… nimium gaudes hos manducare calentes!
‘You’re delighted to eat them when they’re hot!’
—scolding woman to King Alfred
(Life of St. Neot version)
What is ‘original’ English bread? What kind of bread did an average Anglo-Saxon eat?
The first thing to know is that the bread of the early English varied hugely. They used a variety of grains, three different methods of leavening (yeast, sourdough, and steam), and four or five different kinds of cooking or baking.
Which kind of bread you ate depended most on how wealthy you were. The bread that would be most familiar to us moderns was the bread of the rich: the food of kings, nobles, and abbots of wealthy monasteries. The average person didn’t have the resources to waste large parts of the flour by sifting the bran out of it, or the wealth to build or fuel an oven. They ate a humbler, cheaper, easier bread.
So the following recipe is for Anglo-Saxon everyday bread: what most Anglo-Saxons would have thought of when they heard the word bread. (Their word was hlaf in Old English [our modern loaf], panis in Latin; and these hearthcakes in particular were probably what was meant by their word cicel, pronounced ‘kitchel,’ related to the word cook.) These are not yeast- or sourdough-raised loaves baked in an oven, but a simple hearth-cooked bread that must have served as an everyday staple for the vast majority of people in the Anglo-Saxon period. And — they’re yummy!
The recipe wasn’t written down as such, any more than modern cookbooks tell you how to put toast in the toaster. We have gleaned it from dozens of different references, many of which we’ll discuss in the coming months. But for now, on to the bread.
Because these instructions strive to be as authentic as possible, there will be no instructions about measurements or cups or weights. When the Anglo-Saxons were rich enough to own metal objects, they made brooches, not measuring spoons.
flour (see below)
1. First you need to decide on your level of poverty. Remember that by our standards most Anglo-Saxons were what we would deem ‘poor.’ You will need one of the following:
if you are very poor:
pea- and/or bean flour, which you should mix with oat flour in random proportions
if you are moderately poor:
oat flour, which you should mix with barley flour in random proportions
(this mixture is now known as dredge)
if you are a reasonably prosperous yeoman farmer:
wholemeal wheat flour, which you should mix with rye flour in random proportions
(this mixture is now known as maslin)
Oats and barley often grew together, and wheat and rye often grew together, so these mixtures make sense. It was advantageous to grow two kinds of grain together, so if one failed through disease or bad weather, the other kind might still produce, and you had a better chance of not starving.
If you want to have an authentic stomach ache, you could add cockle, a troublesome weed that grew among the grain. Excavations in York showed that tenth-century bread had enough cockle to have given the eaters digestive discomfort.
Ideally you have just ground these grains into flour with your stone quern, so it’s nice and sweet and fresh, but we’ll overlook that requirement in the interests of convenience. Incidentally, modern hand or machine home grinders heat the flour to too high a temperature to make it authentic, so don’t feel guilty if you don’t have a home grinder.
2. Take a handful or two of flour, and put it in a bowl. Add enough water to make a dough that is not too sticky. Ideally you have gathered this water from a source that is not downstream from someone with dysentery, though this too could be inauthentic.
Later medieval sources suggest that if you’re using pea flour, you might pour in boiling water, which keeps the smell down. Mmm! Sounds appetizing already! Needless to say, if you do this, let the water cool before handling the dough.
Do not add anything else. You do not need salt. Medieval butter and cheese were heavily salted to preserve them, so much so that in the later Middle Ages at least, people had to wash out their butter before use, because it was too salty to eat. My informants tell me that some modern types of Scandinavian flatbread still do not include salt, so they can be eaten with salty butter or cheese without overdoing the salt. You do not need any fancy ingredients like fat or milk or whatnot, heaven forbid; if you could afford fancy ingredients, you’d be making rich person’s bread.
3. Put a griddle or frying pan on the fire. Do not use any fat in the pan.
4. While the griddle is getting hot, knead the dough until it is well mixed. You can do this on a board or table, or by squeezing and passing the dough back and forth from hand to hand.
