Anglo-Saxon Bread: 1047

When I was 6 or 7 we did an experiment at school mixing water and flour together and using the glue created to stick bits of lovingly beglittered tat to other bits of beglittered tat to take home as a ‘gift’ for our parents. My mum kept all our artwork stuck to the kitchen door but now that I think of it I’m not sure I remember my handmade glue creation making the cut, which seems really unfair when you consider that a Father Christmas made by my sister out of a toilet roll tube and some glued on cotton wool enjoyed pride of place on our tree every bloody year. It wasn’t even homemade glue she used either.

Probably not the most promising anecdote to start with but one that I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout this week’s experiment, for reasons that I imagine are already apparent.

Inspired by Netflix’s The Last Kingdom, I decided to try something Anglo-Saxon. On the show there’s a lot of talk of meat from the Vikings, and lack of meat and unfortunate abundance of gruel from Alfred the Great, but not as much talk of bread as you might expect, given that it’s a universal foodstuff. I’ve worked out this could be for a few reasons:

  1. The producers were fully aware that there was an original plot they were trying to remain faithful to whilst also creating TV drama that would grip an audience. Lengthy discussions on the merits and nuances of bread probably weren’t considered as sexy or compelling as having yet another scene where Uhtred had to show off his muscles and improbably conditioned hair like a macho Barbie.
  2. The script writer was a coeliac with a grudge.
  3. There wasn’t really a universally accepted Anglo-Saxon term for ‘bread’ – at least not in any way that we’d use it today.

To really understand why there was no clear word for bread in Anglo-Saxon England you have to understand the special kind of jiggery pokery that is the evolution of the English language. I don’t. Luckily, Dr Irina Yanushkevich seems to so I’ve taken a lot of my info and processes this week from her paper ‘The Domain of Bread in Anglo-Saxon Culture’.

To cut a long story short(ish) (and hide the fact that I don’t really understand it all), the Anglo-Saxons had many words relating to different types of bread, or bread like substances, or specific ingredients used to make bread, or the tools needed to prepare bread, or the physical action of making the bread, or the times of year which you could start making bread, or the types of people who might make bread, or the sacrificial role of the bread in religious ceremonies, or how much someone wants to eat the bread or how they will pay for the bread.

Truly, if I were an Anglo-Saxon baker I’d be getting restraining orders against most of the village, so obsessed people appeared to be with bread. If I learned anything from this experiment it’s that when compared to the Anglo-Saxons, even the nation’s own self aggrandising bread whisperer Paul Hollywood pales into insignificance in terms of preoccupation with the stuff.

But where does the word bread come from?

I’m so glad you asked.

Anglo-Saxons had different breads for different people, with fine white wheat being used for the most expensive types and pea or bean flour used for the poorest. This lowly bread was also known as horsebread, and was considered fit only for animals or in times of famine. On the other hand, wheat was a labour intensive crop to grow, and riskier for farmers as it was comparatively more susceptible to damage compared to its hardier counterparts rye and barley, (both very common bread varieties for the Anglo-Saxons), so breads made out of it cost much more, hence why in the later middle ages wheat became known as a cash crop.

According to Dr. Yanushkevich, the word bread may derive from the Gothic word broe, which was related to brewing or fermenting, as baking and brewing went hand in hand at this time. The Anglo-Saxons possibly used broe to describe bread leavened with barm from fermenting beer and the word hlāf to describe bread that was unleavened. So far, so simple. The trouble is that hlāf could also be used to mean ‘food’ in general and, later, breads that were only used in religious contexts.

Still with me? Ok. Whatever you called it, bread was a pretty big deal to the Anglo-Saxons. It could be spread with butter for a quick snack after a hard day’s work of fleeing from the Vikings bravely defending England, or used to mop up sauces at a feast or even serve as plates, known as trenchers, once it had gone too hard and stale to eat (though this use was more prevalent during the middle ages.) Therefore, the leaders of England did what all good capitalist overlords do: regulated the production and sale of it (yeah, yeah, I know it’s not good history to apply modern systems to different eras but whatever.)

