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The History of Bread - The Middle Ages

Bread in the Middle Ages

As mentioned above, bread and the art of baking were exported from Egypt and across the Roman Empire. During the early Middle Ages (5th Century) the Roman Empire started to break down but baking had already been embedded in Europe and even spread to Asia. The Vikings made bread mainly from Rye grains, which produces a dense, hard bread. Circular loaves were often made with a hole in the middle allowing bread to be hung from a pole or rope.

Medieval Bread Baking

Commonly, Kings, Princes and large households would have their own staff whose only duty would be baking. There were public bakeries, normally owned by the local land lord, where the poorer people brought their bread to be baked communally, and later where they could buy ready-baked bread. It was the job of the housewives to bring their dough to the baker, who would then bake it into bread.

Medieval bread was very similar to the loaf we know today. According to historic sources, the taste was comparable to modern wholemeal bread made from stone-ground flour. Unfortunately very few original bread recipes have survived the passing of time. It can be presumed that as bread was such a staple part of the medieval diet, it was not considered necessary to include it in recipe books.

The Assize of BreadSome bakers used their positions to take advantage of their customers and had trap doors that would allow a small boy to pinch off a bit of the dough to later sell off as his own. In England in the 13th Century practices like these led to a regulation known as the Assize of Bread and Ale.

This regulation regulated the price, weight and quality of the bread and beer manufactured and sold in towns, villages and hamlets and also laid out harsh punishments for brewers and bakers who were caught cheating. In response, bakers commonly threw in an extra loaf of bread; this tradition lives on today in the modern "baker's dozen."

Nowadays it’s possible for anyone to become a Baker, all you need to do is go to a proper Baking School or open a shop. In Medieval times it was much harder and there were often apprenticeships which took 7 years. There were statutes to keep these rules in place and it preserved the art of baking.

There are a number of accounts of apparently 'different' breads from the Middle Ages. These included flat round loaves, round bread rolls, and famously ‘trencher bread’. The word trencher comes from the French verb trenchier or trancher’ which means "to cut".

Trencher Bread

Trencher BreadA bread trencher is normally described as a thick slice of dry stale wholemeal bread (typically four days old) used as a kind of ‘edible’ plate. It’s thought that trencher bread was more commonly served at feasts, where a person of substance was paying the bill. For the wealthier host, bread trenchers were relatively cheap and had the bonus for of being easy to prepare and use. Meat with sauce was served directly onto the bread platter, which had a shallow hollow or ‘trench’ cut into the bread to retain any gravy or juices, the plate could then be eaten along with the meal. This became less common in the 16th Century and was replaced by a wooden bowl, with a circular hollow of about 6” in diameter. The Assize of Bread and Ale was in place until the start of the 19th century, and was then abolished in London.

The History Of Bread - The Industrial Revolution