A slice of history

My idea of the perfect breakfast is a slice of bread, perfectly toasted topped with a generous helping of golden butter that slowly melts into it.  I do enjoy my parantha and upma every o

Published: 23rd March 2012 12:23 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:41 PM   |  A+A-

My idea of the perfect breakfast is a slice of bread, perfectly toasted topped with a generous helping of golden butter that slowly melts into it.  I do enjoy my parantha and upma every once in a while but for instant gratification, nothing beats the classic bread and butter combo. It rekindles fond memories of childhood — of a simpler time when there was only one kind of bread to choose from — white. Now, don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy the wide variety, which is presumably healthier too, available nowadays. What matters to me is that they all toast well!

The ubiquitous breakfast staple has had a long trek through time and geography to become a widely used commodity. Wheat flour of which bread is made, was supposed to have been in use 30,000 years ago. This might have been used to make unleavened (without using yeast or baking powder) bread. Chapati or roti is an example of unleavened bread.Then in 4,000 BC Egyptians revolutionised bread making by introducing leavened bread to the world. All they did was leave dough out in the sun and let natural yeast spores do the trick. These fungi,via a chemical reaction, released carbon dioxide, which was trapped within the resting dough and made it rise. This resulted in lighter and more appetising bread. However, if left out in the sun for too long, the bread became too hard to eat, so they toasted it to make it edible again. This technique to make stale bread palatable again made the technique (toasting) quite popular throughout Europe.

However, let’s get back to the history of bread. Once they pinpointed the source of leavening, the Egyptians isolated yeast and were able to introduce it directly into their breads. While the Egyptians invented bread as we know it, it was the Greeks who did much to popularise it. They spread the practice over the rest of Europe and it soon became a staple in many countries. In medieval Europe, bread was served not only as an accompaniment to food but was used as a piece of tableware too. In the standard table setting of the day the trencher, a piece of stale bread roughly 6 inches by 4 inches (15 cm by 10 cm), served as a plate. Once the meal was over, the trencher could then be eaten, given to the poor, or fed to the dogs.

So important did bread become in  medieval European society that its colour would indicate the social status of the person. During the time a loaf was usually adulterated with hazardous materials like chalk, sawdust, alum, plaster, clay and ammonium. So the darker the bread, the lower the social status as white flours were more expensive and harder for millers to adulterate with other products.

India had its first brush with European bread when the English came to our shores in 1608. We, of course, had our own version of leavened and unleavened breads — naan and roti. So to distinguish between the traditional bread and that of the foreigners, the English version of bread came to be known as ‘double roti’.

Some say it was called ‘double’ because the dough rose to double its size with the addition of yeast or baking powder. However, food historian, K T Achaya says in his book A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food that the term was used because the bread was made in jointed sections (double).

Whatever the reason, I am happy that the double roti came along when it did and allowed me to enjoy slices of buttered toast. Speaking of toast, do you know why the ritual of honouring someone is called a toast?

Historians trace the origins back to the medieval Romans who had a peculiar habit of soaking pieces of toast in their wine. This was, presumably, to add to or improve the flavour of the drink. Food writer Albert Jack says in one of his books that burned toast was like a crude form of activated charcoal that absorbs impurities and enhances flavour in modern day filtering process. As time went by the ritual evolved into a social convention of honouring someone but the name stuck.

I guess that’s enough food history for the day. Till next time, cheers!

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