Ever since thousands of years ago, when it was discovered that wheat could be ground to produce an edible meal, flour and bread have been at the heart of food production in Britain.
Millers along the Wey Valley had the double advantage of a fertile agricultural area supplying good quality grains and a prosperous market on their doorsteps. It was not surprising therefore that the Wey at its peak had the greatest concentration of corn mills per mile than any other river in Britain
~ Bread is one of the oldest foodstuffs dating back to the Neolithic era : 4000-2000 B.C.
WEY VALLEY FOOD
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Of all the cereals, wheat is one of the most widely used. Cereals were first cultivated in the Middle East 10,000 years ago, with wheat and rice the most widespread. Today these two cereals provide 40% of the world’s staple food.
Wheat is not only very nutritious, but it also has the benefit of being easily made into bread. Our ancestors would originally have ground the grain by hand with a pestle and mortar. The Egyptians developed a simple grinding stone to make the process easier and more effective. In those days bread was made without the benefit of any raising agents and so it was unleavened, the equivalent today being Mexican tortillas and Indian chapattis.
By 3700 BC grain had become a staple food and its cultivation had spread across Europe, with evidence of it being cultivated in Britain. The ever resourceful Egyptians by 3000 BC had introduced tougher varieties of wheat and had also started to experiment with the use of wild yeasts to produce leavened doughs. Added to this their invention of the closed oven and the methods for making the bread we now take for granted were in place. By 1050 BC southern England had developed into an agricultural area with barley and oats a common crop, although it wasn’t until 500 BC that wheat had become equally important.
The origins of mechanical milling rest with the Romans, who by 500 BC had developed a circular stone wheel called a quern which rotated on a lower fixed stone to provide the ability to grind flour in greater quantity. Fifty years later there is evidence that the Greeks had invented the watermill, although it took several centuries before the technology became fully realised. It did however take the invasion of Britain by the Romans in 55 BC to introduce the new technologies, as the ancient Britons were at that stage still crushing wheat by hand and baking it over open fires.
In medieval times (1066 – 1666), as the population started to grow rapidly, the trade of bakers began to develop and spread. Bakers’ guilds were eventually established to regulate the industry by placing controls over the price and weight of bread, and also to protect the interests of their members. However even by Tudor times bread, especially the finer white loaves or manchets, were still a status symbol with this confined by its expense to the nobility. Merchants and tradesmen could afford wheaten cobs whilst the poor had to put up with the far rougher bran loaves.
The Domesday Book of 1086 provided the first evidence of watermills having become a primary source of milling. The first windmill to appear in documentation was one in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk in 1191.
Government first got involved in regulating the industry in the 13th century to prevent widespread racketeering which was leading to civil unrest. King John in 1202 imposed the first laws controlling the price of bread and regulating profit. By 1266 The Assize of Bread was in place which provided for a formal committee authorised to regulate the weight and price of loaves, and introduced the first bread subsidy to help make bread more affordable for the poor.
Any baker breaking the law could be pilloried (locked into a wooden framework with a hole for the head and hands to enable the public to scorn the offender), fined, and even banned from baking for life.
It was about this time that the term ‘baker’s dozen’ came about. One view is that when selling a dozen loaves the baker would, for safety, throw in an extra loaf as customers ordering this quantity tended to be from influential households and he didn’t want to risk any accusation of short weight. Another is a later one of c1500 that dealers purchasing bread from the bakers were allowed by law to receive an extra loaf as their profit. The word ‘dozen’ comes from Middle English ‘dozeine’ which adopted it from the Old French ‘dozaine’
During the Industrial Age (1700 – 1887) further advancements were made in the industry. The introduction of sieves made from Chinese silk enabled a finer and whiter flour to be produced, which made white bread more popular. Today 70% of the bread bought is white bread.
The Cornish mines by then in full production provided an easier way of baking bread with the introduction of baking tins, and the new shape enabled ease of slicing and toasting. Not long later the Earl of Sandwich was inspired to popularise a more exciting and versatile use of bread through the meal that took his name.
In 1709 magistrates, through a new Act, were empowered to take over from the Assize of Bread and toughened controls further. The only bread that was permitted to be baked for public consumption was limited to white, wheaten or wholemeal, and household which was made from the cheaper low grade flour. This didn’t prevent bakers from trying to cheat their customers however, as a report published in 1757 illustrated. The authors accused bakers of adulterating bread by using alum lime, chalk and powdered bones to whiten lower grade flour and pass it off as more expensive white bread. Parliament responded by banning additives, although this didn’t totally stop the practice.
In 1815, under pressure from domestic wheat growers, Parliament passed the Corn Laws to protect them by raising the duty on imported wheat and removed the price controls on bread. The immediate result was a spiralling of bread prices which lead to considerable hardship for the poor.
The demise of the traditional watermills and windmills was triggered by a Swiss invention in 1834. Rollermilling introduced a more effective way of milling, and that also enabled a much finer flour to be produced, especially for white flour. Unlike stone grinding, which in crushing the grain distributed the vitamins and nutrients evenly, the rollermill broke open the wheat berry which allowed easy separation of the wheat germ and bran. The grinding process being finer also provided for a better-textured bread.
In 1846 The Corn Laws were repealed as large groups of the population were nearing starvation. This enabled the better quality North American wheat to be imported and together with the new rollermilling process lead to cheaper white bread and at last all of the population could now afford to buy it.
© Wey River 2005 - 2012