The best way to understand the characteristics of the traditional breads of any particular country or region is to look at flour milled from the local grain. The cereal crops traditionally grown near the mill would once have defined the local bread, affecting the crumb, crust, flavour, breadth and volume of the loaf much more than skills alone ever could. So if you replace that local grain with imported flour, you instantly change the crumb and crust of the loaf it makes and, no matter what skills you apply to it, that loaf will never be the same again.

The cereal economy across most of Europe in the 1930s resembled that of Britain in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in that wheat was still milled close to where it was grown, white bread was predominantly the food of the rich and the city dwellers, and wholemeal the food of the poor and the country households, and both rye and barley were still commonly eaten. In Britain, however, changes in agriculture and technology that began 200 years earlier had hustled British baking on to a path at odds with the rest of Europe.

The British agrarian revolution of the 18th century stirred the most defining change in the way farmland was managed, and the way grains like wheat and barley were grown and harvested. During this time, the older style of subsistence farming practised for hundreds of years was replaced, through enclosures that took the strips of land away from the rural poor and united them in larger, more efficient estates under the direct control of increasingly wealthy landowners. This, in turn, made it possible to introduce the new farming equipment invented at that time such as Jethro Tull’s horse-drawn hoe, and his drill that planted seeds low enough to stop the rain washing them away.

Initially, these changes ensured that the first half of the 18th century was a period of relative prosperity. Wheat and barley harvests grew in both acreage and yield; increased yields and more animals to feed meant that more bran could be sold for animal feed, and a more refined, whiter flour could be marketed; and this became the dominant flour for bread-making. In 1700, rye flour accounted for about 40% of the bread of the common people; by 1800 it accounted for only 5%.

The regulations for the sale price and quality of bread, known as the ’Assize of Bread’, defined loaves according to the coarseness of the flour used, typically ’white’ (the most expensive), ’wheaten’ and ’household’ (the least expensive). This, in effect, reduced the quality of household brown bread and increased the popularity of white. The prices set by the assize made it very difficult to sell brown bread at anything other than a loss, and some critics suspected that bakers made a poorer quality of household bread to promote higher-value white wheaten bread.

The system of bread-making used in homes and bakeries at that time was a simple process that used a fermenting liquid, commonly called barm and usually made from the liquor extracted from soaked malted grains and boiled hops. The hops acted as an antibacterial addition and stopped the yeast liquid turning sour too quickly. A simple dough would be made, quite firm with a very small quantity of barm, and left for many hours to rise, after which it would be divided, shaped and baked. In France by comparison, during the same period, the dough mixing process was more complex, as hops and malt weren’t used to speed the fermentation and inhibit excess acidity: instead, the volume of the dough was increased in stages, as this kept the fermentation brisk and controlled the acidity. It wasn’t until the early 1800s in both Britain and France that a liquid ferment, what British bakers called a ’sponge’, became commonly used, a method believed to have been introduced to both countries by Viennese bakers.

Sourness wasn’t avoided by all bakers. In Scotland, Wales, Cumbria and Lancashire, the practice of sowens-making where the husks of oats were left in a wooden bowl to ferment, and the liquid heated until it thickened slightly into a sour ’soup’ was common, and a flat oatmeal bread, known as sowens cakes, and later simply oatcakes, had left the locals with a taste for sour bread. If malted barley wasn’t available to speed the fermentation, then cooked potatoes were added, and this became typical of bakers in the Midlands. For the southern English, however, any trace of acidity or potato was frowned upon.

A succession of poor wheat harvests after 1770, together with a rapidly rising population, led merchants to import grain from Europe. During the war with France (1793-1815), importation of grain from Europe became impossible, inflating grain prices in Britain and securing major landowners even more wealth.

This situation unwound with the fall of Napoleon; cheap imported grain began to flood into the British market, almost halving the price within a matter of months, and Lord Liverpool and his government, the party of the landowners, sought ways to stop this. The 1815 Corn Laws were trade tariffs, which protected domestic grain from cheaper foreign imports; however, the British market was opened up again by their repeal in 1846, whereas the rest of Europe (apart from Belgium) retained tariffs on grain imports until at least the 1930s.

At first, the introduction of imported, mainly European wheat worked in sympathy with the old style of British baking and complemented local wheat characteristics when used in small-scale bakeries with hand-mixing. But later on, a new kind of milling and dough mixing evolved that would enable the manufacture of bread in factories, and the whitest, softest and cheapest bread British workers had ever had access to.

From the 1870s onwards, the importation into Britain of roller-milled flour from the US and Hungary changed the style of bread that could be made and slowly starved, and effectively closed, the traditional wind- and watermills of Britain. The flour was ultra-white and fine, due to the use of silk bolting cloths, and it was milled from new varieties of hard wheat, rich in gluten. This flour produced dough that was more resilient and extensible than that made with local grain, and though it lacked the same rich sweet flavour of native British wheat, it performed better when used in high-powered dough mixing machines, and became essential for the early plant baking industry that would dominate British bread-making during the 20th century. High tariffs protected the rest of Europe from importation of wheat and flour well into the 20th century, and this helped to protect the local milling and baking traditions.

