It seems strange that it’s taken me a year of blogging – and 800 years or so of English literature – to write about bread when it is such a staple food. In the Bible story of Adam and Eve, the first human beings, God punishes Adam with hard work, saying, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground” (Genesis 3: 19). Bread, the most basic of foodstuffs, will only be earned through back-breaking labour.
In English literature, an early reference to bread occurs in an Anglo-Saxon riddle (one of the more than 90 included in the Exeter Book, a 10th century anthology of Old English poetry). Whilst the answer to the riddle is bread, this riddle, like many of the period, is intentionally ambiguous with a sexual subtext. Scholars have estimated that approximately one third of the riddles – all composed by monks – could be solved as penis (whilst also having a more mundane solution). The riddle reads:
I’m told a certain object grows
in the corner, rises and expands, throws up
a crust. A proud wife carried off
that boneless wonder, the daughter of a king
covered that swollen thing with a cloth.
Back to more mundane references to bread. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the Franklin, who is described as an Epicurean, is commended for the uniformly good standard of his bread and ale: “His breed, his ale, was alweys after oon“. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Puck, servant to Oberon, King of the Fairies, laughingly tells his lord how he has bewitched Titania, Oberon’s queen, to fall in love with Bottom, one of a group of “rude mechanicals / That work for bread upon Athenian stalls“. Bottom is mocked by Puck for his social status – he is a labouring man – who needs to work in order to eat. And in Henry IV, Part One, as noted here, Shakespeare’s great gourmand, Sir John Falstaff, is reprimanded by Prince Hal for the paucity of bread he buys to mop up his excessive consumption of alcohol: “O monstrous! But one halfpennyworth of bread / to this intolerable deal of sack?”
But it was only when I got to the 18th century and Robinson Crusoe that bread took on far greater significance. As I’ve outlined in my previous posts on this early English novel, the shipwrecked Crusoe has to build his own Western Christian society on the godless desert island on which he is shipwrecked, and one way in which he does this is through growing and making food.
One incident which arouses much cheer in Crusoe is his discovery, when he has been on the island a while, of a few shoots of barley and rye which he realizes must have fallen from “a bag of chickens’ meat” that he shook out. He is struck by God’s providence in allowing these “10 or 12 grains of corn” to remain unspoiled and to land on a patch of fertile ground with enough shade to protect them from the burning sun. Saving the corn to sow the following year, Crusoe has to exhibit a huge measure of patience, not allowing himself to eat “the least grain of this corn” until the fourth year.
Once Crusoe has corn, his aim is to eventually make bread, but as he notes, this is no mean feat: “It might be truly said, that now I worked for my bread; ’tis a little wonderful, and what I believe few people have thought much upon, viz. the strange multitude of little things necessary in the providing, producing, curing, dressing, making, and finishing this one article of bread.”
Crusoe makes a primitive pestle and mortar to grind the corn and a sieve to separate the flour from the bran. Dispensing with yeast, as he has none, he also has to assemble a rudimentary oven to bake his bread. It takes time, but he gets there and. as he proudly notes, “I baked my barley loaves, and became in little time a meer pastry-cook into the bargain“.
I made flatbreads to accompany my goat stew. Unlike Crusoe, I did not grind my own flour or make my own oven, and I did use yeast, so they are a cheat’s version, but a very tasty one at that.
ROBINSON CRUSOE’S FLATBREADS (makes 8)
250g plain white flour
250g strong white flour
1 1/2 level teaspoons fine sea salt
1 teaspoon easy-blend (instant) dried yeast
1 tablespoon olive oil (plus extra for oiling)
Method: Put the two flours into a large bowl with the salt and yeast, and mix well. Add the oil and 325ml warm water and mix to a rough dough. Tip the dough onto a floured work surface and knead for 5-10 minutes until smooth (alternatively and in a very non-desert island way use a food mixer and knead for 5 minutes).
Oil a clean bowl, add the dough and turn in the oil so it is covered all over. Cover the bowl with a tea towel or cling film and leave in a warm place until doubled in size (it could take as long as two hours).
When the dough is well risen, tip it out and punch it back to its original size. Divide the dough into 8 balls and roll out into rough circles approximately 2-3mm thick.
Leave to rest for 5 minutes. In the meantime heat a heavy-based non-stick frying pan over a high heat until it is smoking hot (do NOT put any oil in it). Lay one flatbread in the pan and cook for about 2 minutes until bubbly on top and patched with brown spots on the base. Flip over and cook for 1-2 minutes, then remove to a warmed plate and cover with a tea towel whilst you make the other 7.