Medieval Barley Bread

 

Bread
photo credit: Bread via photopin (license)License: (license)

“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:

Miller
By Zyance (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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

nobility
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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

olive oil
photo credit: Olive Oil via photopin (license)License: (license)

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.

The Recipe 

printable recipe

I toiled between butter or no fat at all, finally deciding to just go ahead and add it. Everything’s better with butter, right?

http://wp.me/p6yx2s-1SDSC_0018

Ingredients:

2 cups barley flour

1 TBS butter (melted)

Pinch of salt

Warm water

*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.

Directions:

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:

DSC_0027Let 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.

DSC_0031Then throw them onto a hot frying pan and let cook for about three minutes per side. I did not use any oil or butter in the pan. They didn’t stick. I kept the heat on medium/high.

When you’ve finished cooking them all, you should have something like this:

Barley Bread Platter

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.

IMG_1201

Just kidding. I didn’t fead peasant bread to Snoop Dogg.

I fed it to them.IMG_1321

 

 

 

 

 

Cute, right? Don’t be fooled. When it comes to food, this pic is more accurate:IMG_0764

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…

In conclusion

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.

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46 thoughts on “Medieval Barley Bread

  1. This will be my go-to. I’m always out of oil. I wonder how it would tuen out with flour that I actually have on a regular basis.

  2. This actually sounds somewhat similar to Navajo Tortilla, although the Navajo use high gluten flour instead of barley. I agree that if any form of fat was used, animal fat is most likely. If they were lucky enough to get their hands on an animal to slaughter, which I understand would have been a rare luxury, they would certainly find a use for the animal fat. For poor people often on the brink of starvation, wasting nuts of buying expensive imported would be wasteful. Plus you don’t generally use olive oil for baking, and I doubt it would turn out quite right. The Navajo use lard in their tortilla, which sounds gross but is actually delicious. They also will fry the bread in the lard to turn tortilla into frybread!

    My guess is that your bread tastes very similar to what they would have eaten! A few months ago I read an article about a 250 year-old pretzel unearthed in Germany, and they found that it was pretty much the same as what they eat today. http://www.foodworldnews.com/articles/16153/20150312/250-year-old-pretzel-discovered-in-bavaria-may-be-oldest-european-pastry-ever-photo.htm

    I write like I know what I am talking about, but I’m probably full of crap.

    1. Awesome article! Thanks for the link. I think it probably was pretty close to what they ate (minus bits of mill stone). It definitely gave me a new perspective on the medieval diet.

  3. loved this; of all the ironies, actually have bread baking in the oven as I read this but also – and I’m sure you’ve done your research and reading, as you’ve mentioned here, but I’ve just finished Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth, which you’re probably familiar with, set couple centuries earlier but didn’t think things changed that much or if anything for the better, but set in England rather than Scotland, not sure how much difference that might make but the peasants in the story there start off eating wheat bread, for what that’s worth

    1. I love Ken Follet! The sequel is really good, too. I think it was called A World Without End. Wheat grew much better in England, so it didn’t cost as much there. The Scots had to import it or make do with the little that survived the cold/rainy climate. I think everything there was just a little bit harder. Thanks for stopping by and checking out the site!

      1. haven’t read that one; can only take so much epic at a time – but being more Scottish heritage than English – except for possibly one book I’ve found about an Englishman with my maiden last name but never heard of any English ancestry – know about that whole make do thing – think that’s why we were raised on cornbread – would that be the American equivalent?

        1. I’d say that counts as the American equivalent. I’m also of Scottish descent. In the second book of the Outlander series, she actually mentions one of my ancestors. I got ridiculously excited. When you’re in the mood for something long and epic, you should definitely check out that series. You’ll fall in love I promise.

          1. no way – wow, that would be cool – I’m really wanting to get all the ancestor stuff my cousin put together – we kept telling and telling him to either get it together or let some of us that were interested have it before something happened but did he listen? nooooo, so now it’s sitting in a warehouse somewhere – or was, hope it still is – they were supposed to bring it to me last Christmas but then their mom got sick with cancer and they couldn’t so hoping for this year

          2. will do; just hope I can, although not really sure how much Scottish is actually in that stuff; know he talked about France, which is where I think the English came in, know even on the other side something’s been said about John Cabot, so honestly not even really sure where the Scottish is supposed to have come from except seemed like getting the idea them and the Irish got all mixed in together at the borders – except Ireland’s on the island, right? but seemed they moved over and got all intermingled, am I right about that?

          3. Ireland is a separate island. Scotland sits above England. A lot of Scots emigrated to Ireland. Mine did the same–started in Scotland, over to Ireland, and then on to the states. I’m sure you’ll find out a lot of great stuff!

  4. I’ve kind of been on the lookout for inexpensive, easy to make food, just for budgetary reasons. I didn’t think I’d find a recipe while browsing a historical blog. I’m going to have to give this a shot, thanks for posting!

  5. I love information from this era and that you are experimenting with recipes, makes it more interesting. The bread looks delicious.
    The most I have done was make honey mead ‘once’. Not sure it was spectacular but it was fermented. 🙂

      1. not sure where to put this, not really about this post in particular but more about your overall them of time travel; was doing some yucky dirty work today with an 8 yr. old girl helping me and she kept talking about wishing she could time travel – think maybe she’s been reading about it, gave a name but so out of it didn’t recognize, don’t remember,maybe should have slowed down and asked, will see her tomorrow, will try – anyway what her deal was to travel back to before the mess we were cleaning up got made – maybe we could have kept it from happening and not have had to been cleaning it up today? but what I kept thinking about was the medieval time period that seems to be what everybody wants to time travel too; does nobody think about what a yuckier, messier, dirtier, trashier world it was then – would we really want to live there?

        1. I love the little girl story 🙂 I’ve felt her pain too many times. As for medieval times, I definitely wouldn’t want to live then. For me, it’s just the different way of life that’s so interesting. And for my character, she gets taken back against her will and not by choice. You’re right though, it was definitely a yuckier time, though maybe not quite as bad as most people imagine. I’m finding that more and more as I do my research.

          1. is there a way to get a little more private here? would love to tell you a little more of her story and possibly hear yours, if you don’t mind sharing, but assumed you wouldn’t want to be quite public with it. And actually you may be right, it does seem there were different classes of people even then and those who wanted to be cleaner had their ways that sometimes we just can’t fathom how, although with the new advent of diy cleaners, etc., think more people are finding that out but thinking more of just stuff being thrown out but then not sure they had as much stuff in the first place to throw out – amazing how poverty has changed

        1. I’ll have to wait ’till my kids go off to college. Then I’ll delve into too much ;). We actually had Mead instead of champagne at our wedding, so I’m really excited to try this out!

  6. I had no idea that history could be so interesting – I have no doubt you are penning down a best-seller. All you have to do is stay true to your writing style.

  7. why is there not a comment thing on your other post about this recipe? I tried printing it and it came up with 18 pages, rather than just the recipe, even there, not here; have any idea why?

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