"Old Reliable" (Serves 4).
Bread is considered mankind’s most ancient prepared food. The earliest forms of bread were flat, hard unleavened bread similar to 18th-century biscuit (known in later periods as hardtack).(1) In order to make a soft bread some degree of fermentation must take place to create trace amounts of alcohol within the bread. The alcohol then evaporates during the baking process, leaving tiny air pockets behind which give the spongy texture to the bread. A leavening agent, typically some form of yeast, is required to create this fermentation process. Yeast is a form of fungi and yeast spores are literally everywhere. Simply placing fresh dough in a warm place for a short period of time will cause a certain degree of fermentation, but to accelerate and augment the process, yeast is added directly to the dough.(2)
Bread in the 18th century was a bit different from the light, airy loaves we are used to today. As early as medieval times the relationship between yeast to the fermentation process was known, but it was not wholly understood until the mid 19th-century (this was true of the brewing industry as well).(3) The basic 18th-century technique for making bread is offered in the 1771 Encyclopedia Britannica, which describes the process thus:
Note that the yeast was introduced to the dough by adding ale and barm to the flour. The Celts are rumored to have been the first to add beer to their dough for an airier, more digestible loaf. This practice is said to date from the Iron Age. The first known bread recipe including beer as an ingredient dates from the 17th century and calls for ale to be added to French bread a practice still common today in making bâtards.(5)
The barm mentioned above is the frothy scum that forms on top of ale as it is fermenting and contains the active yeast cultures. Before there was such a thing as packaged yeast, breweries commonly provided barm to the local bakeries for use as a leavening agent. Barm taken from the breweries was THE main source for active yeast prior to the 19th century and is the most authentic leavening agent you can use. The salt used to “season” the bread is actually another essential ingredient in making this type of bread (see below).(6)
For recreating an 18th-century bread, we have devised a very simple beer bread recipe (below). Beer bread was popular in the 1970s (as was beer shampoo), but is not often encountered today. This bread will take on the flavor of your beer, so it is best to use something you find palatable for your first attempt. As beer in the 18th-century was almost all top-fermented ale, we suggest using something like Bass or Murphy's Amber Ales (beer will be discussed in a future article).
Mix the ingredients together. Pour the batter into a lightly greased, pre-heated loaf pan and bake at 400° for 50 minutes (maybe more depending on your oven). The recipe makes one loaf of bread suitable for 2-3 people. If plan for more servings, adjust the ingredients proportionately. This bread tastes best fresh from the oven but is also quite good cold. It will be a rather dense bread with a texture more like muffins or corn bread.
I highly recommend using a strong porter or stout (like Guinness or Murphy’s) for the beer and honey as your sweetener.
The only really questionable ingredient in the recipe above is the self-rising flour. Self-rising simply means that the flour already has baking powder mixed with it. In the period, potash, a.k.a. pearlash (a kind of salt made from refined wood ash) was used to aid the rising process. Baking soda is the modern equivalent of potash, and baking powder is essentially baking soda with some compound starches added as a souring agent. In other words, baking powder provides basically the same function as the salt or wood ash by-products but is easier to come by today. Baking powder was first discovered in the late 1700s, but didn’t come into widespread use until around the 1830s.(8)
Salt-rising breads (using salts like potash or baking soda as the primary leavening agent) typically have longer baking times as does our beer bread. These breads have a denser texture than modern, store-bought varieties, so even though self-rising flour is not in itself totally correct, it is convenient and offers the proper texture of an authentic loaf of bread.
A Few Words on Beer
With very few exceptions, virtually all beer in the 18th-century was top-fermenting, which classifies it as ale. In top-fermenting beers, the yeast sits on top of the beer while it is eating away at the malt sugars, creating the frothy barm that also provided the yeast for baking bread. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution and widespread glass production that bottom-fermenting lagers came into widespread production. Bottom-fermentation produces a less cloudy brew and in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when people began drinking their beer from mass-produced clear glassware, preference began to shift away from the dark, cloudy ales to the lighter, clearer lagers. Today, most English beer is ale, and England continues to be one of the world’s top producers of this style. Most modern American beers are pilsners, which are part of the lager family.(8)
1) Panati, Charles, The Book of Beginnings, Origins of Everything Under, and Including, the Sun, (Boston, Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1984, ISBN0-395-36099-4), p 116.
2) Jones, Judith and Evan, The Book of Bread, (New York, Harper & Row, 1982, ISBN 0-06-181434-2), p 23
3) Jackson, Michael, The World Guide to Beer, (Philadelphia: Running Books) 1986, ISBN 0-89471-292-6, p 19
4) Encyclopedia Britannica, facsimile of 1771 edition
5) Op Cit. Jones
6) Ibid. pp 25-26.
8) Op cit. Jackson, pp 14-15
These first few drink receipts were graciously provided by a very fine gentlemen of our acquaintance; Mr. Mike Williams.
To make a punch in the manner of P. Dunning, Esq.
The Fish House Punch
Another Cherry Bounce
More food and drink receipts regularly appear in