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From flatbread to baguette, a knead to bake

By Jennifer Wolcott Feature writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2000



The first breads to arrive on the scene some 10,000 years ago were unleavened flatbreads and hearth cakes.

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In ancient times, flatbreads were made in small communities on many continents from grains of wild grasses that were harvested, toasted, ground, mixed with water, and cooked on hot rocks. Mexico's tortillas, India's chapatis, and China's pancakes evolved from this practice.

It wasn't until about 6,000 years later that the first leavened loaves were made by the ancient Egyptians. Soon after, the Egyptians also invented ovens for baking multiple loaves, experimented with original shapes such as a popular pyramid form, and introduced breads flavored with sweet or savory ingredients such as honey, herbs, anise, and sesame seeds.

Imagine spending all day in the kitchen mixing, kneading, letting rise, punching, and shaping dough for your favorite bread - only to wait for the call of a trumpet, signaling that the village baker's oven is hot and ready. Then you rush into town, pay a small fee, and hand over your sticky little bundle made with grain from the village mill.

Before the cast-iron kitchen range and up until the 17th century, communal ovens were a part of life in various lands, from Europe and Greece to the Near East and Quebec. They provided a means to avoid duplication of costly resources and were owned either by a community, a tradesman, or - in feudal Europe where bread was often a symbol of social hierarchy - by the lord.

France is the country perhaps best known for approaching bread baking as a serious craft. The first loaf of bread was made there in the 12th century. Bakers' guilds, whose purpose was to encourage a spirit of cooperation among professionals, were formed soon after in both Paris and London.

Neighborhood boulangeries eventually replaced village ovens in France, and today, with fresh golden baguettes glowing in baskets and their enticing aroma wafting out onto the narrow streets, they are irresistible to locals and tourists.

But the country's signature baguette has suffered as a result of the machine age, say some connoisseurs. Also, changes in lifestyle are affecting shopping habits there, observes Abe Faber of Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline, Mass.

"The French are turning more toward larger markets and away from small bakeries, while we in America are doing the opposite," he says.

Some food historians say the early history of bread was dominated by efforts to ensure its distribution to as many people as necessary to avoid civil unrest or to control distribution by the rulers over the ruled.

White bread, made with the most prized grain - wheat - was traditionally served to nobility, and brown breads made with rye or barley left for the peasants.

Bread's history since the Industrial Revolution has been driven by technological changes that spurred the replacement of human effort with machines, and in many cases sacrificed quality as a result.

"After industrialization, we [eventually] ended up with Wonder Bread," says Gina Picollino of the Bread Baker's Guild of America, a worldwide group of artisan breadmakers. "The American palate is still recovering."