Did you eat a sandwich today? Did you have an English muffin this morning or a slice of pizza last night? Americans eat 34 million loaves of bread per day, not to mention rolls, baguettes, bagels, croissants, pitas, doughnuts, and dozens of other kinds of bread. Bread was the first processed food in human history, and it’s still the world’s largest single food category—more people eat some form of bread on a daily basis than any other food product.
Most bread falls into one of two groups: leavened, which rises with the help of an ingredient (yeast is the most common leavening agent) and unleavened, which is basically flat. Many flat varieties— for example, Mexican tortillas, Jewish matzo, Norwegian flatbread, or Indian chapati—have remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. But the history of bread is really about the flatbreads that did change—and evolved into the leavened loaves we know today.
• The history of bread begins with wild grain. According to historians, around 11000 B.C. huge fields of grain appeared in southwest Asia as the glaciers began to retreat. Nomadic people ate the raw seeds (in addition to whatever else they could gather).
• By about 8000 B.C., people had learned that the seeds could be planted and cultivated, that they would yield reliable crops, and that families could be fed from those crops. It was the beginning of agriculture; traditional nomadic life evolved into settlements (after all, if you’re going to raise crops like wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats, you’ve got to stay put). And with the introduction of the mortar and pestle for grinding the grain into flour, most of these early agrarian cultures invented some kind of bread—flat, coarse, and probably not very tasty, but they were sustaining and they lasted longer than foods that had to be hunted or gathered daily.
• The next few thousand years saw all kinds of agricultural developments that helped make bread a staple food: Farmers along the Euphrates River in the Middle East invented plows and irrigated fields around 4000 B.C.; the Sumerians invented a sickle for harvesting grain; farmers in northern China learned to cultivate wheat and barley strains that tolerated low rainfall; and in eastern Europe, where the growing season is too short for wheat, rye became a major crop.
• Around 2000 B.C., the Egyptians hit the jackpot: They discovered leavening, the ingredient that makes bread rise. The discovery probably came about by accident, when airborne wild yeast spores got into some bread dough. Yeast is a living microorganism that occurs naturally in the environment—on plants, in the soil, and on animals. And under the right conditions (warm liquid, and sugar or starch to feed on), it will grow and produce carbon dioxide, which, in the case of bread, bubbles through the dough and makes it rise. And that’s what makes bread light and fluffy. (Wild yeast was also noted for its ability to ferment the sugars in grain. The by-product of fermentation is alcohol, which made another food possible—beer, which the Egyptians valued highly.)
• The Egyptians also figured out how to use two stones for grinding grain to make flour with a much finer texture than the old mortar and pestle had yielded. Egyptians were expert wheat growers, but it was a labor-intensive crop, which made wheat flour expensive to produce. Result: Common people ate cheaper, coarse darker, flatter barley bread; the wealthy ate finer, whiter, fluffier wheat bread.
• One more Egyptian innovation: Rat stones or griddles were used for baking flatbreads, but the Egyptians had a class of professional bakers who used cone-shaped clay ovens, with which they could control the heat for making leavened bread.
• Around 600 B.C., Phoenician sailors brought Egyptian flour am bread technology to Greece. The Greeks already had a bread-baking culture, but they quickly adopted the Egyptian improvements and soon Greek states vied with each other in bread-making skill (Athens claimed to be the best). They further advanced the development of bread through the use of a Greek invention: the front-loading oven, an improvement over the Egyptians’ top-opening version.
• From Greece, bread know-how spread west to Rome. The Romans considered bread even more important than meat, and it was a stabilizing factor in the smooth running of the Roman welfare state: Grain was distributed to the populace of Rome (later the government even baked the bread), and Roman soldiers were adamant about receiving their full allotment of bread.
• The expansion of the Roman Empire northward took Greek bread-baking techniques throughout Europe. But with the decline of the Empire around 400 A.D., the quality of bread-making skills declined, too, and unleavened bread became the norm again. During the first half of the Middle Ages (400-1000 A.D.) bread history gets a little hazy, but the Normans are believed to have reintroduced leavened bread to England in the 12th century, and by the 13th century all of Europe again had better flour, better bakers, and better bread.
• Milling and baking soon became highly skilled professions, making millers and bakers influential and rich. Bakehouses (the medieval term for “bakeries”), with their large ovens, were serious fire hazards, so they were built far from the shops where the bread was sold. The bakehouses usually belonged to feudal lords, who allowed bakers to use the ovens for a fee or in exchange for bread. Gradually bakers began setting up their own bakehouses (sometimes communally owned), and forming guilds to protect themselves from the lords and to regulate bread production.