Flour power

Ancient and international, one food seems to have dominated our diet since the early ages of humankind. Bread, says Sean Coughlan, is so much more than the top and bottom of a sandwich

If we are what we eat, what does a sandwich say about us? It could say that we live in a society that's always in a hurry, without time for a long meal. We're eating on the move, hungry for fast portable food for fast portable lives. It's food for work or travelling, informal and flexible. You might even be eating a sandwich right now.

This year is the 240th anniversary of the sandwich, reason enough for the marketing industry in the US to decree that this is the Year of the Sandwich. Not that Americans need much encouragement: they consume 45 billion sandwiches each year, which means that four out of five adults eat a sandwich at least once a week. (Ham is the favourite filling.) The invention of the sandwich in 1762 is attributed to John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. Wanting food during an all-day gambling session in a club in Covent Garden, but not wanting to stop playing cards, he ordered slices of beef to be put between bread. And anyone eating a sandwich while they work through lunchtime can thank the creative snacking of the earl for devising a meal that lets you eat while doing something else.

"Inventing" the sandwich was rather like that other popular 18th-century activity, "discovering" islands. These islands - such as the Sandwich Islands named after the aforesaid earl - had been there a long time and were presumably not a discovery to the people already living on them. It would seem equally improbable that in the previous 10,000 years no one had ever combined bread and meat before. But the enterprising earl gave the sandwich a name and identity and helped it to become fashionable.

If anyone should be sending a birthday card to the sandwich, it should be the British bread industry. The emergence late last century of the sandwich shop on every high street helped to arrest what had been a steady decline in bread consumption since the Second World War. The sandwich fitted the Eighties image of the high-octane city lifestyle, with designer sandwich bars offering suitably expensive snacks for people who believed that "lunch is for wimps".

Through the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, the British public had seemed to be losing its taste for bread, associating the humble loaf with years of austerity. Bread had been the staple diet of the working class for centuries, and with post-war affluence people wanted to savour the delights of new processed food.

On average, people in Britain still eat much less bread than their counterparts in countries such as Germany, France and Italy. But if you look at the shelves in the supermarket, the range of bread now available says something about how we've changed as a society, becoming more multicultural, better travelled and more health conscious.

As well as organic loaves and the many varieties of brown bread, there has been a huge increase in the international flavour of what's on offer. Without looking too hard we can buy baguettes, pitta, ciabatta, naan, tortilla, chapatti, rye bread and pumpernickel. This reflects how bread has been the "staff of life" in cultures all around the world from the earliest civilisations. A Forties study of the diet of people living on the island of Crete concluded that the type of bread eaten and its consumption at every meal had changed little in 40 generations.

The earliest forebear of the loaf was probably put on the menu by hunter-gatherers of the Neolithic era. There is archaeological evidence that in the Middle East early humans roasted grain from cereal plants, presumably to eat. And it is also thought that grain would have been ground between stones to make a flour, which would have been mixed with water and then cooked, perhaps looking something like a chapatti.

The great leap forward occurred around 10,000BC, in the Middle East, when hunter-gatherers began to farm crops such as wheat and barley, which could be used to make bread. In the following centuries, this development of agriculture spread into Anatolia, North Africa, Mesopotamia and later into Europe.

The great significance of the human domestication of wheat was that in the process wheat also domesticated humans. It isn't an exaggeration to say that it allowed the development of towns and cities and civilisations. Raising crops meant staying in one place, establishing new types of settled communities rather than the nomadic groups which for thousands of years had subsisted on whatever they could hunt or find around them.

Bread made from wheat and barley could be stored and shared, balancing out the supply of food through the winter or whenever hunting was unsuccessful. This predictable food source enabled larger populations to live together and any surplus bread allowed for trade and the development of specialisms beyond hunting and fishing.

The creation of bigger settlements required new forms of social organisation, such as the setting of laws and the need for a written language to keep records. One of the earliest picture symbols, from Mesopotamia, relates to another barley product - showing two men drinking beer through straws.

The success of wheat cultivation meant that a limited area of land could generate a large and nutritious supply of food - and this revolutionary advantage allowed a fully fledged farming economy to spread around the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Sumeria and the eastern Mediterranean.

A single acre of modern high-yield wheat can generate enough bread to keep a family of four alive for a decade. Although early forms of wheat would not have been so productive, it still meant that compared with the old-style hunters, the wheat growers were able to build up larger and more cohesive communities on a fixed amount of land, with their new staple food providing them with carbohydrates, fibre, protein, oils and vitamins.

The first types of bread would have been unleavened, produced with grain ground between stones. But in Egypt, by the time of the pharaohs, baking had become much more sophisticated. By about 3000BC, leavened dough was used and wealthy Egyptians were enjoying dozens of different types of bread, flavoured with honey, dates and figs, and novelty loaves made in the shape of cows and humans. The royal court in about 1700BC was taking delivery of 1,630 loaves and 130 jugs of beer every day. Both bread and beer were used as wages for workmen - perhaps an early indication of why "bread" should be synonymous with money.

The Romans systematised bread production further, with bakers regulated into guilds and applying high levels of industrialisation to supply the army and cities. It is estimated that in Britain 100,000 acres of wheat were needed to feed the military alone.

White, yeasted bread became fashionable, and this was mass produced in bakeries across the Roman Empire. Such was the political importance of bread as the basic foodstuff that in 40BC all adult males in Rome were entitled to free bread.