From this point on, the characteristics traditionally found in British regional bread-making the curious use of an ale-barm, the single long fermentation of a firm dough and the inevitable backnote of bitterness from the hops, the cream grey stone-milled flour, the use of rye, barley and oatmeal together with wholemeal wheat flour to make a maslin mixture began to vanish. Though the shapes of the loaves remained, the heart of the crumb and crust was lost. A small amount of home-baking continued, but given the higher number of women who were in full-time employment, compared to the rest of Europe, there was limited time and resources to bake at home.

Effectively, a quest for wealth and modernity destroyed the traditions in British baking. Though the 20th century brought innovations, such as the Chorleywood Bread Process, electric ovens and refrigeration, the traditional methods and techniques once used to make British breads were already a faint memory by then. Today, young bakers are gradually unearthing and restoring the older techniques used in the 1800s, restarting old barm-making processes and working with farmers to grow forgotten, but once local varieties of wheat.

Perhaps the legacy that British baking leaves the world at this point is the sobering thought that no matter how common and ordinary local skills and old ways seem next to the alluring gloss and promise of modern discoveries, it is only with hindsight that we can ever appreciate the benefits of the knowledge and skills used by other generations.

l This is an extract from Dan Lepard’s chapter on British baking in the Dictionnaire Universel du Pain, edited by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, published this month by Robert Laffont. The book is a country-by-country exploration of the history of bread-baking and is currently available only in French.

Maslin barm bread

The combination of a maslin flour mixture with an ale barm is a typical style used in Georgian and early Victorian bread-making. This would be made with the sieving from the milled wheat after most (or sometimes all) of the white flour had been removed, then mixed or ground again with rye, barley and oats. In medieval times, the labourer would have been given a mixture of these grains to eat and these could be milled together into flour. The combination gave the loaves an earthy strong flavour.
The proportions of grains used varied according to the season and harvest. Prior to the early 1800s, much of the wheat grown in southern Britain resembled wheat grown in France. Seeds were exchanged and sold between both countries, so today’s French flour is arguably closer in performance to old British flour than the modern imported hybrids used in the UK. The amount of barm varied according to the time available for bread-making, but I prefer a high level to accentuate the flavour of hops and malted barley.

1. The 24-48 hour beer barm
Dark ale500ml
Wholemeal flour50g
Fresh yeast1g
Optional: rye levain3g

One or two days before baking, whisk the ale and flour in a saucepan and bring just to the boil, no more. Then remove from the heat, spoon into a bowl and leave until absolutely cold. Stir in the yeast (and leaven, if using), cover the bowl, leave for 4 hours, then beat again and leave at 17C-23C for at least 24 hours.

2. For the dough:
The barm from above (550g), plus the flour mixture as follows:
Strong white flour or type T55550g
Wholemeal flour75g
Rye flour75g
Fine-ground oatmeal75gFine salt 15g
Final temperature 20C - 23C.

1. Mix the barm, flour and water to make a soft dough. Mix on 1st speed for 2 minutes, then leave 30 minutes.
2. Add salt and mix on 2nd speed for 8 minutes. Leave dough until risen by 50%, approximately 2 hours at 21C, giving the dough one fold after an hour. A longer fermentation at a lower temperature, 16C, is preferable but not essential.
3. Shape dough into a ball, leave to rise on a floured board until risen by 50-75%.
4. Cut a cross in the centre and bake with steam at 225°C for 20 minutes, then remove steam and bake for a further 15-20 minutes. Traditionally the loaves would be "batch baked" in wooden frames, so that each loaf firmly pushes up against the loaves around it as it bakes, and can be torn apart once cool.

Ale barm

Sometimes just known as ’ale’ or ’yeast’, this could either be yeast skimmed off the top of a wooden vat of dark beer or it could be made in the bakehouse using a gelatinised mixture of wheat flour and water enriched with malt and hops, then seeded with a spoonful of old ale yeast. This latter method kept better and grew popular during the early 1800s.
The earliest recipes for a white loaf, farmhouse or tin used locally milled white flour, typically high in natural sugars (maltose) and modest amounts of gluten. A spoonful of ale barm would be mixed with water and all of the flour into a firm dough and this would be left for 6-8 hours to rise before shaping, left to rise once more and then baked. The farmhouse baking tin, a deep-sided, oblong tin made in 1lb to 5lb lengths, appeared in the early 1800s and enabled more bread to be baked, as it reduced the floor space each loaf took. As ovens were kept hot, the upper crust tended to burn while the protected sides stayed pale, and this became a characteristic.