Bread: The Most Important Thing In Human History

11 min read

Bread has been part of human history for centuries. It plays an integral role in our daily life and is a symbol of culture, history, hunger, wealth, war, and peace. It is indispensable and has been key in human survival. Bread created the structure of modern day society and gave order to our way of living.

Without this seemingly simple food, civilisation wouldn’t exist in the way we know it today. The story begins 30,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, but since then, bread has been on a journey across the globe.

egyptian pyramids

30,000 years ago

Bread is the oldest food that doesn’t require foraging or hunting. It has been an essential part of human history and formed early human societies. Wheat was domesticated in the Middle East, and cultivation of bread spread to Europe, North Africa, and East Asia. In the Black Desert in Jordan, charred bread crumbs have been discovered that are thought to have been made by Natufian hunter-gatherers (a culture from the epipaleolithic period). It’s believed these breadcrumbs are derived from wild wheat, wild barley, and plant roots and date back between 14,600 and 11,600 years ago.

Millstones for grinding grain dated 30,000 years old, suggest that bread was one of the first ever foods, and existed before humans became agricultural. Stone tools were used for cracking and smashing various cereals and grains to make them into a more versatile food. As humans evolved, we mixed these cracked grains with water to create a variety of foods including porridge. We also discovered that by leaving this paste out in the sun, it formed a dry bread-like crust. However, the success of this process relied heavily on the grains available and the weather.

The process of finding ingredients and developing practices to turn grain and water into a palatable food gave status and recognition to individuals. This helped towns become more ordered and sophisticated compared to Nomadic lifestyles where people had no fixed habitation.

10,000 BC

There is extensive evidence of bread being made and consumed in Egypt some 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic period. Bread was a staple of Egyptian food and everyone from the pharaoh to peasants consumed it.

The Egyptians also had other uses for bread and used types of thick, non-porous bread as containers for other meals. This type of bread was easier to bake than leavened flatbreads as it didn't need a vertical oven. In around 450 BC, Egyptians discovered they could make these meals using whatever grain was most available in generous amounts. This discovery later led to an uptake in agricultural activities which formed larger villages and settlements. As a result, this contributed to the creation of cities worldwide and is what we know as modern day society. It’s believed the most common source of making bread during Ancient times was to leave a piece of bread out from the day before (with sugar and water in) and serve it at dinner as a sourdough starter.

The toughness and structure of this bread enabled it to last longer. Iberians and Gauls used the foam from beer fermentation in their baking process to add a unique lightness and taste, whilst those who didn’t have beer in other parts of the world, used wine juice to do the same thing. In terms of cooking methods, these evolved over time and became more advanced. It’s believed the first free standing ovens with an open door for access were invented by the Greeks, with different breads being made including pastries and cakes. This is not too dissimilar from how we bake today.

Universal Discovery

Bread is a universal food that exists in every country around the world. Since its formation, there are numerous types of bread that differ depending on where you’re from. Each has its own interesting culinary history.

America

In the Americas, the Myans were an agricultural society and were known as ‘the men of corn’. In their native language, ‘corn’ is referred to as ‘Ixim’ and became a staple food in their lifestyle. Nowadays, this is used to make tortillas, tamales, and other bread varieties. Modern day Mexican culture has adopted these traditions, and corn continues to be a popular part of Mexican dishes.

India and the Middle East

Chapati, also known as Roti, is a staple food in South Asian countries. There are varying stories regarding where the Chapati originated as some believe it came from Egypt 5000 years ago whereas others believe it was found in East Africa and then brought out to India. The most popular belief however is that it was founded in Southern India.

The Chapati is simple to produce and very filling, making it a popular side dish served all over the world. It was brought to England in 1857 during the Independence War. During this time the Army fed it to the soldiers, as it was easy to carry, provided a substantial meal, and rarely went off.

Europe

The Europeans first discovered the use of leavening bread and understood the brewing of beer and the process of baking leavened bread with the use of sourdough. Until the development of commercial yeats, all leavened breads were made with naturally occurring yeasts, so essentially, every bread was sourdough.

The introduction of commercial yeasts during the 19th century was detrimental to sourdough as these speeded up the baking process making production much easier. However, in the 1980s, demand for sourdough in the UK grew to the point that in 1993, regulations were drawn up to define what could be sold as sourdough bread. In Germany, sourdough continued to be used for rye breads, even as commercial yeasts became more popular.

