A couple of months ago I touched on bread in the post about peasant food, but it really deserves a post of its own.
Bread was eaten by everyone, but not all bread was the same. Different crops were better suited to different parts of the country and wheat could not be grown everywhere. The other grain crops were rye, oats and barley.
Wheat could only be grown on good soil, so it was usually only the lord of the manor who ate white bread. Maslin was the bread eaten by most people. It was made from wheat and rye flour mixed together. Rye was used on its own to make a darker loaf. In the cold, wet north and west of England, oats and barley were used to make bread.
The lord’s white bread was called pandemain. This was made from finely ground and sifted wheat flour. Wastel was another white bread. The wheat it was made from was not as finely sifted as that used for pandemain. The last type of white bread was cocket.
As we move through the brown breads the ingredients become increasingly unappetising. Cheat was made from whole wheat from which the bran had been removed. This was still bread for the wealthy. Tourte was made from husk and flour and was probably used for trenchers. Maslin was the next grade. Horse bread was made from any grain at hand and usually included peas and beans. As its name implies, it was intended for horses, but it could be eaten if nothing else was available. Bran bread was made mostly of bran.
Trenchers were slices of stale bread used as plates. Bread was sliced horizontally for this purpose. They were most useful for things like meat, which did not need to be eaten from a bowl. After the meal the trenchers were given to the poor.
Making bread was not a cheap business for ordinary people. The grain had to be grown or purchased. Some peasants would be paid for their labour with grain, some grew their own and some had to buy it. Once harvested or purchased, the grain had to be separated from the chaff then ground. This usually entailed some expenditure. Serfs had to take their grain to their lord’s mill and were fined if they did not. Some tried to use hand querns secretly, but these were slow and inefficient. It was generally better to take the grain to the miller and pay him to grind it.
Once ground, the flour could be made into dough. The yeast and the liquid for the dough usually came from beer. This would either be from a batch of beer that was brewing in the house or from a neighbour’s batch.
Baking the dough usually required another transaction. Few houses possessed an oven and householders who had one charged for its use or sold the bread they made to their neighbours. In some places there might be a communal oven, but using that also meant that money would change hands. A riskier option for those without an oven was to bake the bread in the embers of a fire. The bread had to be turned to make sure that it didn’t burn. Watching the bread and turning it seems to have been a task for men. If you lived in a town where there was a baker, you might not bother making bread at all, but simply go and buy a loaf. Bread prices were fixed by law.
Bread ovens were large and gave off a lot of heat, which is why most people didn’t have one. At the manor house the oven would usually be in a separate building to reduce the risk of burning down the house. A fire was built inside the oven. When the oven was hot enough the wood was raked out and the floor of the oven cleaned as well as possible without losing the heat. This was not easy, as it would have been difficult to get close enough to the oven to do much more than pull out the burning wood.
The bread was put inside the oven to bake, using long-handled paddles. Since the surface on which the bread was baked could never be completely cleaned after the fire had been removed, the bottom of the bread was usually black. This would not have appealed to the lord of the manor, so the bottom of the bread was sliced off to be eaten by the lowlier members of the household and the lord ate the upper crust, hence the eventual use of that expression to refer to those of high social standing.
For the poor, grain was more likely to be used in pottage rather than in bread. Pottage was much cheaper to make and used less grain. Bread was useful if someone was in the fields all day and needed to take something with them to eat.
This post was inspired by the cartoon antics of bread detective Ray Wry created by Clare Scott. That’s bread detective as in he’s a detective made out of bread. Thanks are also due to Ellen Hawley, from Notes from the UK, for drawing my attention to the origin of ‘upper crust’.