Saturday, March 08, 2008

I Still Can't Buy it Sliced!

I was 'speaking' to Intef the other day [an ancient figment on my imagination], and he agreed to assist me in recording my thoughts about Ancient Egyptian grains and breads. His duties in the Pharaoh's palace as 'Major Domo' are heavy, but since I'm a modern figment of his imagination, he felt okay in working with me.

In case you're wondering, the Ancient Egyptians were not Arabs. The Arabic people did not invade and conquer until many centuries into the AD period. So, I'll be speaking of the 'old folks' in Egypt---though their language was somewhat Semitic.

One reason Ancient Egypt was able to become a great agricultural country was the lure of the Annual Nile Flood. Why roam as a nomad when the river created a rich, stable farmland for you on a regular basis? So the ancients settled down; the growing lands were fertile, crops grew well, and animal domestication progressed. It seems logical then, to believe that this reality led to the production of more than enough food for the populace, thus allowing civilization to spread out and develop human specialties: farming; religion; politics and leadership; crafts; services; etc. We must also remember that 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, the Egyptian countryside was not as arid as it is today. The lusher land then was populated even by lions, elephants, and hippopotami. And, at its maximum, the population of a larger Egypt was no more than 5 million, compared to today's smaller Egypt with about 50 million souls.

The earliest domesticated crop was probably barley, with emmer wheat developing a bit later. The grains were first used by themselves: chewed, soaked, dried; mixed with various ingredients to make cakes of sorts; and finally, grilled or baked. Barley and wheat grains could be used as porridge or mixed with other foods to make stews or gruel. Cracked wheat 'groats' were often served.

Pounding the grain and separating the chaff created a rough flour that was easier to work with than the raw or dried grain itself, thus providing tastier ways of basic food preparation. But, barley flour's chemical make-up was unsuitable for leavening, and its breads were probably dense, flat, rough, and course.

Early Egyptian wheat was toasted to make it easier to separate from the chaff [thus leaving us numerous charred grains to examine.] A later developed strain permitted easier threshing without the heating process, and production of a wheat flour capable of being 'raised' by wild yeast microbes began. Improved winnowing, pounding or grinding, and sieving procedures created an easier-to-handle flour, something akin to our 'whole wheat.'

But the pounding, grinding, and sifting procedures never improved sufficiently for the Ancient Egyptians to create a pure, finely ground flour. There were always foreign particles and grit in the end product. Chewing and eating such breads, especially of the courser barley, wore down their teeth to a great degree. A good modern dentist would have been able to earn millions---perhaps deification?

You can almost hear a representative worker or craftsman sitting down to an evening meal with his family and biting into the latest loaf of bread with disgust. 'Great Khufu's Ghost! They can build a 965 cubit Pyramid, but they can't bake a decent loaf of bread without a lot of grit in it!' Some things never change.

Raised wheat bread was probably discovered by accident. Dough left to sit before baking could have become the resting place for wild years microbes. The bread rose slightly and, when baked, created a lighter and better tasting product. Fortuitous accidents like that always seem to move people to re-create them for their own benefit. Once the process of raised bread was a little better understood, the perfection of a raising agent came next. Beer froth, wine froth, and by the 18th Dynasty pure yeasts were used with the dough. Perhaps baking soda [bicarbonate of soda] was prepared from the easily obtained natron salts [hydrous sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.]

Once a wild yeast was in the dough, however, it could replicate itself in other dough batches through the use of a 'left-over' starter. Keeping a piece of yesterday's dough for incorporation into today's, created a dough which would rise and become lighter and better tasting bread on a regular basis. In effect, some Ancient Egyptian bread was similar to our modern 'sourdough bread.'

Barley was cheaper than wheat, and as a matter of economics it would have been a staple for the poorer Ancient Egyptians, and certainly used for feast representations of deities and animals. The tastier and more expensive wheat products would appear in the wealthy households regularly.

Coarsely ground barley was mixed and used to make a semi-baked barley bread starter for brewing beer. The light baking did not destroy the enzymes needed for fermentation. The discoverers of beer, although never positively identified, have probably been blessed for thousands of years---though this beer was always rather cloudy and a bid doughy.

Intef told me many tales about the wine and beer parties at the palace. Why, he remembers one occasion---but that story's for another time.

The wheat bread was baked in many shapes and qualities: flat bread; triangular bread; raised loaves; molded conical loaves; enriched loaves; sweetened loaves; etc. Some breads were imported from Syria. Breads were enriched or sweetened with milk, eggs, spices [thyme, cumin, coriander, anise, etc.]---perhaps even filled with meats.

Some breads were flattened or rolled into spirals and deep fried; some were decorated, marked, or slashed; and some were baked into special shapes for religious or celebratary reasons. Some were baked in an oven, some along the inner sides, and some in pre-heated pots.

If baked in a covered pot, they would be moister from the retained steam. Fresh dough placed on a near-finished stew and cooked covered seems plausible, so my imagination sees it in the Ancient Egyptian kitchen [which was away from the house in most cases.] The Ancients would probably have felt comfortable creating and baking bread with anyone's Grandma.

In many cases, the Ancient Egyptians kneaded the bread dough with their feet. [Products might then be thought to be Cheese-Bread?] I don't know why, and neither did the ancient Greek, Herodotus, who said: 'dough they knead with their feet, but clay with their hands.' Perhaps Grandma wouldn't be so amenable to their kitchen assistance, after all.

Intef, our mystical advisor, says that today's cooks don't have to be perfectionists when it comes to making modern versions of the Ancient Egyptian breads. You can easily purchase bread if you're not an accomplished baker. Even Intef used a specialist for the palace. There are many fresh doughs and breads on the market with simple ingredients: water, flour, salt, yeast. [Sand and ground stone are optional]

Pizza dough, Italian Bread, French Bread, Portuguese Bread, and Pita Bread are good examples. I've seen available in the local markets a bread called Mountain Bread, or Syrian Bread---thin, flat breads sold in a package that is rectangular, but the two thin loaves are folded over to make a circle into a rectangle. An excellent Chinese style 'bread' made with flour, salt, and scallions [oil cake or scallion cake] is available, as are olive or raisin breads. Other rustic breads from the various cultures in the World probably have the same ingredients as these simple examples. Buy them all unsliced and slice them on the go or tear them apart in an Ancient Egyptian mystical frenzy.

'Bread is the staff of life.' Indeed, it's among the first food products to be prepared in a beginning civilization. So make sure you have your seed and recipes when you get stranded on that dreamy, desert island. Or else, make sure your companion is a baker. You'll need a proper companion to start a new civilization anyway.

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