Egypt

Different forms of currency were exchanged in Ancient Egypt before they began using coinage in the First Millennium B.C. Until this time, they did not rely on silver or gold, but instead exchanged everyday goods. For the poor, bread and beer were used to pay subsistence workers as they were staples of the Egyptian diet.

Bread and beer acted as rations to pay poor workers, although there were instances in the Middle Kingdom of highly paid workers who earned several hundred loaves of bread a day. Uniformity of value was essential for the exchange of bread and beer with set sizes of beer jars and bread loaves from a standard recipe. This ensured every worker received the same nutritional value. 

roman empire crumbling coliseum

Spread the Bread: Roman Empire

During 300-150 BC the baking industry began to thrive in the Roman Empire. Until this time, baking bread had been perceived as a slave's job or the role of a woman. However, as the industry started to boom, men considered bread-baking as a good occupation.

The popularity of baking gave rise to scrutiny, and in 168 BC, the Bakers Guild was formed which outlined rules about the practice. These rules were very strict and stated that once you were involved in the practice you weren’t allowed to leave. The Roman Empire offered several interesting insights into the role of bread in society and how it could be used to control people.

Juvenal, an ancient Roman poet, developed the phrase ‘Bread and Circuses’ (also known as bread and games) which refers to a superficial appeasement.

Essentially, this means gaining public approval through superficial means such as diversion and distraction to hide fundamental flaws in society. A key part of this is also satisfying the immediate, most basic needs of a populace such as providing them with food (bread) and circuses (entertainment).

In 140 CE, Roman politicians enforced laws to keep the votes of the poorer people by providing a grain dole. This gave these members of society cheap food and entertainment, and became the fastest way for them to rise to power.

The French Revolution

Voltaire, a French writer and historian, once famously said Parisians only need ‘the comic opera and white bread’.

Despite this, bread played an integral role in French history and markedly, the dark days of the French Revolution. Although caused by a number of reasons other than the price of bread, this issue had major significance in spurring people's anger towards the monarchy.

Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the revolution once famously said, ‘if they don’t have bread, let them eat cake!’

This displays the monarch's ignorance towards the suffering of their own people, whilst they continued to live in luxury. Riots dated back to 1529, when poor harvests led to the Great Rebellion.

This involved thousands of French civilians looting and destroying the houses of the rich, eventually spilling grain from the municipal granary onto the streets. Things deteriorated even more in the 18th century as the monarch was being advised by a group of economists who believed that the wealth of a nation derived for its land value, and therefore agricultural products should be priced higher. Under this counsel, the King attempted to deregulate domestic agriculture and create some form of free trade.

This greatly backfired as food shortages and over priced produce ignited anger in the towns and villages of the Paris Basin. Over 300 riots were recorded over a 3 week period and the protest became known as the ‘Flour War’. Any shortage or even a slight increase in bread prices had the potential to spark so much tension as bread accounted for 60-80 percent of a family's income. As a Monarch's role was to supply his subjects with food, King Louie began to eat the lower class ‘maslin’ bread to show his solidarity with those who did not have wheat. But, these measures were not enough and bread was still exploited.

In 1789, there was a plot drawn up in Paris to instigate rebellion against the crown stating the people must “do everything in our power to ensure that the lack of bread is total, so that the bourgeoisie are forced to take up arms.” Not long after this, the Bastille was stormed.

Turgot, an early economic adviser to Louis XVI, once advised the king, “Ne vous mêlez pas du pain” which means ‘Do not meddle with bread!’

1840s: Louis Pasteur and pasteurisation

Louis Pasteur was a scientist who first discovered pasteurisation, a food preparation process. During his lifetime, he made enormous contributions to the germ theory which prevents food spoilage and diseases.

Born in France into a family of 5, Louis was more artistic than academic in his learning practices. Despite this, he was encouraged by his mentors and attended École Normale Supérieure, a famous teachers colleague in Paris, where he earned his masters degree and doctorate.

In 1848 he was appointed to the faculty of sciences in Strasbourg, and in 1854 to the faculty in Lille where he launched studies on fermentation. Here, he discovered that microbes were responsible for souring alcohol and that bacteria could be destroyed by heating liquid and then letting it cool. By studying fermentation in wine and beer, he concluded that thermal processing would deactivate unwanted microorganisms.

Through developing the pasteurisation process, Louis helped to save the beer and wine industries across France, essentially rescuing them from collapse due to problems associated with transportation and contamination. Bringing it up to modern day, pasteurisation is rarely used for wines that benefit from aging, as the process kills off the organisms that contribute to the aging process.

