Spelt & Sprouted-Grain Gastronomic Goodness
Bread, one of the oldest processed foods, has archeological evidence of its existence dating back to at least 8,000 BCE. However, the bread of today is nothing like those our Neolithic and Bronze and Bronze Age forebears consumed. But, without that humble staple in their diet many early hunter-gatherers groups may not have survived, let alone thrive.
Egyptians gave the world beer. The process was adapted by the involuntarily indentured Israelite, and when they left Egypt for the Promised Land they took the craft of beer making with them. In recent years, the Smithsonian Institution enlisted the aid of a professor specializing in ancient beverages. He unearthed a recipe for Egyptian beer that is several thousand years old; recent introduction of this ancient beer to the modern world was met with almost unanimous acclaim.
Similarly, hobbyists are discovering other beverages of antiquity. A resurgent interest in mead means anyone at home can make this sweet, alcoholic drink of the Vikings with very little equipment (and much patience – the process of fermentation is a long one).
Although many of today’s foods are variations of, or have antecedents in, other cuisines, “foodies” (those with perhaps better-than-average palates and appreciation for foodstuffs) tend to lean toward authenticity in their eats. Purists can choose from rediscovered Renaissance recipes or dig into older Americana from the earliest published cook books.
Bread tends to get overlooked except by an esoteric group of enthusiasts. It is their continued interest that a very old food, perhaps taken for granted, is gaining renewed recognition for its own flavors and benefits.
The Swiss Lake Dwellers lived in the shallows of fresh water lakes. Their homes were built on pilings and platforms, and they fished the lakes and cultivated plants on the shores.
The bread of the Swiss Lake Dwellers was flat bread. The recipe was about as basic as possible. A paste of water and crushed or ground cereal grains was made. This mush was spread over a hot stone placed near a fire pit. Sometimes it was covered with hot ash to give a crusty “finish” to the top.
Regardless of cooking method, the end product was an unattractive lump that had been cooked at low temperatures. However, in a world of no preservation methods, bread became one of Credit: wiki commonsthe earliest known portable foods, capable of lasting several days without environmental controls. This meant, for the Lake Dwellers and others who ate it, they had a sustainable food source as long as they could find (and later cultivate) enough good grains to keep making their breads.
In appearance, such primitive flatbreads looked much like the naan bread of India – a thin, crusty, tortilla flat. Although most naan these days is leavened (with yeasts), the earliest versions were not, and in many Asian countries such as Turkey, the earlier unleavened naan is the preferred mainstay.
Grain storage for primitives meant tucking seeds into skins or baskets, or burying them in pots in the ground. These are not truly long term solutions; much of the grain (if the storage conditions were right) began germinating, producing little green sprouts as part of the growing process. For any people living at subsistence levels (and local famines were very common), groups could not afford to cast off grains that had sprouted. Instead, some enterprising cave woman or cave man decided to grind the sprouting grains up into bread flour.
The result is what today is called sprouted-grain bread. This staple food of the Stone Age had a far-reaching effect on civilization, allowing it to thrive (and in many cases, be defined by its dietary restrictions).
Maintaining a yeast colony was critical – although the Egyptians did not clearly understand the biology and chemistry of yeast interacting with dough, they knew to keep a piece of raw dough from a previous batch. This dough contained the living yeast culture – adding it to new bread propagated the culture, which grew and expanded the new mix. From this batch, a piece was saved, thus ensuring good quality, light breads could be made consistently.
The Egyptians devised the oven, an enclosed, temperature controlled cooking space. It was also the Egyptians who developed different grades of flour. They invented sifting so that only the purest flour was used for the raised white breads of their nobility and royalty. Lesser people ate coarser-grained brown breads. Among those were the sprouted-grain loaves, once thought the lowest of bread making since it used grains considered inferior.Credit: public domain
Public bread ovens were built in the Lands of Canaan in the 1st Century CE. Jewish tribal women took their bread dough to the communal ovens daily for bread making.
Aesthetes occasionally reverted to unleavened breads for sacrificial or personal religious reasons. Stoics, such as the Essenes (a Jewish sect that flourished from about the 2nd Century BCE to Credit: wiki commonsthe 1st Century CE), purposely ate only unleavened flatbreads as proof of their ascetic self-denial. This departure from worldly ways, eating bread as close to its original form as possible, was a part of the Essenes’ lifestyle.
Likewise, the Passover matzoh and breads of Jewish antiquities were made for religious reasons as well. They, too, honored the older, humble beginnings of Judaism in Egyptian bondage. Spelt, a once common species of wheat, however, was forbidden for use in these sacred breads.
In the Americas, bread was an almost unknown food. The lands were abundant in many cereal grains (such as corn) and other produce (potatoes, the squashes, and tomatoes) unknown in Neolithic Europe and Asia. Although globally, without interaction, many inventions and discoveries are arrived at concurrently, bread was not one of them.
