Food for Thought

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Staff of life.  
Did you know that the Middle English word ‘companion’ (from Old French compaignon), literally means ‘one who breaks bread with another’, based on Latin com– ‘together with’ + panis ‘bread’. It is a gentle reminder in these ‘nutritionist’ times that no food is more basic, more essential and more universal, and has been for thousands of years. Common to the diets of both rich and poor, bread is one of our oldest processed foods. Loaves and rolls have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and excavated from ovens in Pompeii. From the 16th-century English peasants’ bread made with pea flour and rye to the pure white bread of the French court, from the crusty sourdough loaf made by artisan bakers to the doughy ‘sliced white’ found in every supermarket, there is a bread for every time and place. And you can read all about it in William Rubel’s Bread, A global history (Reaktion books). It’s a fascinating tale.

We don’t know who made the first breads, or when or where. We do know that our ancestors were pounding and grinding thousands of years before the invention of agriculture. The starch grains from various wild plants that Anna Revedin and colleagues found on the surfaces of grinding stones across Europe go about 30,000 years (PNAS). While over in Israel, Dolores Piperno and colleagues not only discovered barley grains in a 23,000-year-old grindstone (Nature), but also an oven-like hearth suggesting that the locals had baked a ‘dough’ from grain flour on the site they were excavating. It makes sense. Our Paleolithic forebears had to do something to the tough, plant foods they foraged, because they didn’t have the teeth or stomach for dealing with raw grains or rhizomes. They innovated. They transformed the indigestible into something digestible through grinding and cooking. It seems they baked a sort of flat bread.

Michael Pollan isn’t giving up bread. He loves it (well, good quality bread) and bakes it. And he devotes a whole, page-turning chapter to it in his new book – Cooked, A natural history of transformation. In talking about his book, he reminds us just what an amazing advance the invention of bread is – an ‘ingenious technology for improving the flavour, digestibility and nutritional value of grass’ (well, grass seeds). Bread became a staple food because ‘the cooking process unlocks the nutrients in that seed,’ says Pollan. ‘And seeds have everything you need to live, but it all must be unlocked. And a slow fermentation and cooking at a high temperature unlocks all that. The loaf of bread itself becomes a pressure cooker … And so you’re steaming the starches, which breaks them down. It’s just the most beautiful technology.’ For those inspired to bake his sourdough, stone-ground, whole-wheat bread, he includes the recipe.

Women with bread

These women in DR Congo are learning to make bread to trade. From Share, The cookbook that celebrates our common humanity. Photo pages 140–141 © Lee Stone.