Bread is glorious. Decadent and timelessly comforting, it is the most vastly consumed food in the world. In fact, around 60% of the human population eats bread every single day. And rightfully so. It’s delicious.
Historian records suggest that the birth of bread took place somewhere around 30,000 years ago, the first forms of which were unleavened, flatbreads found in several regions of the world, from India’s naan, to the Middle-Eastern pita, all the way to the Central American tortilla.
This simple food, essentially composed of flour and water, is a rich source of carbohydrates, feeding entire populations. Bread has in many ways become a symbol of our simultaneous survival and transformative evolution. It’s various creative forms illustrate our multiple cultures, and our shared history. Throughout time, it has been at the center of war and communion, and on the tables of both the rich and the poor.
Bread is universal. Bread is community.
Before supermarket bread there was prehistoric bread: a gruel made up of water and crushed grains. Rocks and stones were used as a mortar and pestle to grind up grains like wild wheat, seeds and barley, and this was then mixed with water to create a paste like dough that would be humbly cooked on heated rocks, in other words, the primal oven. At this point, the process of leavening bread was not yet invented, but already, humans were curious about how food could be created and preserved, as opposed to simply consumed as readily available in nature.
From the Egyptians, to the Greeks, to the Romans
Around 10,000 years ago, the Ancient Egyptians and the Sumerians pioneered the transformation of bread from flat and hard into puffy and light. This marked a pivotal moment on many levels, not only gastronomically, but also agriculturally and technologically.
It is not very clear how the first fluffy loaf made its way into existence, but it is assumed that it was accidental. Arguably, a miraculous accident. The idea is that some leftover flatbread dough, or gruel, was forgotten for a good enough stretch of time that it began to undergo the process of fermentation. Not in a fancy mason jar, but most likely neglected somewhere in the sun. And then, by way of magic, when baked later on, it grew into something not flat. It was softer and lighter, and likely more easy to digest.
It was naturally leavened bread!
Thus began the domestication of wheat and barely in the Mesopotamia area near the Nile, introducing the Palaeolithic European hunter-gatherers, who hitherto relied heavily on animal meat from hunting, to an agricultural diet. Although this dietary shift from meat to grains is quite mainstream nowadays, at the time, it completely changed the way people lived. Now, instead of living nomadically, in search of food available in nature, people remained in the same place, as farmers, relying on the grains that grew locally. This lead to the development of civilisations and towns, shaping a new structure of society. All because of bread…
From the bloated loaves on the tables of the Egyptians came the Greek bakers and their religious attributions concerning the meaning of bread. To be a baker was of the upmost prestige, whereby bread was spiritually protected by Demeter, the goddess and mother of harvest and agriculture, presiding over the seasons of life and death. At the heart of each city was a public oven, in which dough kneaded by Greek housewives was taken to be was baked. Greek baking students would perfect the craft by experimenting with different techniques and flavours, from spices to aromas, transforming the sacred food into a creative art.
In the first century BC, bread had arrived in Ancient Rome, by way of Greek prisoners held captive in Macedonia. And of course, in no time, it was a recurrent feature in all meals. Euergetism ensured that it be the obligation of the emperor, the wealthiest, to share this gift with the community, thus bread was even included in the “social contract” of the Roman society. Alas, during subsequent events in history, of war and deprivation, this practice was not followed, and it was the poor who were left hungry.
People + Bread = Power
Once naturally leavened bread became widespread, the techniques for milling the grains into flour became more refined, creating smooth, fine, and preferably white dust. This kind of refined, white flour was a symbol of status, as the process of grinding involved removing the germ and bran from the grain, and even, bleaching it to obtain a white color. The poor were left with the dark, whole-grain loaves. Industrialisation facilitated this process, by way of larger, more efficient machines and chemical additives that helped to fast-forward the mixing process and fermentation period. This achieved the result of the “ideal loaf of bread”, akin to the white, pre-sliced, fluffy loafs found in supermarkets now. However, at the cost of efficiency and appearance, came nutritional value and taste.
Back to square one…
And the process was inverted again: the white, processed bread, once prized by the rich, is now the deprived-of-nutrition bread of the poor. We returned to praising the more rustic version of bread: grainy, textured and nutty flavoured.
So here we are, knee-deep in the second year of the pandemic. In some parts of the world, still mainly confined. And somewhere between stocking up on toilet paper and bingeing on Netflix, we have discovered, again, the art of bread-making.
My sourdough starter is patiently building up the courage to activate. It is day 7 now, and the yeast has converted the sugar in the paste-like-dough into carbon dioxide. I know this because there are bubbles. I hope that means some light, airy bread. But it’s too soon to tell. We haven’t even passed the floating test yet…
Naturally, with all the waiting, comes all the thinking. Thinking about quarantine, and what it means to slow down. Thinking about how automatic it was for so many of us to revert to taking the time to be creative. To invest in making something that takes time. That isn’t instant, but still gratifying. And of course, making naturally leavened bread at home requires patience and persistence, but it’s not just a question of time. Before the pandemic, we were not only living in a fast-paced existence, we were also living in a disconnected one. And somewhere, between the flour and the water, there was an opportunity to connect.
In many ways, life pre-Covid-19 was disconnected. From the way we used our devices to weaponise misinformation, to the negativity we received and projected on social media, and the profound isolation in which we found ourselves in. We were not only disconnected from each other, but with ourselves and with the environment.
Therefore, it would appear counter-intuitive that social distancing and isolation would bring about connection. And in many ways it hasn’t. But maybe in a deeper way it has: by giving us the opportunity to re-connect with ourselves.
Connection begins with the self.
It begins with connecting to what we can create before it’s even made. It begins with not doing anything at all, in order to appreciate all. And maybe you didn’t join the trend, and didn’t make some bread. But if you did, maybe connection began with tending to a jar of flour and water. Watching it come to life, while rooting for it to survive and transform into something larger than the sum of its parts.
And from that idea of connection, maybe, just maybe, came the connection of sharing your creation with others.
Or maybe your starter never activated, or your bread came out dry and tough. A colossal failure. Maybe you thought it was going well, but somewhere down the line, things went south, but you’re not even sure where or when. But, maybe you still laughed about it. With someone, or alone.
This year has made it blindly clear that most of life is out of our control. So the least we can do to enjoy the process is to be there fully.
If you are there fully, you are in perfect companion with yourself.
And of course, the word companion comes from the Latin words “com”=“with”, and “panis” = “bread”
So if you don’t know where to begin, or where to connect, know that even bread can be your companion. It is more than food. It is a metaphor of life.