“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
I thought to start this post with a clever quip, or at the very least a healthy dose of sarcasm. Bread, after all, is a dry subject (I couldn’t resist). In all seriousness though, when I came across the above quote, it resonated with me. I suspect that in 1396, the year my book, Beneath the Destined Stone, takes place, this would have been how many a medieval peasant felt.
Enter the Miller:
The Greatest Villain of Medieval Times
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But they weren’t exactly beloved. Think of Millers as the medieval equivalent to a used car salesmen. They had a reputation (earned or not) for thievery, whether in the form of underweight bags or a little tree bark seasoning the meal. Many millers were also bakers by trade, and this offered its own opportunities for swindling. A stone or piece of iron might be baked into a loaf for added weight (Mortimer, 95).
You are what you eat
Medieval bakers thought so at least. It was common for a baker to create and name loaves of bread based on a buyer’s station in life: the knight’s loaf, the squire’s loaf, the varlet’s loaf, and so on. A nice write up of this can be found here. What exactly a squire’s loaf tasted like, we can’t be sure. Each baker had his own signature recipe. The recipes we do have come from medieval cookbooks. These would have been the breads of the nobility. If you’re interested, several recipes are available here.
Peasant bread ain’t that bad
Forget the fancy stuff, I wanted to know what the poor man ate. Unfortunately, history is a rich man’s arena.
I had to make some educated guesses in my recreation. In Scotland barley or oats would have been the most common grains for the poor. Wheat was a rich man’s luxury. Bread was often unleavened and cooked on a girdle (yes I spelled that right) or even a stone placed near the fire.
A search for unleavened barley bread lead me here. I read over the recipe and it couldn’t have been simpler: flour, salt, water, oil. I felt comfortable with these ingredients from a historical stance.
Except for the oil
What kind of oil would have been available to a peasant in 14th century Scotland? I found ledgers verifying that in the 14th century olive oil was being imported into Perth, the city where my book takes place.
A possibility, but one I wasn’t comfortable with. Would a peasant have been able to afford an imported oil, and if so, would they have squandered it on their daily bread? That didn’t seem likely. Perhaps they used oils from native nuts instead. Walnuts maybe? This merited more research.
Ask and you shall receive
After three hours without even a hint of a book or article that might contain what I was looking for, I decided I was going about this the wrong way. Instead of looking for information, I began looking for people I could ask. I e-mailed Derek Hall, an archaeologist in Perth who specializes in medieval pottery, and Dr. Giles Gasper at Durham University. One of Dr. Gasper’s areas of interest is monastic life, and I happened to remember that monks often ate unleavened barley bread. Perhaps he would know.
I can’t say enough good things about these men. Both responded quickly and were very helpful. Derek Hall informed me that the only oil there is archaeological and documentary evidence for is olive oil. Dr. Gasper gave me two references to check out and did me one better and referred me to his wife, an expert on medieval food.
I couldn’t believe my luck
Seriously, what are the odds? I immediately went to her website www.eatmedieval.com and lost myself in her pages. I encourage you all to check out her website and blog. You won’t be disappointed. I shot her an e-mail and, like her husband, she was quick to respond and extremely helpful. She agreed that olive oil would likely have been too expensive and felt animal fat or butter were more appropriate choices. She also said many peasant breads would have had no fat at all–just flour or oats, water, and salt.
I toiled between butter or no fat at all, finally deciding to just go ahead and add it. Everything’s better with butter, right?
2 cups barley flour
1 TBS butter (melted)
Pinch of salt
*I had to do a bit of hunting for the barley flour. It wasn’t available in any of my local grocery chains. I finally found it at a nearby natural food co-op. Health food stores will be your best bet.
Combine barley flour, butter, and salt. Slowly stir in warm water until you have a smooth dough. The amount of water will vary based on climate and other factors. If you’ve added too much water and the dough is sticky, just throw in a little more flour. You should end up with something that looks like this:
Let the dough rest for at least a half hour. I waited exactly a half hour. I’m not sure how this would turn out with a longer rest time. I wouldn’t wait too long though, or you run the risk of catching airborne yeast.
After the dough has rested, roll into egg-sized balls. I ended up with nine. Roll them into thin disks, approximately the size of a tea saucer. The dough is surprisingly easy to work with and not at all sticky.
When you’ve finished cooking them all, you should have something like this:
Peasant Food Fit for a King
The taste and texture reminded us (Me, my husband, and friend Dave) of whole-grain pita bread. It is thinner than pita, which I preferred, though it didn’t have the handy pocket.
The verdict: Not bad!
Next we tried it with butter. This upped it from Not Bad to Pretty Darn Good.
Then we tried it with cheese. We chose cheddar, because that’s what happened to be in my fridge. Oh. My. God. Now that’s what I’m talking about! Delicious.
After a few more bites, we all agreed that the dish needed some fruit, something sweet and juicy to play off the flavors. I only had blueberries on hand. Now this is not a period-appropriate food for medieval Scotland, so let’s pretend I had some wild strawberries. The fruit upped the game to a whole new level. It all just worked together. I knew then that this would not just be a one time thing. I was hooked.
The Real Test
I brought in the pickiest eaters I know.
Just kidding. I didn’t fead peasant bread to Snoop Dogg.
Seriously, water-boarding couldn’t convince these kids to eat something they don’t like.
So I called the little devils over and handed them some barley bread and cheese.
And they ate it!
Not only did they eat it, the next morning they asked if they could have the bread and cheese for breakfast. Holy crap!
I’d call that a success…
This recipe was inexpensive, simple, and pretty darn good. I will definitely make it again.
*I’ve left a few pieces out to harden so I can use them as trenchers. Stay tuned for the results.