Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More Than a Loaf

Everybody eats it, most people love it, but few ever realize that they’re participating in a custom as old as the human race. It’s all about bread- people have been harvesting and eating wheat since the Stone Age, although back then the wheat was chewed instead of ground into a meal. It wasn’t until the Egyptians starting crushing the wheat into a paste and heating it over a fire that bread was first developed. This created a flat, hard bread. Archaeologists have discovered remnants of this bread from 5,000 years ago in Egyptian tombs. At about 1000 B.C. yeast cultures began to be directly added to the dough and bread as we know it was formed.

As the humans moved up and out of Africa and migrated throughout the world they took their bread with them. Every culture has its own unique take on bread. The Middle East, for example enjoys khubz adi, the flat round bread known in the West as pita. The pita evolved as a way to soak up sauces and the remnants of the main dish and eventually became an essential aspect of the meal. The characteristic pocket inside pita is created by cooking the bread at a high temperature causing the dough to puff up. Then when removed from the oven the pita deflates while the dough inside separates.

In Mexico they indulge with pan dulce, or sweet bread. Panaderias crank out a variety of these sugar-coated sweets all morning long as families bustle in an out. The most common and popular of these treats are called conchas, Spanish for seashell. They consist of a basic bread base with a thick covering of crispy sugar on top. The sugar coating is dyed to produce a variety of bright, cheerful colors, the most popular being pink and yellow and is arranged in various swirls, making the bread resemble a seashell. One of the most amusing types of pan is the puerquito, or little pig. It genuinely resembles in shape a tiny pig and surprisingly tastes like gingerbread. Mexican pan is a wonderful blending of cultures as each unique piece was influenced from a different region. Mexican soldiers brought back foods from the areas they were positioned during the Mexican Revolution and worked the flavors into their own recipes. Not to mention the French influence, responsible for the many pans that have a variant of the whipped cream filling. This introduced to Mexico by Emperor Maximillian’s French wife Charlotte.

Even the Irish have their own special bread- Irish soda bread. Traditionally served in the US in honor of St. Patrick’s Day it first appeared in Ireland around the 1840’s with the introduction of bicarbonate of soda. Ireland’s northern climate makes it difficult to grow hard wheat, which is processed into a flour that easily rises with the addition of yeast. The Irish replaced yeast with bicarbonate of soda as the leavening agent in bread, and soda bread was born. It quickly became a quintessential part of the Irish diet. The bread isn’t complete until the customary cross is imprinted into it. Whether this is done to allow the cooking bread to expand or to ward off evil is still debatable. Traditional soda bread contains only flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. However over time the bread has been redeveloped into a sweeter form, with sugar and raisins, also known as “Spotted Dog."

Whether it’s our Americanized white sliced bread, the crunchy baguette, or the soft and buttery naan, bread is everywhere. Throughout history bread has been a staple, providing nourishment and flair where ever it goes. It has permeated our culture, uniting us in our shared dependency.

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