In Britain, bread remained the staple diet throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, and dependency on this foodstuff grew. A 14th-century worker could eat meat and cheese most days, along with his bread, but by the end of the 18th century a typical family lived each week on eight loaves of bread, two pints of milk, two pounds of butter and cheese and a half pound of bacon. By the end of the 19th century, the urban poor were surviving largely on bread, potatoes and a little milk. This reliance on bread has made it a politically important commodity, and in Britain it has long been associated with subsidies, price controls and regulations on production. In the 13th century an early example of a quango, an appointed body called the Assize of Bread, set the price and weight of loaves. In the 19th century, the Corn Laws, which restricted wheat imports and kept bread prices high, were the subject of fierce argument until they were repealed, as large parts of the population were unable to afford the food that kept them alive.

Restrictions on bread prices continued into the 20th century. In 1974, under anti-inflation legislation, the price of a large white loaf was fixed at 14.5p. Central controls were in place until 1979, when the price had reached 29.5p.

In wartime, there was particular sensitivity to the supply of bread. In the Second World War there was a state-regulated "National Loaf", designed to make best use of available resources. It was not abolished until 1956.

Bread was also used to improve public health. In the 1940s, in response to concerns about the bone-softening disease rickets, calcium was added to loaves. After the war, iron and thiamin were added to flour. And in the US, enriched grain was used to tackled pellagra (a disease affecting both the skin and the sanity).

As well as providing physical sustenance, bread has had religious and spiritual significance. In the tomb of the pharoah Tutankhamun (died c1325BC), bread was stowed away for his journey into the afterlife. In Christianity, bread is a recurrent symbol, central to narratives such as the Last Supper.

There have also been long-running moral associations with different types of bread. White bread, since Roman times, has been associated with refinement and urban decadence, while brown bread has been associated with rustic plain living. This moralising over bread has continued through the centuries. In the early 19th century in the US a popular evangelist called Sylvester Graham gained much public attention with a campaign for wholesome brown bread to be eaten rather than the louche, cosmopolitan white loaf, which he suggested contributed to immorality.

The difference between brown and white bread is in the type of flour used. Wholemeal flour is made from the whole wheat grain with nothing added or taken away. Brown flour contains about 85 per cent of the original grain, some bran and germ having been removed. White flour usually has 75 per cent of the grain, with most of the bran and germ having been removed. The wheatgerm is the vitamin-rich kernel. Bran is the grain husks separated from the flour.

The popularity of brown and white bread has become a question of fashion and a growing awareness of the importance of fibre in the diet. The white sliced loaf, which swept into homes in the 1930s, was seen as modern and convenient, and a great advance on the crusty old toothbreakers that granny used to bake. But later in the 20th century brown bread was promoted as a return to wholesome, pre-industrial values. The "healthiness" of brown and wholemeal bread has also become a selling point, and public health authorities warn of the dangers of a lack of roughage in an over-processed diet.

As well as being urged to eat more high-fibre brown bread, there is also a trend to recreate the idea of home-made bread, again evoking images of an era when baking bread was an important part of domestic life. In the past couple of years, two million homes in Britain have acquired a bread-making machine. This will be applauded by estate agents, who say that the smell of fresh bread is likely to make properties more appealing to buyers.

In fact, while we might hanker after the idea of home baking, Britain is among the countries where people are most likely to eat the produce of a bread factory. In contrast, people in France and Italy are more likely to eat bread made by local bakers.

Man might not live by bread alone but, as the gambling Earl of Sandwich found, it can keep you going while you get up to something else.

10 SLICES OF TECHNOLOGY

3000BC Egyptians use yeast and develop more effective ovens for baking.

500BC Romans used circular "quern" stones for grinding grain.

150BC Romans founded first bakers' guilds and used donkey power for first mechanical bread mixer.

600AD Windmills developed in Iran.

800AD Vikings made bread with a hole in the middle which could be stored on poles.

1709: Legislation in Britain permits only three types of bread, "white", "wheaten" (brown) and "household" (low-grade).

1834: Rollermills invented in Switzerland, making it easier to produce high-quality flour for white bread.

1912: Slicing and wrapping machine invented.

1919: Modern pop-up toaster invented.

1941: Calcium added to bread in Britain.

Use Your Loaf

"The best thing since sliced bread." Otto Rohwedder invented a machine to slice and wrap bread in 1912, but this was not exhibited until 1928. This proved a great success with the public and only five years later 80 per cent of the US bread market was taken by sliced loaves. In Britain, the first sliced loaves appeared in 1930, called Wonderbread.

"Baker's dozen": There were tough penalties in the Middle Ages against bakers who tried to cheat customers with underweight loaves. To ensure that there was no short-changing, bakers added a 13th loaf to the dozen. This extra loaf was known as the "vantage".

Hovis: The brand that was to become Hovis was launched in 1886 as Smith's Patent Germ Bread. But a competition in 1890 for a new name was won by a student called Herbert Grime, who suggested "hominis vis", Latin for "strength of man". This was abbreviated to "ho-vis".

WEBSITES

Food Standards Agency: www.foodstandards.gov.uk

Flour and Grain Education Programme: www.flourandgrain.com

Flour Advisory Bureau: www.fabflour.co.uk

British Bakeries: www.britishbakeries.co.uk

Year of the Sandwich: www.smartbread.com

Federation of Bakers: www.bakersfederation.org.uk

British Nutrition Foundation: www.nutrition.org.uk

Sean Coughlan is a freelance writer

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