Sunday, September 21, 2014

Give us this day our daily bread

Do you know that the origins of this favourite food is about 7,500 years old?  Our Stone Age ancestors used to crush barley and wheat  on stone and make solid cakes. Ancient Egyptian tombs contained loaves of bread and rolls. Greeks and Romans accepted bread as a staple food. Bread and wheat were especially important in Rome and considered  more important than meat. Leavened and unleavened bread  is mentioned in the Bible. The cylindrical clay oven was developed by the Egyptians to improve bread making techniques. Other civilisations such as the Incas, American Indians and Asian, Indian and African cultures were also experimenting with bread making.

A Bakers' Guild was formed in Rome round about the year 168 BC. The bakers in Rome at this period enjoyed special privileges. The members of the Guild were forbidden to mix with 'comedians and gladiators' and from attending performances at the amphitheater, so that they might not be contaminated by the vices of the ordinary people! 
The Guild of Master Bakers is still alive today.

In Chennai, my ma-in-law was expert at producing bread snacks, a skill I absorbed from her.  Bread was then not easily available, and one had to buy bread from Spencers, Mc Rennet or Adyar Bakery. Spencers closed down its unit in the eighties, but they do have a long history of bread making, going way back to 1911 in Madras.

Modern Bakery came much later, and at the time could not compete with the other breads in terms of texture and taste. A bakery which made , incredibly soft white bread was Verghese & Sons Bakery with its main supply store in CP Ramaswamy Iyer Road. Being fond of bread as a family, the Bakery would supply us a loaf of bread every day or more if we needed it.. One find day our bread man stopped his deliveries. We waited for months but there was no signs of him. A visit to their  head office confirmed our fears. The place was sold and the legendary Verghese and Sons Bakery had closed down.

Many women of my generation begin to bake bread at home at least the more enterprising of us.. We could change the flavour, spice it with herbs or spike it with pepper, or add nutrients like bran, soya flour etc.. In the sixties yeast was not easily available. We could get tinned yeast in granule form which didn’t work well most times. What was best was bakers yeast from the bakeries, which could not be kept for long. Though the loaves might be denser than the ones from the bakeries, the quality of home baked breads were assured, and  the joy of seeing your own bread taking shape was something.  .

Bread is available today in so many avatars. You get seven grain bread, whole wheat bread, bread with rye etc in supermarkets like Niligiris, and you can have a nutritious bread of your choice in places like Amethyst, Hot Bread chain stores or French Loaf. The clubs bake excellent bread, we pick up brown bread from the Gymkhana Club regularly. The Madras Club offers excellent bread for sandwiches, which is their speciality.

Today I have acquired a bread machine which I bought in the US.  It is a boon and you can experiment with all kinds of bread. I add kothimili or methi leaves for flavour or make it a sweet bread  with molasses and egg. You just place the ingredients in the order specified in the book, and close the lid and switch on. The machine kneads the flour, rests the dough and then bakes the bread, but it takes anywhere between 2 ½ hours to 4 hours.

Bread is versatile in its various forms…you use it to mop up curries or stews, toasted it forms ideal  accompaniment to soups, and it forms a base for delicious toppings Bread can be dried and used for crumbs, and left over bread can be used for puddings. For the tiffin box, I used to make bread bombs, bread dipped into water and squeezed, flattened, and stuffing placed in them and deep fried. I would toast the bread and make imaginative toppings for tea time. Or grind a green masala, blend it into beaten egg with some milk, dip the bread slices and fry with a little oil. Add a blob of tomato ketchup over each slice and serve hot!

We have bread once a week for breakfast and serve scrambled eggs on toast, a spicy Spanish omelette or just sunny side up! What a versatile food, and a great substitute when you don’t feel like having rice or chapattis.

Happy bread day!




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