The legend of Alfred and the cakes, which we’ll cover more completely another time, specifies that the dough is kneaded, as do many later flatbread traditions. In fact it is hard to get the flour well mixed with the water unless it is kneaded, and even more so if a spoon is lacking. It seems clear to me that this is how the practice of kneading dough was ‘invented’: as a way to mix the ingredients of dough more thoroughly.
5. Form some of the kneaded dough into a flat roundish disc by patting it between your hands. It should be maybe slightly smaller than your hand, so you can squish it into flatness without it going floppy over the edge of your hand. Smaller is fine. It should be fairly thin, as thin or a bit thicker than a modern oatcake.*
6. Put your disc of flattened dough on the hot griddle, and squeeze on as many more of these ‘cakes’ as you can make, side by side. Watch them so they don’t burn (cf. Alfred & cakes). The dredge (oat and barley) bread will not rise, but the maslin (wheat and rye) bread will puff up a tiny bit from internal steam, enough to have a discernable crust and crumb.
7. When the bottom has some brownish burny spots, turn the cake over and cook it on the other side. Depending on the thickness, each side will probably take as long as it takes to say nine or ten Lord’s Prayers.** This is how they measured cooking time in the medieval period.***
8. When done, take the hearthcake off the griddle and make more until the dough is used up.
Best when eaten hot. The simplest way to eat these is with butter or cheese. The word is that Cheshire is the most nearly medieval cheese, but any kind of cheese will be good enough — the crumblier the better. That is how the Anglo-Saxons would have eaten these hearthcakes when out in the fields, or when having simple meals. More elaborate meals might have seen the bread dipped into bowls of cooked peas or beans, or into stews with meat in them (ascending up the social scale), or with bacon, which was probably the most widely preserved kind of meat, judging from later records.
The ‘cakes’ will keep indefinitely, though they need weighing down or they will go curly. They will dry out and go hard; to revive, put between layers of damp cloth for a while, or dip or soak in water or other liquid. But these dried cakes are probably for journeys; everyday bread would have been recently made, and is much better that way.
Alternate methods of cooking:
- on a bakestone (a thin slab of rock put on top of a fire — make sure yours is safe for putting on a direct flame before you try this at home)
- directly on the embers
- under an inverted pot with embers stacked on top
Our next report will cover these options.
This recipe may sound grim and cardboardy and tasteless. There are reasons it was not in as high favor as light and fluffy leavened bread, but it can’t be beat for ease, especially if someone else has done the grinding, and it’s genuinely yummy, especially when hot and accompanied by cheese.
*Are modern oatcakes authentic? Not your average commercial oatcake. The ingredients of Nairn’s Oatcakes are listed as “Wholegrain oats (88%), sunflower oil, sustainable palm fruit oil, sea salt, raising agent: sodium bicarbonate.” Oil! Salt! Leavening! And some recipes have sugar! (A survey of oatcake recipes here. Note that one of the commenters suggests eating the oatcakes with peanut butter and Indian lime pickle.) Conclusion: the oatcake has come a long way from its origins.
** If you want to be wholly authentic: ‘Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum: si þin nama gehalgod to becume þin rice. Gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg. And forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum. And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele soþlice.’ (Corpus Christi College MS 140, ed. Liuzza (1994))
***Chris Kimball, the founder of Cook’s Magazine, tried to recreate a dinner from the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook, and notoriously misunderstood cooking habits by mocking a recipe for Indian pudding. The recipe calls for letting molasses drop into the pudding for as long as it takes to sing a verse of ‘Nearer my God to Thee,’ or two verses in cold weather. Kimball doesn’t see the point of this and calls it ‘silly,’ for which he himself was widely mocked. All of this occurs in his book Fannie’s Last Supper and the subsequent comments on Amazon. This is a late but not rare example of this time-honored way of measuring cooking times.