cohesive; these are not ingredients one would consider using in the home kitchen. And bread is a simple food on its own; very good bread is made by mixing and kneading flour, yeast, salt and water. Flat bread can be made with just flour and water, then quickly baked on a hot fire. It is a passable food, made better if the flour has taste and body of its own.
Such bread is used as a metaphor in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth – “the bread of truth and sincerity.” The leaven of the Pharisees was a culture of privilege and selfishness; this unleavened bread was plain and unadulterated. Since yeast cultivars were shared within a community, either in a culture like sourdough or by the live yeast skimmed from beer brewing, that “leaven” was unique to that group.
I keep a sourdough culture that I made myself. It is like a low maintenance pet. I have to feed it fresh flour or sugar and transfer it to a clean container about once a week, or double the batch and set some aside if I am baking from it. It’s an unattractive, weird looking mixture, half dark liquid and half spongy residue. I use dry yeast when I want a loaf or bread or batch of dinner rolls in less than ten hours of mixing, rising and kneading.
Sourdough is a little adventure in itself. Catching and cultivating wild yeast is risky; an open bowl of flour and water needs to sit in a warm place for several days, until it starts to bubble like a cold mud geyser or turns spectacular shades of pink, blue or green, in which case it gets thrown out. Yeast and mold are endemic in our environment, and which will settle on your lovely warm bowl of slurry is impossible to predict.
I buy flour 40 pounds at a time, and I don’t always pay attention to how much dry yeast I still have. (I think there is a discernible taste difference between old cake yeast “wet” culture and today’s convenient dry yeast raised breads. Cake yeast doesn’t keep very long, so dry yeast replaced it almost everywhere. Even in Chicago, I have to travel across town to find a store that still sells cake yeast.) Sourdough culture allows me to keep my own culture, and bake real bread. Muffins and cornbread are my fall-back when I need bread but didn’t allow enough time to bake. Flat breads like matzoh were the emergency bread of our ancestors, baked quickly or baked ahead and stored, keeping well with low moisture content.
We may underestimate how important bread products were to our forebears. Christians made a sacrament of bread and wine. “After supper, he took bread, and having given thanks (to God), he broke it, gave it to his disciples…” Jesus equates himself with bread. This may have been the common barley flat bread that most Palestinians in the classical era ate, or it may have been the special matzoh type Passover bread. Matzoh, of course, is a special kind of sacred way-bread, to remind Israel that they came up out of Egypt by the will of God, and that they are designated a holy people. Almost immediately, this communion of bread and wine became the principal sacrament of the Christian community. (Western Christians usually use an unleavened flat bread, while Eastern Christians use a specially prepared yeast bread.)
The heavy dark loaves of previous centuries were indeed “the daily bread” of many people, what sustained them when there was no meat, no milk, no fresh vegetables. The dried grain kept well and could be milled as needed. In the deep winter, there might be nothing else to eat for weeks. Bread literally kept body and soul together.