By Samuel Fromartz
In artisanal bakeries from Brooklyn to Seattle, the bread counters are piled high with lovely loaves, from the hardiest Scandinavian ryes to French country sourdoughs, from spelt and buckwheat breads to baguettes. Yet this bounty of choice was pretty unusual in the roughly 20,000 years that humanity has been eating grains. While these breads are often associated with European traditions, the long-ago impetus to make a loaf a particular way — or make it into sustenance — has largely been forgotten. Choice — and here I’d include contemporary gluten-avoidance regimes — didn’t determine what was eaten. Necessity did.
If you go back to the pre-modern era, before bread became a commodity and flour was sold in supermarkets, those who depended on grain largely ate what was grown nearby. It might have been wheat. It might have been barley. It might have been rye. Or it might have been nothing at all, if the harvest failed.
To forestall such events, farmers hedged their bets by planting diverse cereal crops. Bakers — both craftsmen and homemakers — then had to figure out how to make this variety of ingredients palatable. Grains, after all, provided up to 80% of the calories in a diet.
Scots made cakes from oats and barley, since both grains were hardy in northern Europe. Rye prevailed in Eastern Europe, because the soil and climate were hospitable. During shortages, coarse bran was mixed into bread. Bakers also added walnuts, acorns and spent grains from the brewery to stretch a loaf. In southern France, ground chickpeas were made into socca flatbread. In Cyprus, bakers fermented chickpeas for wheat and barley loaves. Much later, a New World starch, potatoes, became a buffer against famine in 18th century Europe as the population exploded. Maize or corn served this purpose as well. Corn-rye proved crucial to early American settlers, where it was known as “rye-injun bread” because wheat grew poorly in the southern New England climate.
Now, of course, the impetus for such innovation is gone. Agricultural science has done much to ensure fairly steady wheat harvests, with high-yielding varieties. Industrial millers long ago came up with the means to provide standard flour to produce a steady supply of bread products. As this new wheat took over, their ancient progenitors largely vanished from the landscape — and the palate. By the late 1990s, researchers estimated, 97% of all the spring wheat grown in the developing world came from closely related modern varieties. “Landraces,” those seed populations saved and passed down by farmers, became a rarity.
As for the wheat kernel, about 30% to 40% was siphoned off in the milling of white flour. We often hear about the fiber, minerals, lipids and vitamins in wheat bran and germ that are lost. What is less appreciated is that these nutrient-dense grain fractions also contain a lot of calories. Wheat bran, for instance, represents about 12% to 16% of the wheat kernel. With every kilo of bran removed in the milling of white flour, 2,160 calories are squandered, including 160 grams of protein. “Everyone understood that the whiter the flour, the smaller the number of people who could be fed by a given amount of grain,” historian Steven Kaplan has written of 18th century France. Wheat still provides the second-highest source of calories and is the top source of humanity’s protein, yet we’re content to waste such a significant amount of its nutrition.
Also jettisoned along the path to modernity was the baker, who came up with the methods to make such whole grains palatable. In the age of industrial bakeries, we may cheer that freedom from drudgery. But I realized, in baking my own loaves for more than a decade, that we lost something else as well. It wasn’t simply the old world loaves that were largely left behind, or the grains that went into them, or the farms that grew diverse cereal crops. We also lost the craft knowledge that came from turning grains into food. This kind of knowledge could only be learned with practice, attention and tactile sensation.
To make really great bread, I found I had to put away my cognitive mind and learn the essential lessons of touch itself. I had to forget about following routine steps, since different grains — and different batches of them — often required adjustments. My sense of touch told me what tweaks to make, turning passable loaves into desirable ones. My hands were learning. At that moment I realized, if we really want to understand what sustained our species for millennium, spurred numerous innovations, and ultimately increased the supply of food in scarce times, our hands and craftwork are going to be at the center of that process. Our thinking minds will follow.