Bread, in one form or another, has been one of the principal forms of food for man from earliest times.
The trade of the baker, then, is one of the oldest crafts in the world. Loaves and rolls have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. In the British Museum's Egyptian galleries you can see actual loaves which were made and baked over 5,000 years ago. Also on display are grains of wheat which ripened in those ancient summers under the Pharaohs.
Wheat has been found in pits where human settlements flourished 8,000 years ago. Bread, both leavened and unleavened, is mentioned in the Bible many times. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew bread for a staple food even in those days people argued whether white or brown bread was best.
Further back, in the Stone Age, people made solid cakes from stone-crushed barley and wheat. A millstone used for grinding corn has been found, that is thought to be 7,500 years old. The ability to sow and reap cereals may be one of the chief causes which led man to dwell in communities, rather than to live a wandering life hunting and herding cattle.
According to botanists, wheat, oats, barley and other grains belong to the order of Grasses; nobody has yet found the wild form of grass from which wheat, as we know it, has developed. Like most of the wild grasses, cereal blossoms bear both male and female elements. The young plants are provided with a store of food to ensure their support during the period of germination, and it is in this store of reserve substance that man finds an abundant supply of food.
Ancient Egyptian word-pictures, or hieroglyphs, concerning bread
Woman grinding corn, Limestone
When ancient man discovered a food which would keep through the winter months, and could be multiplied in the summer, it could be said that civilization began. He might have a reasonably safe store of food to carry him over, which would give him time to develop other useful skills besides hunting, fishing and cattle-herding.
In Old Testament times, all the evidence points to the fact that bread-making, preparing the grain, making the bread and baking it, was the women's work, but in the palaces of kings and princes and in large households, the bakers' duties would be specialised. Bread was leavened, that is, an agent in the form of a 'barm' was added to the dough which caused the mixture to rise in the shape of our familiar loaf. The hurried departure of the Israelites from Egypt, described in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, prevented their bread being leavened as usual; the Jews today commemorate this event by eating unleavened bread on special occasions. The ruins of Pompeii and other buried cities have revealed the kind of bakeries existing in those historic times. There were public bakeries where the poorer people brought their bread to be baked, or from which they could buy ready-baked bread.
A Bakers' Guild was formed in Rome round about the year 168 B.C. From then on the industry began as a separate profession. The Guild or College, called Collegium Pistorum,* did not allow the bakers or their children to withdraw from it and take up other trades. The bakers in Rome at this period enjoyed special privileges: they were the only craftsmen who were freemen of the city, all other trades being conducted by slaves.
The members of the Guild were forbidden to mix with 'comedians and gladiators' and from attending performances at the amphitheatre, so that they might not be contaminated by the vices of the ordinary people. We suppose that the bakers, instead of being honoured by the strict regulations, must have felt deprived by them.
The Greeks and Romans liked their bread white
'The wheat of Cyprus is swarthy and produces a dark bread, for which reason it is generally mixed with the white wheat of Alexandria'.Plato (c. 400 B.C.) pictured the ideal state where men lived to a healthy old age on wholemeal bread ground from a local wheat. Socrates, however, suggested that this proposal meant the whole population would be living on pig-food. In those days, there were certain mean bakers who kneaded the meal with sea-water to save the price of salt. Pliny did not approve of this.
The Romans enjoyed several kinds of bread, with interesting names. There was oyster bread (to be eaten with oysters); 'artolaganus' or cakebread; 'speusticus' or 'hurry bread'. There was oven bread, tin bread, Parthian bread. There were rich breads made with milk, eggs and butter, but these of course, were only for the wealthy and privileged people. The Egyptian grammarian and philosopher Athenaeus, who lived in the third century A.D., has handed down to us considerable knowledge about bread and baking in those days.
He wrote that the best bakers were from Phoenicia or Lydia, and the best bread-makers from Cappadocia. He gives us a list of the sorts of bread common in his time-leavened and unleavened loaves; loaves made from the best wheat flour; loaves made from groats, or rye, and some from acorns and millet. There were lovely crusty loaves too, and loaves baked on a hearth. Bakers made a bread mixed with cheese, but the favourite of the rich was always white bread made from wheat. In ancient Greece, keen rivalry existed between cities as to which produced the best bread. Athens claimed the laurel wreath, and the name of its greatest baker, Thearion, has been handed down through the ages in the writings of various authors. During the friendly rivalry between the towns, Lynceus sings the praises of Rhodian rolls. 'The Athenians', he says,
'talk a great deal about their bread, which can be got in the market, but the Rhodians put loaves on the table which are not inferior to all of them. When our guests are given over to eating and are satisfied, a most agreeable dish is produced called the "hearth loaf", which is made of sweet things and compounded so as to be very soft, and it is made up with such an admirable harmony of all the ingredients as to have a most excellent effect, so that often a man who is drunk becomes sober again, and in the same way, a man who has just eaten is made hungry by eating of it.'The island of Cyprus had a reputation for good bread. Another old writer, Eubulus, says,
"Tis a hard thing, beholding Cyprian loaves, to ride carelessly by, for like a magnet, they do attract the hungry passengers.'All through the ancient days, bread and bakers were held in the highest respect; this respect lives on to our times, for what would we do without our bakers?