Anglo-Saxon wheat and rye bread: Take 1 & Take 2

For several months, I’ve been following a wonderful new blog that’s all about bread. Early medieval English bread, to be precise. (Fiaren has also been reading this blog, and posted about it here.)

The blog’s authors, Debby Banham (University of Cambridge) and Martha Bayless (University of Oregon), explain that bread in the early middle ages was a very different thing than the bread we know and love today. First and foremost, bread was not an appetizer, sandwich wrapper, or side-dish. For many peasants, bread was the meal. It was hearty, dense, filling food — it left you satisfied, not hungry for the main course.

Bread was hard to make. Flour takes hours to grind by hand (and, in sixth-century England, there were no water mills!). Fine white bread was a luxury reserved for the elite. Peasants ate firm, flat, brown bread, and still thought themselves lucky because even course flour was labor intensive to produce. Most people ate porridge (or more specifically, pottage), as this could be made with a course, easy-to-grind grain.

Bread was not fluffy. It might not have been leavened at all. Biscuits were the usual fare.

Bread was rarely cooked in ovens. Ovens take a lot of fuel to fire, and really only make sense when you’re baking a whole village worth or bread, or the bread for a bustling monastery. Most peasant farmers cooked bread on the hearth, next to the fire.

Their blog gives a handy recipe for this simple flat bread, if you want to try it at home. Of course, I wanted to!

I made my bread from a mixture of rye and spelt flours. Rye was a common cereal in the Early Anglo-Saxon period, and spelt is a closer relative to the wheat variety cultivated in sixth-century England than modern bread flour. I didn’t have a quern stone at home, so I bought the flour pre-ground.

For my first attempt, I cooked them in my house, in a frying pan.

The results were pretty good! They are dense, firm, and not especially flavorful. Cut in half and stuffed with cheese, however, they taste very pleasant. And they are oh so filling.

All in all, a success!

That was take 1.

Take 2 happened a month later, when I went camping at Eastwind Castle, in South Carolina.

For my second attempt, I decided to try cooking the cakes in the fire, the proper way. I would do this by placing them on a hot stone in among the coals.

When I arrived, I found that that part of South Carolina didn’t have many stones lying around. There was a handy brick, however, which I requisitioned.

I mixed the same batch of dough — rye and spelt flour, with water. I added too much water, resulting in a dough that was a bit more like batter than biscuits. Oops! More care next time.

I learned that cooking biscuits in a fire is much harder than it looks.

The edges burn easily. The center likes to stay soft. Ash coats everything.

In the end, however, the results were tasty as the first batch! The burnt bits, surprisingly, tasted fine. The ash brushed off. With care, the gooey centers could be cooked-through.

Add cheese, and it left me full–a proper lunch, in a very compact container!

I only cooked half the dough. I set the other half aside for the next day, wondering if it would pick up yeast from the air and rise. It did!

The next day, I cooked a batch of slightly tart sourdough biscuits for breakfast. If I’d kept the batch going, it would have become a proper sourdough loaf in a few days.

Take 3 will happen next week at Ragnarok.

I’ve learned a few things, and Debby and Martha have helpfully added a new blog post that’s all about cooking bread in a fire. Next time I’ll add less water for a firmer dough, and I’ll experiment with skipping the rock and putting the loaves directly into the hot ashes (the blog’s authors assure us that the ashes will all brush off!).

Stay tuned for more after Ragnarok!

About the author: Alric