However, it is applied to many foods and beverages to preserve their quality, and in particular milk.

Today pasteurisation is still used in the food industry as it enables a longer shelf life, allowing foods to be consumed days after production without going off. 

sliced bread

Bread in the modern day

Hovis was founded in 1886 and first started mass-production in Macclesfield Cheshire. The process was patented by Richard ‘Stoney’ Smith who developed a method of steam cooking the bread to preserve the wheat germ in bread. To find a name for the bread, a competition was launched where people could make suggestions.

This winning name was awarded to London student Herbet Grime, who developed the brand name ‘Hovis’ derived from the Latin ‘hominis vis’ (strength of man.)

By 1895, Hovis was being sold to millions of households and was marketed as a healthy product due to its production method. It was reported there were several types of vitamin B found in wheat germ which contributed to its popularity.

The bread was sold in 1lbs and 2lbs loaves as well as mini ‘Hovis penny loaves’ which are still remembered today.

During the Second World War, bread was severely rationed alongside many other amenities and the brand created many slogans to support the war effort including ‘thin slices make Hovis go further.’

Today Hovis remains a household name and a staple of many kitchen cupboards. This famous advert a few years ago represents the history of the modern bakery and its journey through the years.

Post WW1

‘The best thing since sliced bread.’

This phrase is commonly used today to describe how great something is, comparing it with the wonderful invention that is sliced bread. During the 20th century, bread baking was industrialised to make the process much quicker and consistent so that it could be mass produced.

In 1928 Otto Frederick Rohwedder developed a bread-slicing machine that both sliced and wrapped bread. At first, American consumers weren’t sure what to think of it, as they were unfamiliar with the concept.

However, by World War 2, they were so hooked on its convenience that there was a national crisis when they could no longer access a bread slicing machine.

Initially, this was part of America’s war efforts to stop producing the machine to conserve the tons of steel it requires.

There was such a backlash that the unpopular ban was lifted after only 2 months!

1980- Grant’s Bakery

Grants have been producing delicious bakes for over 40 years and are passionate about creating beautifully crafted goods that make everyone's day that little bit better.

Based in Corbridge, we provide hand designed cakes and warm rustic breads, ensuring every product is lovingly-made to exceed customer expectations.

We know our customers want proper, hearty food, in proper portions, and that’s what we do. You can count on us to create an array of goods that will keep you coming back for more! And don’t just take our word for it.

As well as 40 years of experience, we’ve won the Bakery Industry Best Craft Bakery awards nationally in 2020.

We also have a selection of prestigious former clients including Grosvenor House, Gleneagles Hotel, and even the Queen's annual garden party at Holyrood Palace. From start to finish, we’re committed to providing the best quality service to our customers. And what’s more, we deliver!

Check out our list of locations and availability to get fresh baked goods delivered straight to your door.

Did you know that Corbridge has a long and fascinating history of bread making? Even today, there is a plaque marking the ‘King’s Oven’ on the west side of St Andrew’s church.

First recorded in 1310, this is where the villagers’ would have baked bread and meat in a communal oven and people travelled far and wide to collect their bread.

Until the late nineteenth century the oven was still in use and remains a historic attraction. 

home baking

2020

During the latest pandemic, baking bread has boomed.

People have spent a lot more time at home and have used this time baking, as it provides an enjoyable distraction from the stresses of everyday life. At the height of the pandemic, many shops and supermarkets were left with no ingredients including flour, as it had become such a popular thing to do.

People were turning to alternatives such as making their own self raising flour or bulk buying when they had the chance.

From savoury bread to banana bread, baking became popular across the UK and brought families together. It provided a few precious hours of enjoyment to escape what was going on in the world.

This shows even in the modern day, when there are other things to do (TV, radio, gaming etc), people still turn to baking as a hobby and a means of entertaining themselves.

Baking bread has come full circle and the importance of this in society has been elevated over the last 12 months. Not having access to bread or ingredients created panic during 2020, similar to the emotions experienced during the French Revolution when bread was scarce.

Bread is, and always will be, an integral part of society.

Bread: The Most Important Thing in History

Bread is one of the oldests foods in our history and built the early formations of human society.

From its earliest origins in Ancient Egypt thousands of years ago, through to it’s introduction to the Roman Empire, bread has been a staple in numerous cultures and was even relied on as a form of currency.

Without bread, ordered societies wouldn’t exist as these early formations created the structure for the Western World. Now you know the all-important history of bread, would you like a loaf? Take a look at our range of delicious breads.



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