I wonder how many out of the millions of people who sit down two, three or even four times a day to eat bread together ever bestow a thought as to the origin of the loaf of which they partake so frequently, and which forms a portion of nearly every meal. Most of us know that our ordinary bread is made from wheaten flour, water, salt and yeast in some form. Everybody eats it, from the Queen upon the throne to the meanest of her subjects, and knows that to want bread is deemed one of the most terrible calamities that can fall on any person.
Yet bread, being such a very common thing, we are rather apt to class it with water, and to look upon it as a mere matter of course.
Few of us consider how many experiments must have been tried, failures experienced, and inventions perfected before the fair white loaf, as we have it now, was ever placed upon a table, to say nothing of the endless varieties which have sprung from it.
When I was a little girl, and for a good many years afterwards, it used to be considered no mean accomplishment to make good bread; and children were taught to do it very early, especially in country homes. Well can I recall the feeling of pride when as a little mite of a lass I was first allowed to try my hand at bread-making. How I put on my wide pinafore, and scrubbed and washed at hands and nails until they satisfied my mother, one of the most particular of human beings as to cleanliness. We children had nothing but short sleeves in those days, so there were none to tuck up, and I plunged my little red arms up to the elbows in flour in a sort of ecstasy of delight.
I felt positively almost grown-up, so impressed was I with the importance of my work as family bread-maker.
Betty, our old kitchen servant, looked on approvingly, and was little less interested than myself. I had seven pounds of flour in a yellow earthenware pancheon, a small handful of salt, some brewer's yeast, and a large jug of warm water, and I supposed nothing else was wanted. But Betty said - "Now, Miss Ruth, if you want your bread to be real good, you must not stint it of one thing."
"What is that?" I asked. "Mother told me there were only these four things wanted to make my bread with."
Betty replied to my question b asking another. "Do you remember going with me to my old mother's cottage last summer, and asking what made the round table that was turned up in the corner, as bright as a looking-glass?"
"Yes, and you told me 'nothing but elbow grease.'
"I asked where it was bought, and you all laughed at me; but when I came home mother told me it meant good rubbing, which exercised elbows, and was called in joke 'elbow grease.'"
"That's it, my dear," said Betty, "and you want plenty of it in bread too; not in the way of rubbing, but kneading. Work it well. Don't spare labour and the bread will pay for it."
"So it did. I thought no loaf had ever tasted so sweet as did my first. My little arms ached, but I forgot that when they all praised my bread next morning; but I never forgot Betty's lesson, though conveyed in a homely fashion, that one great secret of good bread-making is good kneading, or, in her words, plenty of elbow-grease.
I cannot help regretting that amongst city girls especially bread-making is daily becoming a rarer accomplishment.
I have asked many girls, "Have you learned to make bread?" and the almost invariable answer has been, "No, the baker brings ours." I am tempted to wish that they might all in turn be transplanted for a few weeks to some out-of-the-way country place, where a baker's visits are unknown, and obliged to make and bake their bread before they ate it.
The world was more than two thousand years old when bread, as such, was mentioned in the Bible, as being brought out by Melchisedek for the refreshment of victorious Abram. But of what kind it was we know nothing.
It is, however, possible to tell what the first loaves ever used were made of, and there is at present no kind of bread which at all corresponds with them. The grain was neither ground nor bruised. IT was soaked, or in some cases boiled wheat, pressed into shape and dried. A very sticky indigestible sort of cake this would be, not too pleasant to the taste; probably a little of it would go a very long way.
The next step was when the happy thought struck somebody to bruise or pound the grain. Hard work it would be, and even when another step was achieved and corn was actually ground, the labour was very great, as it was all done by hand. The women slaves were employed to do the grinding by means of portable millstones, the uppermost being turned by a sort of wooden handle.
Such mills were used in Egypt, as named in Exodus. Such were still in existence in this country not so many generations back, and they were called querns.
Who first found out the art of making leavened bread is as much a mystery as the inventor of the first mill, and the process of fermenting dough by means of leaven was as tedious as the primitive mode of grinding corn and separating the husk from the finer portion of the grain, which we call flour.
This would be the reason whether Abraham, Lot and, several centuries later, Gideon offered unleavened cakes baked on the hearth to their angel visitants. The use of leaven was known; but leavened bread could not be quickly prepared, baked and served fresh and hot from the hearth like those cakes made without it.
Look back, dear girls of this nineteenth century, some nineteen hundred years more, beyond the era from which we date, and try to realise what sort of a batch of bread was baked by Sarah for the entertainment of the guests who were espied by her husband as he stood at his tent door on the plains of Mamre.
As nearly as can be calculated those three measures of mine meal - they had learned the art of sifting it, you see, in those days - made fifty-six pounds weight of bread, all baked in thin cakes on the hearth.
This would be heating by means of a fire which was burning on the bread stone, while the meal was simply mixed with salt and warm water into a stiff dough, and rolled out into very thin cakes. Then the hearth-stone was clean swept, the cakes placed on it and hot cinders above them. In this primitive fashion was the great batch of unleavened bread prepared; and by whom?
Not by servants, but by a lady, a princess by station, who had a vast retinue of attendants ready to do her bidding; the wife of an enormously wealthy man, who was the ally of kings, the friend of God Himself!
A beautiful lady, too, - so fair, indeed, that twice in her life, at the age of sixty-five and at ninety, she was admired and sought after by kings. But when Abraham bade her get ready the meal, knead the dough, and bake the cakes, she simply and cheerfully obeyed him whom she called "lord."
