ANST - Ovens, bread, and baking

Decker, Terry D. TerryD at Health.State.OK.US
Tue Aug 19 12:05:08 PDT 1997

Unto Stefan li Rous

Thank you for pointing out the ovens-msg section.  I have reviewed it
and find it both interesting and worthwhile.  Unfortunately, the ovens
described therein are not as portable as I would prefer.  I will stick
with my trusty Dutch Oven for baking outdoors.  Please allow me to add
to your knowledge from my notes and library.

Most of the ovens described are of stacked brick and are descendents of
the Egyptian stepped oven which looks something like a pyramid of large
children's blocks with an opening in the center for the baking chamber
(circa 1900 B.C.)

The baking stone with ceramic cover I mentioned and the idea of baking
on coals in a covered ceramic dish mentioned in ovens-msg is often
referred to as a cooking bell or colche oven.  The earliest example I
know of is Greek from the 4th Century B.C., but it is probably much
older.  It is essentially a pottery bowl with a handle on what would
normally be the base.  Place your baking stone on the coals, put your
bread (or whatever) on the stone, cover it with the bell and rake the
coals up around it.

I believe the "oven" from Pompeii mentioned in ovens-msg is not an oven.
 The Pompeii 79 A.D. exhibition catalog has a square brazier 1 1/2 foot
on a side having a covered bronze urn with a square bronze pipe
connected to a hollow walled uncovered cylindrical firebox having a tap
on the right side opposite the urn.  Water pressure forces water into
the walls of the firebox  where it is heated by a slow burning charcoal
fire.  The base of the brazier outside of the firebox probably contained
both extra charcoal and the ashes.

The same catalog has a photograph of the Bakery of Modestus complete
with oven.  The oven appears to be constructed of modern looking brick
with a Roman arch opening.  The opening appears to be about 4 foot high
and there is obviously a recessed shelf in the oven.  There are no
obvious signs that the opening was closed, so it may be that a fire was
kept burning on the floor of the oven and the shelf was used for baking.
 If any one knows of any other sources of information about this oven, I
would be interested in knowing.

Now, to respond to some of your other thoughts,

>> Yes, but there still are a number of questions about medieval bread to
>> be researched. And not just paper research. As common as breadmaking
>> was in the Middle Ages, we have very few recipes because breadmaking
>> was so common that either it was so common writing down recipes was 
>> thought to be unneeded or the finer details were kept quiet as trade
>> secrets.

As a guess, basic bread is so simple the recipe does not need to be
written down, when you are baking it once or twice a week.  Fancy breads
would be the stock in trade of the professional baker and would be
considered trade secrets.

The oldest bread recipe I know of is Sumerian and about 5000 years old.
It is for a type of barley flat bread, which in addition to being eaten
was used as the base ingredient in beer.  I am putting together the
materials to produce a batch, which after a taste test will be used by a
local brewer to produce beer. 
>> As for display, how about a series of breads made with different flours.
>> the top of my head, I can think of five or six grades or types of medieval
>> flours.

The grades of flour are generally unavailable due to modern milling
techniques.  Grains other than wheat are more suited to flat breads or
polenta, except when they are combined with wheat.  

A more interesting problem comes from the fact that most European wheat
is soft kernal, low gluten, while North American wheat (commonly used
for all purpose flour and bread baking) is hard kernal, high gluten.
Period European wheat flour would have the properties of coarse cake
flour.  This would certainly change the texture of of the bread.
>> What did a trencher really look like? What grade of flour was really used
>> making them?

Why does a trencher have to be one type of bread?  It could be
descriptive of how the bread was used.  Different types of bread could
have been used as trenchers for different dishes.
>> There are a number of fritters, flat breads and such to research. 

Personally, I'm into yeast breads and yeast rising cakes.  I did a
series of experiments on Lebkuchen (a German spice cake), reverse
engineering it to a yeast rising cake.  It was interesting but a little
heavy.  I'm thinking about using the soft flour and creating a sponge to
improve the rise and get a lighter cake next time I play with this.

>> What 
>> about rolling pins? Were they used? How was the bread put in the oven
>> and removed? I've done very little baking but I'm sure there are other
>> tools that were used. 

I don't know about rolling pins, but something needed to be used to make
thin pastry dough.  As to other tools, the paddles, hooks and tongs used
in a traditional bakery today look pretty much as they do in the wood
cuts of medieval bakers.

>> What was used to sift flour? Make such a sifter
>> using period materials.

I have absolutely no idea, but I would use a small, loose weave basket
or a wooden bowl with holes drilled in it.  Practically, sifting is of
less value than sieving, which would be required to remove milling

Interesting questions about rolling pins and sifters, I'll probably need
to root around in my library and see what I can find.

Bon Chance,


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