Bread: the extraordinary fate of an ordinary food item

Today we will talk about a food that has been part of our daily life for well over 10,000 years! It may seem incredible, but the story of bread, is a story that begins in a very distant time, from flours made from wild cereals, ancestors of the domesticated monocoque wheat (first barley, millet and rye, then spelt and wheat). Bread is a universal food: today there is no country in the world in whose culinary tradition there is not some form of bread.
From Mesopotamia to the tables of the whole world, bread has been the symbol of culture, history and anthropology, of hunger and wealth, of war and peace. Not only does this apparently simple food bring with it a history that has merged with that of civilizations, but it has also been a staple food and indispensable for the survival of peoples.

There are so many meanings attributed to it, sacred bread, secular bread, ordinary bread, daily bread, bread as a great metaphor for humanity.

Who invented bread?

Numerous archaeologists, anthropologists and historians have investigated the origins of bread. In recent years, the team of researchers from the universities of Copenhagen, London and Cambridge have been working on the findings of the Natufi era found during excavations at Shubayqa, an archaeological site in north-east Jordan discovered in the 1990s. Excavations have uncovered the traces of the communities of Natufi culture, who built small villages used as base camps where the inhabitants returned periodically. The remains of a hearth provide the first evidence that bread was made fourteen thousand years ago, and four millennia before agriculture began.
The results, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, show that at least 24 of the 642 food fragments found are believed to be breadcrumbs. The bread invented by the people of Shubayqa had to be flat, a little burned, similar to a primitive Middle Eastern Pita, and very protein-rich. Our ancestors did not yet know the principles of leavening, but their recipe was by no means a foregone conclusion.

Cereals (barley and wild wheat seeds, ancestors of domesticated wheat) were broken, shelled, crushed and sieved. This flour was then mixed with water to form a dough to be cooked on embers or hot stones. Such complexity makes us think of the need to "design" foods that were more nutritious and easier to preserve than those available in nature.

It can be said then that in the history of this food is kept more than a simple recipe, the bread is a real synonym of human ingenuity. For man, wheat processing techniques were a way towards evolution and civilization. From the primordial pullets of hand-ground cereal seeds, stone by stone, mixed with water and cooked next to the fire, man has learned to improve his product. In this agricultural, technological and gastronomic process, a fundamental chapter, was written by the two great civilizations of the fertile Crescent, that of the Sumerians, in Mesopotamia, and that of Ancient Egypt.

Bread as a sacred object and a metaphor for transformation

Bread, still called aish today, "life", in Egyptian Arabic and the word ninda, "bread", appears on Sumerian tablets since the first invention of writing, in 3600 BC. Its pictogram is the shape of a round bowl that was used to knead it. In fact, at the time when the Romans fed on a simple porridge of flour and the Greeks on a sheet of pasta cooked over a fire, the Egyptians were able to put swollen and appetizing loaves on the table.

They had discovered the "magical" effects of fermentation, what would later be called "natural leavening".

At the time, the phenomenon was considered of almost supernatural origin and its empirical observation was more or less random. To obtain the magical result, a dough of "unleavened" bread (water, milk and barley and millet flour) forgotten for some time, began to ferment and, later baked, proved soft and digestible.
To obtain the transformation, it was enough to add to the amalgam of ground grains and water, a piece of pasta left over the day before. For this reason, the "mother pasta" was jealously guarded - as if it were a sacred thing - in every Egyptian house. Thanks to this little trick the Egyptians became undisputed masters in the art of baking, and earned the nickname of bread eaters. In the land of the pharaohs, the list of foods that were brought to the afterlife includes at least fifteen names to indicate as many types of bread.
Later, the secrets of baking were passed on to the Greeks, who attributed important religious meanings to bread. The profession of baker enjoyed great prestige, the heir of the alchemist, the blacksmith, his mastery of metal and everything that came from the depths of the earth. He was the guardian of the fire, the one who truly gave bread its definitive form, its identity. Each city had a public oven, the space organised around the baking of the dough, used for experimentation. The Greek housewives kneaded their bread and took it to bake by the baker, under the spiritual protection of the goddess Demeter "Mother Earth" and "goddess of bread", wheat and 'agriculture, author of the cycle of seasons, life and death.

The idea of bread was in fact closely linked to the fruitfulness of the land. The grain of wheat was inscribed in the heart of the mysteries of Eleusis, a city west of Athens, where pilgrims came from all over the Mediterranean perimeter. At the centre of the agricultural rites celebrated in the sanctuary of Demeter, there was the symbolic death of the wheat seed that, once buried in the depths of the earth, germinated to donate a new ear.

