Somewhere along the line I appear to have become an avid researcher of traditional British cooking practices. I think I am probably in the minority of all people when I say that I am fascinated by how bread was made, what it was made from, how long it was allowed to rise, who made it, who cooked it and how it was eaten. However, if you are reading this blog I suspect that there may be one or two readers who are also interested, if not quite fascinated by these things.
If so, read on, dear reader….
You may have missed the Victorian Bakers series on the BBC a couple of months ago. Note that it is no longer available on I Player but it is on YouTube (search for Victorian Bakers BBC). However, I enjoyed it and have gleaned several fascinating insights into Breadmaking from the Victorian period to share with you…
The first episode is set in a country bakery in 1837. Four professional bakers are set to run a bakery as authentically as possible, complete with flour made from an ancient wheat grain, fire fuelled oven and all the (lack of!) fancy equipment.
I was intrigued to learn about the yeast used in the early 19th century. They used brewer’s yeast. This sounds fairly standard. I think the yeast we often use today is called brewer’s yeast but I had never really wondered exactly what its relationship to brewing is. There was no mystery for these bakers. The village bakers literally bought ale from the brewery! They then had to meticulously scoop off the foam from the top of the ale, feed the ale to the pigs, then gather up the fermentation in the bottom of the ale. Apparently brewing and breadmaking have long gone hand in hand as they are both harnessing the power of fermentation.
Since the resulting yeast was not as strong as modern brewer’s yeast, the bread still needed a long slow rise. In fact, from watching the reenactment, it looked as though the process used was fairly similar to the sourdough process I currently use. They mixed the yeast with a small amount of flour and water, left it sit for a few hours (in a fabulous bread making trough that somewhat resembled a coffin!) then when it was active and bubbling they used this sponge to make the bread. The whole process took 9 hours from start to finish.
I was surprised to hear that sourdough was not generally used during this period. The bakers would go to considerable expense to buy the ale to make the yeast as the flavour was deemed to be far superior to that of sourdough. This prompts me to wonder when sourdough was commonly used in the UK? Something to research!
I was also surprised to hear that even before the industrial revolution was at full force, the normal country folk would generally be eating white bread. Obviously this was not bleached white, it was stoneground, it was from an ancient grain and I’m sure that it wasn’t even completely white, but I was still surprised that this was the case. Bread was such a staple of the normal man’s diet that I wonder what impact this had on the nation’s health?
Did anyone else watch this? Did anything strike you?