When the Great British Bake Off stormed on to screens three years ago, TV and food critics alike hailed it as the return of the popularity of baking. However, there is one baked good that we never stopped eating; bread. Bread has been a staple of our diets for as long as popular memory can recall. Indeed, when we look at the ancient world it is clear that bread’s exalted place on our tables has been established for millennia.
We are all familiar with the role of bread in the bible. From the feeding of the five thousand to the last supper bread appears in many of the pivotal moments in the book, particularly in the New Testament. In all of these scenes, bread represents unity and fraternity – two of the cornerstones of the Christian tradition. The abundance of bread in the bible, alongside its symbolism, shows the illustrious position that both bakers and baking held in ancient societies.
For the Romans, bakers were some of the first workers to unionise to defend their artisan tradition. Their guild, Collegium Pistorum, was formed in 168BC and by the end of the next century there was a profusion of specialist pastry chefs in Rome. Bakers were held in such high esteem that one of the seats in the senate had to be held by a representative of the guild. Experimentation was rife, with all kinds of grains and techniques used. Wealth played a key role in which breads families ate.
As ever with the Greeks, competition between the different city-states was rife when it came to baking. Athens claimed the first bakeries and the laurel for baking. It was also the Athenians who pioneered leavening for their wheat bread. However, much of this experimentation was curtailed when Solon, an Athenian lawmaker, deemed that wheat bread should be reserved for feast days in the 6th century BC. Instead, Barley became the staple cereal of the Greek world, with the rest of the meal simply being called opson, or condiment. Wheat bread was considered vastly superior to all other forms – a point of view that remains with us to this day.
Nevertheless, while we consider rounded, white, risen loaves the dominant form of bread throughout history, in the middle-east other recognisable bakes were also establishing themselves. While pita is a term loaned by the Greeks, the breads produced by the Arabic world in this period would be very recognisable to us. Referred to as khubz, ‘ordinary bread’ was a very slightly leavened, flat, white bread, usually baked in a tannur oven. While we consider the loaves discussed earlier ‘normal’, the universality of pita style breads in the middle-east today shows how important this baking tradition is for that part of the world.
On the other side of the Atlantic, another of our favourite savoury bakes was rapidly developing. Centuries before the Spanish arrived with wheat in tow, the Aztecs were consuming maize en masse. While this was often straight from the cob, they later developed new techniques for using the corn, including grinding it. They used this cornmeal to form a dough called masa and baked this to form a flat, wide maize bread. It is this bread that is still a staple in Mexico today and that inspired the wheat tortilla that is so popular today.
The bakes developed by civilisations across the ancient world have hardly changed over the last two millennia and we still consume them in much the same way that our predecessors did during the ancient period. Bread is one of the only traditions that has surpassed both nationality and time.