Bread is a food product that is obtained by leavening and then baking a mix of flour, cereals and water.
There are many forms and varieties of bread based on the typicity of the ingredients and on individual regional traditions.
1) Its origins and the Egyptians
Its origins can be traced back to the dawn of civilization in the Neolithic Age, when man began to cultivate cereals: at first it consisted of a hard, unleavened flat bread, obtained from cooking a mix of cereal and water on a hot slab.
It was discovered by the ancient Egyptians as far back as 3000 B.C.
The study of papyruses, drawings and inscriptions on the walls of temples and tombs has revealed that bread was the staple food of the Egyptians and was virtually the only food of many.
This is attested by the fact that salaries were paid in the form of basic staples and that a farmer received three bread rolls and three pitchers of wine a day.
The discovery of the leavening process was certainly an important, if accidental discovery. There are in fact three natural yeasts in the air and, if left uncovered for a few hours, a water and flour mixture will absorb the yeasts. The resulting chemical reaction causes the amalgam to swell.
The ancient Egyptians also experimented with various types of oven. First with a cone-shaped clay oven and later with more structured ovens consisting of wells lined with stones, into which the bread was placed following combustion, in much the same fashion as modern-day wood-burning ovens.
Breadmaking was of great social importance, so much so that in those houses with an oven, sour dough was conserved for yeasting purposes with the same due care that other populations reserved for ensuring that fires never went out.
2) The Greeks and the Romans
Due to the geographic conditions, in particular the lack of suitable land for cultivation, the Greeks were unable to dedicate much attention to agriculture. The quality of their corn was almost third-rate.
Until 5 B.C., bread was primarily prepared using barley and spelt and was baked beneath the ash and above the embers.
Subsequently, thanks to new and more frequent trade contact with Middle-Eastern civilizations, the Greek began to make many types of bread, including bread that was far superior to Egyptian bread.
There were more than 70 types of bread made using different cereals and flavoured with oil, spices, fruit and honey.
On the other hand, the art of breadmaking made its first appearance in Rome around 170 B.C., after Greece had been fully conquered.
Soon after, the first breadmaker cooperation that could benefit from financial benefits (high earnings) was set up, however its members were forced to stay in the same line of work, generation upon generation.
Bread's importance grew quickly, so much so that it became one of the tools through which the state controlled the capital's extremely high level of unemployment: free bread and cereals would be periodically distributed (the so-called: frumentationes).
In 30 B.C. there were more than 300 bakeries in Rome.
Bakery buildings had five main sections: one section was used to mill corn into flour. Another, separate room contained the oven, made from refractory bricks, which had a special vaulted roof, an opening at the front and sand to retain the heat on the cooking plane; the warehouse, a sales point and the baker's residential area completed the structure.
As was already the case among the people of other civilizations, Rome had a different type of bread for each social class, which differed not only in terms of the cereal used, but also in terms of the additional ingredients, such as: milk, oil, eggs and spices.
Thus there was athlete's bread, step bread (eaten at the circus) and easily-digestible bread.
Some historians have traced the discovery of brewer's yeast to the Roman invasion of Great Britain. It is thought that the similarity between the sweet-sour aroma of brewer's yeast and that of leavened bread was noted during the processing cycles.
3) Bread today
From then until the industrial revolution breadmaking evolved fairly slowly. The most significant changes resulted from the invention of new milling systems and from the use of new mixing machines and new continuous ovens.
Today bread is popular throughout the world and there are virtually unlimited recipes available that differ from region to region on the basis of its use and on the different ingredients available in situ: in north European countries rye bread is the most popular, made from a cereal that is more resistant to the rigours of winter; in Africa, millet bread is popular, while in south-east Asia rice bread and rice derivatives are commonly available. In Italy there are over 400 different types of bread, depending on the area or region: michetta (round, five-sided, crusty bread roll) from Lombardy, biova (lard bread) from Piedmont, Apulian bread, ciriola (small bread roll) from Rome, coppia ferrarese (twisted, sourdough bread) from Ferrara and zoccoletto (ciabatta roll) from Veneto. These breads retain and pass on the ancient customs and traditions of the regions.
A millenary tradition and a multitude of different shapes and flavours invite us to discover and look after this basic foodstuff that is also an integral part of our culture.