Bread: Cutting through a slice of history
International Bread Day is on October 16, so celebrate by delving deeper into the history of this food staple and perhaps even trying out a recipe or two for African bread.
Whether it’s toasted, slathered in butter and spread with jam, pillowy soft and paired with peanut butter or hollowed out and filled to the brim with tender morsels of lamb and gravy-soaked potatoes, bread traverses land and sea, culture and tradition, to serve as a universal food staple.
Indian rice porridge and Chinese cured meat are some of the oldest man-made foods in history.
However, since the dawn of agriculture, bread has adopted a significant role in societies across the globe.
Challas, rotis, pitas and pretzels - virtually every culture on Earth has a version of bread to call their own.
Evidence from over 30 000 years ago in Europe revealed that a blend of pulverised plant roots made into a dough with water and cooked over an open fire takes a spot near the top of the list of ancient dishes.
According to an article published by the BBC in 2018, the bake would have looked like flat bread and tasted similar to modern multi-grain varieties. And much like greasy shawarmas are famous for being the ideal post-pub grub, our ancestors may have used the bread as a means for carrying barbecued meat.
Thus, as the BBC concluded, as well as being the oldest bread, it may also have been the earliest version of a sandwich.
Around 10 000 BC, toward the start of the Neolithic Age and the boom in farming, grains became the backbone of bread production.
But how did bread evolve into the light, fluffy versions we have available today? Yeast is the answer.
Before active dry baker’s yeast made its way into our kitchen cabinets, leavening occurred naturally from airborne yeasts that could be harnessed by setting aside the raw, uncovered dough before baking.
Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, wrote that the Gauls (Celtic tribes from a historical region of western Europe) and Iberians (people from the eastern and southern coasts of the Iberian peninsula) used the foam from beer to create “a lighter kind of bread than other people”.
For the regions of the ancient world that drank wine instead of beer, their people mixed grape juice and flour into a paste that was fermented as a source for yeast. But as Pliny also stated, the most popular methods of getting dough to bloom was to save a piece from the day before to use as a form of sour-dough starter.
This method is still used today by some bakers, even though technology has advanced to allow for more efficient, low cost and mass-produced methods of bread making.
There are endless varieties of flours, ingredient measurements, baking methods that have resulted in a broad range of breads varying in taste, shapes, size and texture.
Enjoyed as either sweet or savoury, different additives may be used, like chocolate, spices, fruits, nuts and various fats and chemical additives designed to improve flavour, texture, colour and shelf life.
Nevertheless, we’ve become more familiar with the mass-produced, plastic-clad loaves that line the shelves of supermarkets. As a result, bread has lost some of its appeal.
To reclaim bread as a food that makes every dish more wholesome and delicious, we’re taking it back to our roots by embracing African flavours.
Break bread this International Bread Day with this African bread recipe.
Msemen from Morocco
Recipe by Nargisse Benkabbou of mymoroccanfood.com
“In Morocco, msemen (also known as "rghaif") is enjoyed for breakfast and teatime with anything sweet or savoury but I would advise having them at any time of the day, every day,” Benkabbou suggested on her blog.
Makes 9 10x10cm msemen
- 150g plain flour and more for kneading
- 150g semolina flour and more for flouring
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 120 to 170ml lukewarm water
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 20g melted butter
In a large bowl mix all the flours, salt, 120ml lukewarm water and 2 tablespoons vegetable oil to form a dough. If the mixture is too dry and you can’t form a dough, add a couple tablespoons of water bit by bit. Make sure you don’t add too much water to the dough because it will make your dough very sticky and you won't be able to knead it. If that happens, add a bit of flour. When your dough is nicely done, lightly flour a worktop and knead for 15 minutes until light and soft.
Once your dough is ready, divide the dough into small balls (for a 10x10cm msemen make 5cm diameter balls), place on a tray, lightly drizzle the balls with vegetable oil, cover with cling film and leave for 30 minutes in a warm place.
After 30 minutes, mix the melted butter and 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a small bowl.
Transfer a ball of dough on a worktop, flatten it lightly and pour about ½ teaspoon of melted butter and vegetable oil mixture on top.
Using your hands, flatten the dough as thin as you can to make a circle or a square without damaging it. You will have to be quick for this process otherwise the dough will dry out and you might damage it.
Fold each side of the dough vertically and then horizontally towards the centre to make a square. Place the folded msemen on a greased surface and cover with a cloth or cling film. Repeat the same process until you have folded all the dough balls.
Lightly oil and preheat a non-stick pan over medium-high heat.
Transfer a folded msemen on a worktop, pour another ½ teaspoon of butter and vegetable oil mixture on top and flatten it using your hands to about 5mm thick.
Gently place the flattened msemen on a warm pan and cook on each side turning several times until golden.
Serve warm or at room temperature, with anything you fancy, sweet or savoury.