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Bread, from myth to history

The cultivation of grains and the process of turning them into flour and bread making have been depicted since ancient times. Dora Kitinas-Gogos explores the origins and techniques of the first breads ever made.

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Bread, from myth to history

Grain harvests can be traced as far back as 10,000 years.

18 Aug 2014

The cultivation of cereals and grains can be traced as far back as 10,000 years, to the time when wheat was first cultivated. It is thought that at the beginning the seeds were eaten most likely by soaking in water and later on it was discovered that it could be ground into flour and made into bread.

It is also thought that before bread making was discovered, the flour would have been made into a gruel and consumed by drinking, as a type of soup. Prior to actually baking the bread, they made a dough and dried it in the sun as a flat bread, a primitive pita.

It is certain that the first bread ever made was unleavened. It is not certain when the first risen bread was made but it is thought that this method started in Egypt, although scholars argue that it could have been anywhere in the Mediterranean.

Either way, it is almost certain that it happened by accident - most likely by leaving the dough standing too long with the bacteria rising the dough. The reasons that some scholars say that bread was first made in Egypt is because bread was discovered in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 3000 BC.

This was reinforced with the wall murals found in tombs, depicting the cultivation of grains and the process of turning them into flour and making bread.

Whatever part of the ancient world bread was first made in, the pictures found in Egyptian tombs testify to Egypt's contribution to grain cultivation and bread making.

Important source of ancient bread making can also be found in Minoan civilisation. In ancient Lerna in the southern Peloponnese, amphorae have been found to contain petrified wheat dating back 3200 BC, commonly known as the Late Stone Age or, as it is referred to in Greek - πρωτοελλαδική εποχή (pre
historic era).

This seems to coincide with the findings in Egyptian tombs, which confirms that many things were going on at the same time, most probably due to commerce.

In Mesara, Crete, a sarcophagus has been found with a scene of a ritual march on it, with the lead figure giving rhythm playing a very ancient instrument σείστρο (sistro, a wind instrument) and depicting the relationship of man with cultivation. Round breads can be recognised amongst the images.

And to more recent Greek ancient history, the historian Herodotus (484 - 425 BC) mentions that in ancient Egypt, bread was kneaded with the feet. We know that this method continued until the beginning of the 20th century in many parts of Greece and Europe.

The first organised bakeries appeared in Rome under Emperor Trajan in 97-117 AD. In ancient Greece, bread was baked in homes, and Greeks were also the first gourmet bakers.

They elevated the leavened bread of the Egyptians and the Hebrews beyond just a nutritional need.

According to Athenaeus, 3rd century BC, who is credited for writing Deipnosophist (the dinner table philosopher) the Greeks were making at least 72 types of bread from a variety of grains.

There were many different shapes, from humorous to divine ones. A bread shaped like a shoe and filled with cheese, to a mushroom-shape sprinkled with poppy seeds, a crescent shape loaf made in homage to Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture, and a female genitalia made with honey and sesame seeds as an offering to her. Phallic-shaped breads were made for the Dionysian festivals.

Rice originated in India and it seems that the Greeks made rare and expensive bread called orinde of rice flour, even though there does not seem to be wide use of rice.

Today much of the culinary culture of the ancients is often mistaken to be Roman whereas in fact it was Greek. This mistake is often made because the Roman Empire helped to spread it.

Chefs were the rock stars of the ancient Greek world and were given high social standing and rewarded with land if they created a new dish.

The rich Romans made sure they had a Greek chef in their kitchen and a Greek teacher for their children. We must not forget that even under Roman rule, Athens continued to be the centre of learning in the ancient world.

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