Not many of you, dear girls, are born to fill such a position as here was; but I am afraid plenty of modern young ladies are to be found who would rebel if requested even to superintend such a baking. But if any of you should be tempted to despise what may appear in your eyes such menial work, think of this princess of a bygone age, rich and fair, and learn a lesson as you catch a glimpse of her on a baking-day.
In these days unleavened bread still appears in many forms, and as this is the most primitive kind we will look at its varieties first. Amongst these are the Jewish Passover cakes - extremely thin, crisp biscuits, still eaten for a week by Jews during the seven days of the Passover.
Scotch oat bread, made of oatmeal, salt and water, into a stiff paste, rolled thin and baked on an iron girdle or thick plate of iron with semi-circular handle. In the North Riding of Yorkshire girdle or griddle cakes used to be baked on the top of a flat stone heated from below in the same way as the iron article. It was called a bak'ston', or bakestone, by country folk.
A farmer's wife was made extremely happy by the gift of an iron girdle; but she retained the old name for her baking apparatus, and was wont to shout to her serving maid, "Jenny, bring me the iron bak'ston'."
American damper is made without leaven, but the cakes are thicker than the Scotch oaten bread.
Then there are corn cakes," made of the meal of Indian corn. "Hominy cake," the same grain boiled to a pulp, and afterwards baked in thin cakes.
In Lincolnshire, my native country, unleavened cakes are very common. They are precisely the same thing as those made by Abraham's wife, only they are rolled out round and thin, and baked in the oven instead of on the hearth.
In the mowing season and during the harvest the labourers' wives would be up between four and five in the morning to bake these cakes for their husbands. They were eaten very hot, and either split open and buttered or accompanied by thin slices of fat bacon. Then a goodly pile of these bacon sandwiches, prepared while hot, would be packed up for the good man's refreshment when afield.
I asked the wife of one why she got up so early to bake every morning, and made this kind of cake. "Oh!" she said, "they stay on the stomach longer, and a man can work far better on these than on lighter bread. I never grudge the trouble for our George (her husband), for mowing's hard work."
It was easy to understand this explanation. These hot cakes were less digestible than ordinary bread; and hard work in the open air, with the profuse perspiration caused by labouring in the broiling sun, made him require frequent nourishment and of a very solid kind.
"He'd feel empty and hungry directly on light bread. 'Sad cakes' are best," said she, "for working men."
A visitor in my old home heard the expression "sad cakes" - meaning unleavened - and inquired what kind of things they were. On being told, she looked much astonished, and said, "I thought they must be cakes used for funerals."
"Sad bread" is simply heavy bread, whether made without yeast or any kind or with yeast that has done its duty imperfectly, and has left the loaf close and sticky, instead of light and full of small holes.
Before leaving the unleavened varieties of bread, I should like to show you how those large, thin, crisp sheets of oat-cake are made and baked in the west of Yorkshire, where I spent one very happy year as a girl in a country parsonage.
I was told when I went there from a county in which oat cake was unknown that I should soon learn to like it. And so I did; and I was curious to know how these large sheets could be rolled to such a delicate thinness.
"They are not rolled at all," said my friend, "they are thrown."
I was more puzzled than before, and asked what she meant.
"You had better go to our baker's and see the process," she replied, "and you will understand it much better than by my description. To-morrow is a baking day and you can go in the morning with Lily," meaning her daughter. "Many of the cottagers take their own meal to the baker, or bakeress. Mrs Marsden, and she charges them three-halfpence per four pounds weight for making and baking it."
The next morning we went to the bakehouse and found Mrs Marsden literally at full swing with her oat cake. Her stove was a thick iron plate, about two feet long, set in brickwork, and heated by a fire underneath it. Beside her stood a wooden vessel like a barrel churn, containing a batter made of oatmeal, salt and water. I am inclined to think a little yeast was used to lighten this, as bubbles kept rising on the surface. A bowl of dry meal, a pasteboard scored in diamonds instead of being smooth as is usual, a wooden ladle, and an oblong piece of coarse linen, completed her materials. First throwing a handful of dry meal o board, she next poured on it a ladleful of the batter, and shook it into an even shape. Then she dexterously transferred the latter from the board to the mealy cloth, which she lifted with both hands, laying lightly hold of opposite corners. Then, with a rapid movement, she threw the batter in a large oblong sheet on the heated iron plate, dropping the lower corner of the cloth as she did so. In half a minute the cake was ready to be turned with a wooden spatula, and in a similar time to be taken off and hung across a wooden rail.
The rapidity with which this operation was performed showed the fruits of long practice, together with the steady hand and correct eye of the baker. The stream of batter always ran along the iron plate almost to its edges, and so thinly was it spread that it was absolutely in small holes, yet without ever being broken. T throw oat cake very thin is deemed a mark of an accomplished hand.
Whilst we stood waiting and looking on, piles of these newly baked and perfectly soft cakes were brought away by the neighbouring cottagers. Each had with her a clean towel, folded lengthways in the middle. This was thrown across one arm, opened, the dozen of oat cakes placed on it; then they were covered with the other portion, and so carried home to be hung on the rack - a wooden frame suspended from the kitchen ceiling. IN a few hours, the cakes would be perfectly crisp and as brittle as thin glass.
Biscuits of various substantial kinds contain no leaven, especially those used at sea. They are made with very little water, and dried very much in the baking. The name means twice baked.
In another short chapter an account will be given of the various kinds of leaven, yeasts, and of plain and fancy breads now in use in various countries, with reliable recipes for young readers to follow, if they wish to become good bread-makers.