A blog about the British Renaissance and modern Renaissance Faires.
“Our Daily Bread.” Bread has been an essential part of human life since the earliest days when humans still lived in caves and made bread by grinding grain, mixing it with water and cooking it over a heated stone. It has been such an essential and necessary part of human life that numerous expressions refer to bread. People work to “earn bread.” On a shopping trip, you may “spend dough.” Something wonderful is referred to as “the greatest thing since white (or sliced) bread.” Wheat is “the staff of life.” “Bread and butter” refers to life’s basics. “Half a loaf is better than none,” “half-baked,” “selling like hotcakes,” “to separate the wheat from the chaff.” These are all expressions that demonstrate the essential role of bread in human existence. And like all other parts of Renaissance life, there was a hierarchy in bread with the “upper crust” of society enjoying the finest breads and the lowest levels of society “getting the crumbs.”
During Roman times, when Romans occupied England, barm, which is the wild yeast formed during the making of beer, was used in making bread. Rather than flat, hard bread, this leavening agent enlarged the pockets of air in the dough, thus raising it and creating a more palatable bread.Although the science of yeast and gluten was not understood until the 19th century, bakers did understand the mechanics of grains and yeast.
During the Elizabethan era, spelt, oats, wheat, rye and barley were all used in making bread. Different grains grew better in different regions so each region was known for its particular bread. In northern England, oats and soft wheat were commonly used. In the southwest, rye bread was common. The heavier rye breads were particularly important for those doing heavy work as it sated the appetite longer. Barley bread was common in areas having lighter soils. And pure wheat breads were more common in the central areas.
To make bread, one begins by grinding the grains. During the Renaissance, this was done by using grinding stones. Unfortunately, grinding grain between stones meant that stone granules were often mixed into the flour. The breads made with these stony flours would, over time, wear down teeth.
During the 13th century, bread was made using the whole grain, which produced a coarse, dense bread. By the Elizabethan era, millers had learned how to separate the fine wheat germ from the outer shell, or bran, which allowed for a fine, white bread called Manchet to be made. However, this was a very expensive process and typically only the wealthy could afford it. Therefore, the lower classes typically ate coarse, whole grain breads. (What a reversal from modern views in which white bread is the inexpensive bread of the masses and whole grain bread is more desirable- and more expensive!) However, unethical bakers would add chalk to their flours to create a lighter-colored loaf of bread, thus fooling their customers into thinking they were getting a finer bread and thus paying a higher price. Surprisingly, today’s British bakers are required by law to add chalk to their bread; this chalk is called Calcium Carbonate.
Baking guilds, which regulated bakeries, also established standards for the size of bread. These standards were called the Assize (statutes) of Bread and Ale. These statutes set standards for the price, weight and quality of bread and beer that was manufactured and sold in England. These statutes are believed to have been enacted in 1266 and, with a few amendments added, continued to be law until 1863, when they were finally repealed.
So how does one make a fine Manchet? The following recipe was first published in 1594 in the book “The Good Huswifes Handmaide for theKitchen”, author Anonymous. At this time, spelling was not standardized, so words were spelled the way people thought they sounded. Spelling was not standardized until the mid-1700’s, when printers needed to be able to create just one version of each printed word.
The making of a fine Manchet
Take halfe a bushel of fine flower twise boulted, and agallon of faire luke warm water, almost a handful of white salt, and almost a pinte of yest, then temper all these together, without any more liquor, as hard as you can handle it: then let it lie halfe an hower, then take it up, and make your Manchetts, and let them stande almost an hower in the oven. Memorandum, that of every bushel of meale may be made five and twentie caste of bread and everie loafe to way a pounde beside the chesill.
At a Renaissance Faire, visitors will typically be able to select from a variety of baked goods, such as scones, breads and cakes. At the Virginia Renaissance Faire, one can also enjoy a selection of baked goods such as fine manchets, made using modern translations of the same recipes that Queen Elizabeth enjoyed!
To learn more about the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please visit our website: www.VaRF.org. The Virginia Renaissance Faire runs for five weekends from Mother’s Day weekend through early June. We hope to see you there!
The Virginia Renaissance Faire is produced by Out of the Woodwork Productions, a 501C(3) non-profit. To make a tax deductible contribution, please go to www.paypal.me/VaRenFaire and click on the donation button..