In 1047 King Edward the Confessor passed the Bread Purity Law after his delicate royal palate had been offended by something masquerading as bread but that was Definitely Not Proper Bread as he and his entourage travelled to London. In the Bread Purity Law he made it a crime to call anything that contained anything other than just “fine flour, water, barm and salt” bread. Bad news for artisan food markets everywhere.

Unfortunately the Hovis baker’s boy had to be executed after yet again breaching the terms of the Bread Law
Image credit: Dmitry Makeev

Technically, then, I should be fined 30 shillings (it being my first bread related offence) under Edward’s law as my bread didn’t contain any barm, which was the froth on top of fermenting beer and which the Anglo-Saxons skimmed off and added as a rising agent. What I made was something that would have been an everyday quick fix to go with a main meal, rather than to be shown off to your rich guests as the world’s most underwhelming showstopper. This was the bread shown fleetingly in scenes of The Last Kingdom; bread that would quickly and easily feed an army, fill a belly that hadn’t eaten meat in days and placate an upset child with a dab of honey on it.

In the same way we wouldn’t write a recipe on how to boil a pan of water, it appears the Anglo-Saxons considered this type of bread to be so simple and ingrained into people’s lives that they didn’t write any recipes for it either. All we have are references to the laws and customs of the time to work out how to make it.

First, I mixed 160g of as unadulterated white wheat flour as I could find with a pinch of salt before adding 5 or 6 tablespoons of water and stirring until it was the consistency of a standard bread dough. Now, it’s unlikely that the Anglo-Saxons making this basic type of bread would have used wheat flour; more likely they’d have used a barley or rye mixture but not only did Sainsbury’s flour aisle not stretch to those good honest grains (too much shelf space taken up failing to flog the tomato and pesto bread mix, apparently) but I also felt that in a recipe as sparse as this one, I might as well treat myself to a better quality of flour.

Unleavened Anglo-Saxon bread was baked on flat stones or griddles placed on embers, with pans placed over them to encourage steam to help them rise just a little bit. Resisting the urge to use the dough to fix our faulty cupboard door handle back on, I scraped two ladle’s worth of it onto my griddle and put a very authentic Anglo-Saxon wok over the top to create some moisture.

After only a couple of minutes I was overjoyed to smell burning, which I was sure would only add to the complexity of flavours in this recipe, so I quickly whipped my wok off (not rude) and flipped the breads over for another couple of minutes. Then they were done.

Not a cartoon filter, just a combination of plate patina, odd lighting and blinding photographic talent

These were genuinely decent. I would actually rather make these again than buy pitta bread, they were that easy and cheap to make. I’m not going to talk about the flavour because it was a plain white piece of bread and everyone already knows what that tastes like (and if you don’t then you need to re-examine how you’re living your life.) Accompaniment wise, though, I could see this working with anything; my husband had managed to whack a great slab of cheddar on top of his with alarming speed while I opted for a far more dignified scraping of chocolate spread. Both worked well. What I would say is that this bread was much, much better eaten hot than it was after an hour or so. After it had cooled it was really quite chewy and hard work. To a battle-weary Anglo-Saxon that might not have mattered so much, but modern day standards have thankfully improved.

I might not be a great Anglo-Saxon warrior or a Viking warlord, and yes, I’ve written the word bread so many times that it doesn’t actually look right or mean anything to me anymore, but spending an hour making this has made me feel a little bit closer to the history which inspired The Last Kingdom, and to Uhtred’s impossible hair, which is a huge benefit however you look at it.

E x

Anglo-Saxon Bread

160g plain flour, water

1. Combine flour and water and mix into a dough.

2. Heat a griddle pan or frying pan and place a little oil or butter to melt on it.

3. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of dough onto pan (or however much you want depending on how big you want your bread.) Make sure it doesn’t come up too much by flattening and spreading it with the back of a spoon.

4. Cook for 5 minutes before flipping and cooking on the other side for another 5 minutes. If dough is still pale and soft then return to pan and cook for longer.