The main use of wheat throughout the ages has been to make bread. Bread is one of the oldest foods and has an interesting history.
The oldest record of bread making found in Ireland has been from the Stone Age. In those primitive times, grain was collected from wild grasses and crushed between two stones. This was then mixed with water to make dough and cooked on a baking stone over an open fire.
This bread was course and flat as no raising agent was used. Later on, during the Iron Age, the baking stone was replaced by an iron griddle which continued to be used for traditional soda bread well into this century.
Wheat and bread were greatly prized and were often used as a method of payment. Traces of wheat were discovered in the tombs of many pharaohs. The raising properties of yeast were discovered by the ancient Egyptians.
Grain was stored in special houses and crushed with a pestle and mortar. The crushed grain was passed through sieves made from rushes to obtain a type of white flour. This was mixed with milk, honey and different fruits to produce various loaves for different occasions. The Egyptians cooked their bread in round clay ovens – these were the first baker’s ovens.
The Romans cultivated many varieties of wheat. They also discovered that grain could be ground more efficiently between two circular stones – one rotating and one stationary. By adjusting the space between the stones they could control the coarseness of the mean. They made leaven (raising agent) from millet and bran moistened with water and kneaded with mould from wine and beer.
After the Normans invaded Britain in 1066, they encouraged the use of wheat for bread making rather than the darker rye which had been more common up to then. They had large ovens built into their castle walls which were used by all the community. Some loaves were large and flat and were used as plates. These were called trencher loaves. When their meal was finished, they ate the plate!
In the 11th Century, towns and cities grew quite large and bakeries gradually opened for business. The bakers’ guilds were set up to protect the interest of members and to make regulations to control the trade e.g. the weight and price of bread.
Better agricultural and milling techniques improved the standard of wheat used for bread. The production of tin meant that bread was now baked in tins of uniform size. Steel rollers were introduced to mills producing a finer flour. Today, electric and gas ovens give excellent results when baking. Modern bakeries produce various types of bread – mostly sliced and wrapped. Our tastes in bread have been influenced by foreign travel. A wide range of bread products are now available – Vienna rolls, French Baguettes, Pita bread etc.