Just when we knead it most, bread rises again

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Just when we knead it most, bread rises again

As baking enjoys a revival it is (ahem) leavening to reflect on bread’s long and storied past

Features editor
French mobile baker Arnault Carnis delivers bread in Combres, western France during lockdown.
Staff of life French mobile baker Arnault Carnis delivers bread in Combres, western France during lockdown.
Image: AFP/Jean-Francois Monier

Mixing, kneading and stirring – as the global lockdown has people looking for things to do, baking has become hotter than any period in history since Alfred the Great burnt his cakes.

According to market-research company Nielsen, sales in France of flour surged by 160% year-on-year in March.

The National Association of British and Irish Millers told the BBC the industry was milling flour 24 hours, seven days a week to double production, but was still struggling to meet demand.

We don’t have figures available in SA but our online obsession with food suggests similar patterns.

King Alfred was the king of Wessex and the last defender against the Vikings, those irritating pests with no table manners bent on conquering the whole of England. The would-be colonisers launched a surprise attack in 887 and Alfred and his devoted followers were forced to hide in the marshes. 

The king took refuge in the home of a peasant woman who welcomed him with open arms but had better things to do than fret over monarchs and their thrones.

One day she asked him to watch her cakes – small loaves of bread – baking on the fire while she went off to milk cows and enforce social distancing between her hens and their eggs. Alfred, daydreaming about his warm bed at the palace, let the cakes burn and got a real bollocking from his hostess. (Apart from his culinary deficiencies he turned out to be a pretty decent king but that’s a story for another day.)

The king took refuge in the home of a peasant woman who welcomed him with open arms but had better things to do than fret over monarchs and their thrones.

Baking features in many legends of the past. In 1090, in Normandy the castle of Courcy was under siege. Foolishly, the lord of the place had ordered his vassals to build their oven outside the castle’s fortifications. Every day a bunch of locals were forced to pick up their swords and dash from the castle to surround the oven so that the baker could go to work. (Would it be fanciful to imagine this was the genesis of the microwave?) 

There they would defend their bread, as the attackers, intoxicated by the smell of freshly baked bread, would attempt to snatch it away.

As every school kid knows, the price of bread was a big deal during the French Revolution since it was the main component of the working person’s diet. By 1789 the country had suffered two years of drought and the price of bread shot up to roughly 88% of their pitiful wages. No wonder the downtrodden grabbed their pitchforks and headed for the nearest chateau.

In France food is a religion and even the baguette is sacred and protected by law. The Bread Decree of 1993 mandates that they must be made on the same premises where they’re sold, may never be frozen, and must contain only flour, water, yeast and salt.

And what is the story behind its elongated shape? There are many theories, but one of the most popular is that Napoleon ordered the baking of long loaves so that it was easier for his soldiers to carry their bread into battle in their trousers. No Freudian dissertations, please.