Making bread is an art

The poet Archestrato di Gela (4th century B.C.), gourmand and cook, is one of the first to make gastronomic art a subject of verses. In Hedypatheia, the author recounts the deeds of a refined Sicilian man who travelled the ancient world and enjoys writing his gastronomic experiences, in a sort of anticipation of etiquette.

The most prized and best flours of all are those of barley, all carefully sieved, whiter than ether and snow. If the gods eat barley flour, Hermes goes there and buys it for them.

The verses point out that one of the greatest merits and difficulties in the art of baking, was to create a white bread, even white as snow. The Greek students developed the profession of baker, perfecting the techniques of doughing and baking, using wine yeasts to raise the dough and adding spices and aromas with great creativity, so that they came to produce more than 70 different types of bread. Examples are semidelites, a noble bread made from wheat flour; bromite, from bromos, which means "oat"; and matza, a flat bread made from barley flour that can still be purchased in Athens today. Around the beginning of the fifth century BC they invented the Olynthe hopper mill, which lightened the work of the millers.
And in ancient Rome? As in all the great Mediterranean civilizations, here too the symbolic meaning of bread was quite relevant. In ancient Rome from the first century BC, in the houses and on the tables, during meals, bread was never missing. It was such an important food that it was always served in popinae (restaurants), in combination with hot dishes of legumes, vegetables, meat and fish. There were therefore a good number of breads, all different for each type of companatico.

It seems that it was the Greek prisoners captured in Macedonia who brought the secret of baking to Rome. The question was sometimes so great that, when wheat was missing in Italy, it was imported from Egypt and North Africa. With the Romans the first bakeries were built, during the empire of Augustus there were 329, all managed by the Greeks. Under Trajan, there is the category of millers and then that of bakers bakers: gathered in corporations whose rights are guaranteed by the emperor, are named pistores, a name taken from the French bakers (pestores) until the ninth century.

Bread at the base of the social contract

At the time of the Roman Empire, bread was the staple food for a large part of the population and the emperor had to ensure it for all. Evergetism (a term coined by the historian André Boulanger) refers to the obligation of the wealthiest to give gifts to the community. The gradilis, for example, was a bread distributed to the people during the games in the amphitheatres, to honour the demagogic promise to distribute the bread and the fun to the people (Panem et circenses). In Roman times there was a specific legislation, the edict that established that wheat bread was healthier and preferable to the sort of polenta (puls) and other mixtures of cereals in use, and that it was allowed to buy wheat in public barns at a price lower than the market price.

Bread in modern times

In modern times, the intimate bond between power, the people and bread solidifies in the form of an alliance, or sometimes a sliding knot. A struggle that is based on the law of the stick and the carrot: the repressive force on the one hand, and on the other a king who guarantees the population to be spared from famine. Bread becomes a public service, the price of which is taxed and fixed. But when the price of wheat, and therefore of bread, is particularly high, the people and the economy are at risk. There are many revolts (bread wars) in the modern era. In 1628 in Milan, the drought, the war and the inability to manage of the rulers led to a rise in the price of bread. In the Promessi sposi, Manzoni narrates the assault on the Milan bakery during the famine.
Among the many examples, the popular revolt of 1789 against Marie Antoinette, who is credited with the famous quote "If they no longer have bread, let them eat brioches", which he would have said referring to the hungry people. In France, the bread wars that broke out in various cities, prefigured the Parisian march of 1789. And again, in 2011, the protest for the unjustified increase in food, propagated from Algeria to Jordan. 5,000 people took to the streets of Amman to protest against increases in the price of bread and food in general.

Bread has had and still has a great economic and social role. The history of bread has always been intertwined with that of the poorest and most painful part of the population, which struggles and works to get it.

Bread, as we have seen in this excursus, still represents for man today the redemption from hunger but also the ability to evolve. We find it as the backbone of all the ritualistic elements related to the life cycle and seasonal cycles. Everywhere its production, preparation and consumption are accompanied by gestures, prayers, formulas and rituals of propitiation and thanksgiving. At the same time, this food is of great importance in the community consumption of the meal, in the need to divide it and offer it to others. The profession of baker is deeply reinvented. His gestures and his efforts bring to life the heritage of wheat, which is the good of all humanity.

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