Today I’m chiming in to talk about the origins of wild yeast bread, of which sourdough is a type. Sourdough goes back further than most of us initially realize. In American culture, we often think of sourdough as an artisanal bread. San Francisco is known for it. It’s often on the shelves with other artisan breads like French or garlic bread. Rarely people make it at home anymore. It is a special treat we buy when we need something different than a French baguette.
Sourdough isn’t just an option on the grocery store shelves of the bakery section. It is the original baked good, the original bread. Up until the turn of the 20th century, when commercial yeast first came onto the market, all we had was wild yeast bread. No one really knows when man first made leavened bread. Bread isn’t really something that is readily available in the archaeological record. Although, as I’ll explain at another time, it does sometimes survive. Normally though, it is organic and the only way we know that it was part of a society is through not so biodegradable material culture, such as art, or through evidence of grain cultivation.
It is generally accepted that leavened bread arose around the time of the domestication of cereals, about 10,000 years ago. Bread requires quite a bit of grain, so we don’t believe it could’ve been any earlier than the domestication of grain. Some things to keep in mind though, is that we only see really common or really big things in the archaeological record. I say that because, we would be able to see a city’s cultivation of grain over a long period of time in the record, because the scars of that kind of cultivation would be prominent enough to find. However, it is very unlikely that we’d find a small village’s or household’s farm and it’s cultivation of wheat. Therefore, it is most likely that we are dating the beginning of bread and grain cultivation to the date of widespread cultivation when really it could’ve been going on for centuries, if not millenia, earlier on a smaller scale. As we go back in time, we have less and less extant archaeological data. So when you think about it, wild yeast fermentation of grain (which would also include beer) could go back twice as long. Fermentation might have even occurred before cooking, but there is no way we’ll ever really know.
Another thing I’d like to discuss in the history of bread is unleavened bread. We assume that unleavened bread came before leavened bread, which could mean that bread has been a part of humanity before grain fermentation. However, I’d like to point out that this is just an assumption. We assume this, because today it is typically the more skilled baker that makes leavened bread. It typically takes more knowledge of bread to make leavened bread than unleavened. This is a slippery slope though. Just because something is more difficult to make now, does not mean that it came second. Our knowledge base about food is very different now than it was just a century ago. Just a century ago, the vast majority of women knew how to cook. Now you’ll be hard pressed to find more than a handful in your group of friends. What we consider difficult now, may not have been an unusual skill to have in the past. That’s besides the point though, would we have domesticated wheat for unleavened bread? I argue that we wouldn’t have domesticated grain for unleavened bread. Fermentation of grain allows us to digest grain and actually gain benefits from it. If you ask those knowledgeable about bread and grain fermentation, they will let you know that non-fermented grain is actually not that nutritious and could actually be the cause of a lot of our current health issues (e.g. gluten intolerance). Grain has an inhibitor for vitamin absorption (i.e. calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc) called phytic acid. Fermentation gets rid of phytic acid and allows us to process grain in a healthy manner. I will go into more detail at another time, or this post will be far too long, but basically, unleavened bread isn’t the best food for us. We might like to think that early man didn’t know as much about nutrition as we do now, but I’d like to differ. I believe they knew more. After all, culture is a way to deal with one’s environment, in the same way as biological evolution/adaption. Everything in culture is there for a reason and for our survival. Cooking and dietary habits are cultural. Just as rice is more nutritious for us with soy sauce than it is alone, leavened bread is better for us than unleavened.
As I said, I will go into this in more detail in later posts. The idea I’m trying to get across here is that leavened bread is a much older tradition than most of us probably know, so if you feel up to making some sourdough, make sure to walk like an Egyptian and read some of Plato’s philosophy, because you’re currently doing what the ancients did.
Oh and, if I didn’t make it clear already, don’t think that this will be the only post about the history of sourdough. I have much more to say on that topic!
Tamang, J.P. & D. Samuel. 2010. Dietary cultures and antiquity of fermented foods and beverages. Pp. 1-