“Who wants to take a guess? How long have people been eating bread?”
Hands shot up.
“A million years!”
“A thousand years?”
The random, hastily shouted guesses were quickly followed by more thoughtful inquiries.
“They ate bread during Roman times, right?”
“Are we talking prehistory?”
“As long as people have been alive?”
The kids were surprised when I told them that humans have been eating bread for at least 30,000 years.
“But how do we know that?”
Several more guesses, then finally, “Is it the tools?”
Evidence of the processing of grain has been found in archaeological excavations of ancient sites.
The kids inspected and chewed on some wheat kernels.
We discussed the digestibility of grain in that form.
“Eaten raw, those kernels will come out pretty much looking the same as when they went in.”
“Grinding might have made the grain easier to eat, but raw flour still won’t sustain a body for very long. But take that same flour and water and make bread. Now that will keep a person alive.”
I mentioned the cooking theory. Kind of science heavy for the youngest of our group, but still good food for thought.
“So these nomadic people, roaming around gathering wild grasses and grains–they start settling in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why would they want to be near the water?”
“Animals that eat the plants!”
“Animals that eat the animals that eat the plants!”
Ancient history is a new topic for a couple of the kids, so we took a little time here to review the Fertile Crescent and all of its offerings.
“Eventually, people started cultivating the plants for food–grains like barley and wheat.”
I explained that the first breads were flat and unleavened. Leavened bread was discovered later and most likely by accident.
“Perhaps someone mixed some bread dough using the same bowl that had been used for a previous batch. If so, it probably contained wild yeast. Maybe they realized that this practice of incorporating old dough into a new batch of bread made their loaves lighter.”
While we don’t know for sure how it happened, we do know that the first leavened breads appeared around 6,000 years ago.
“Again, how do we know this?”
Most of the kids recognized cuneiform.
We made some jokes about this very first collection of recipes.
“Since they were written on clay tablets, you wouldn’t be carrying them around your kitchen like The Joy of Cooking.”
No, these recipes weren’t meant as a “how-to” as the majority of the people couldn’t read anyway; Mesopotamian scribes were recording a culinary ritual.
“And the list of foods they recorded is pretty impressive: 20 different kinds of cheese, hundreds of kinds of soup, and 300 kinds of bread, many of which were leavened by wild yeast, also known as sourdough.”
Wild yeast, saccharomyces exiguus, is a single-celled microorganism and the smallest member of the mushroom family.
“It’s a fun guy! Eh, eh?” My son never gets sick of this joke.
The wild yeast is especially plentiful on the skins of fruit and grains. Grind some grain, add a little warmth and water and you create an environment in which naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria break down the carbohydrates in the grain and allow the sugar-eating fungus to thrive.
“And just like us after we eat a big meal, the yeast will do what?”
Yeah, expel gas. Carbon dioxide actually.
“But why doesn’t the gas just bubble out of the dough?”
And this is where gluten comes in.
“Gluten is a protein that is formed when wheat flour is combined with water. It gives elasticity to the dough, allowing the dough to trap the carbon dioxide and expand like a balloon. But not all wheat flours have the same gluten capabilities.”
I measured two tablespoons of several different flours into labeled bowls: unbleached cake, bread, whole grain from hard red wheat, and two all-purpose grinds made from the ancient wheat varieties of einkorn and emmer.
Then we added one tablespoon of water to each.
I instructed the kids to mush and knead together the mixtures in their bowls.
The differences were immediately obvious.
“Hey, I think mine needs more water. It’s a lot drier than hers.”
“Mine is really sticky.”
“The dark ones are stiffer.”
We compared the resulting doughs. Some were soft and stretchy while some were crumbly.
Each kid washed their ball of dough in a bowl of water. The range of gluten in the different flours became more visible once the starch was rinsed away.
“You can see that some flours produce doughs that are really elastic while some flours produce doughs that stretch and break or don’t stretch much at all. This is why bread bakers usually mix their weaker flours with stronger flours, and why you would use a weak flour for cakes and pastries.”
“So, bread made with weak flour would be really flat and crumbly?”
They compared and investigated and explored until stomachs started rumbling.
After seeing that both emmer and einkorn were weaker flours, they understood when I explained how I chose to mix each of those flours with bread flour to make the sourdough loaves we were about to eat.
The emmer loaf was a bit darker and had a slightly grassier aroma. This wasn’t surprising since the flour had smelled really green when we opened the bag.
“It smells like hay.”
The einkorn loaf was warmer in color.
Lacking gazelle and pigeon, I chose to offer more accessible items taken from the list of foods common in ancient Mesopotamia: yogurt cheese, honey, figs, grapes, and yes, sourdough bread.
Overall, the kids slightly preferred the somewhat lighter einkorn loaf to the emmer. This however, did not stop anyone from devouring every scrap of bread on the table.
Personally, I couldn’t tell much difference in the actual flavor of the loaves. It wasn’t until later, when when I ate my third snack that I could detect that slightly grassier flavor in the emmer. Maybe it had needed a chance to develop. Or maybe I was just
not shoveling it in eating slower.
Whatever it was, it was delicious.
I have not included a sourdough bread recipe in this post because, well, it’s a process. But! There are many sources online for getting a starter going and baking some bread. Here are two I would recommend:
I would encourage anyone who is interested in the world of sourdough to make a starter. Watch it. Feed it. Make some stuff with it. You don’t even need to bake bread right away–you can make pancakes or waffles. Just get used to having it around and taking care of it. Like a pet. A pet that will feed you for a change!