The only Native American culture known for its bread making were those living in the North American Southwest. These groups used adobe ovens to bake their bread – the odd-shaped loaves were made from cornmeal and other ingredients.
Another problem with modern breads is adulteration. The best example of this was in Germany between World War I and World War II. Rampant inflation meant a person could start eating a meal in a restaurant, and by the time the check came the price was four times higher than when the food was served. It truly was runaway, and many corner-cutting methods were used to stretch foodstuffs.
For bread, this meant adding “non-nutritive cellulose” to the bread dough, sometimes up to half the mix. Non-nutritive cellulose filled bellies while scaling back on bread costs. The only problem with the filler is it lived up to its name – it was, indeed, non-nutritive because it was indigestible. This substance is better known by its more common name, sawdust, and as a food additive sawdust has been used infrequently to bulk up baked goods and other foods.
The ancients were far healthier than modern humanity would like to believe. They thrived on a diet consisting of very little meats. Their foods were almost always grain-based, with very few processed foods, such as bread, part of their diet. Many “back-to-nature” types look toward organic foods and vegetarianism as lifestyles to embrace. There is much to recommend this, with some minor cautionary notes.
Sprouted-grain bread was born of necessity. People could not afford to toss out perfectly useable rye, for example, because it happened to start sprouting. They had to make use of it somehow (in the same way Irish had no choice but to eat what few blighted, shriveled-up potatoes might be harvested during the Potato Famine of the mid 19th Century).
For some peasant people, their food could kill them. A fungus called ergot could grow on poorly stored grain, particularly rye. Ergot is the fungus from which LSD is derived. A common disorder of mediaeval times was ergotism – hallucinations, vomiting, convulsions, and death – that resulted from eating too much ergot-tainted grain.
The breads made from germinating grains, using dough of cracked, ground flour from sprouted-wheat grain is stickier than common hard wheat bread. The finished flatbreads and loaves are much denser, more colorful, richer in texture, and nuttier in flavor. The taste is robust, and for those without a palate for it, it may take some getting used to (in the same way Pilsner beer drinkers may have to learn to like the taste of stout beers).
These breads are higher in fiber as the bran is retained. They pack more value in protein and are lower in carbohydrates because much of the carbohydrates (the seeds’ “food energy”) are converted to protein during the germination process. As an added bonus the finished breads have about 40% less fat than their traditional, modern counterparts.
Wildly exaggerated claims of vitamin and mineral boosts of a thousand times normal have been made by champions of spelt bread and sprouted-grain breads. These claims are false. The finished product does have a significant uptick in vitamins and minerals, but not the ridiculously inflated figures claimed by New Age posers.
This is bread. It does not cure cancer, nor does it possess magical powers to heal. Since some micro-bakeries have begun producing sprouted-grain breads commercially, the USDA has, of course, had to address and quantify its nutritional value. It recognizes these superb breads are not manna: they are good, solid, healthy foods high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They are not miracle cures for health problems.
There is one proven health benefit from such bread, however. Allowing wheat berries to sprout before processing into flour breaks down certain substances that cause “bread” allergies in some people.
One of the easiest recipes to use follows the method of the Essenes (without the open fire, heated stones, and ashes). Recipes require the baker to “sprout” the wheat berries for four days in advance. Specific recipes will tell how much to start with (whether it be a cup or two cups, or whatever – see what your favorite recipe recommends).
Sprouting is easy, and again this is a project for children since it gets them involved in the process, and they have the responsibility of watching and tending to the germinating berries. Wheat berries – purchased from any whole foods coöp or other health-food outlet – are spread onto a cookie sheet or tray upon which a damp, clean cloth is placed. Another damp cloth covers the layer. Leave the berries in a dark, warm place. Twice a day for the next four days, rinse the berries in clear water and return them to the tray, dampening the covering cloth as needed.
The berries are turned into paste in a food processer. Use the berries as is – do not remove the sprouts or bran hulls. Follow the rest of a favorite recipe to make a sticky dough ball that clings together. This ball will need to “rest” for about an hour before baking.
Although different combinations of grains may require different baking temperatures, the most common is to form the dough into loaves and place them on oiled baking sheets. They bake for about 2½ hours at 300°F (the bread of the Stone Age and of the Essenes were baked at fairly low temperatures or on sun-heated rocks). To preserve more of the naturally occurring enzymes, the bread can be baked at 200°F for 4 hours. Follow the recipe of choice, and a great loaf should be guaranteed.
Regardless of the mix, what the home baker will see is a rather ugly finished product. Its lack of attractiveness, however, takes nothing away from its value. This bread is denser than anything previously experienced (for the novice); it smells great, and it appeals to a ravenous appetite.
It is filling: eating it can easily place anyone in the mindset of an Essene or Stone Ager who might be having only that food for his or her daily . . . uh . . . bread.
Fun with bread
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