Use your loaf
Summer is when I yearn for bread: a squashed wrap on the beach, a just-baked baguette by the poolside on holiday, croutons tossed through a leaf salad – and my favourite, thick slices of brioche soaked in the berry juices of a summer pudding.
Bread in various forms is eaten worldwide and seems to be as old as man; nothing is more evocative of home comforts and feeling nurtured than the smell of baking bread. For this reason, we’re encouraged to have a loaf baking in the oven when trying to sell our homes and it’s the first smell that greets us in many supermarkets.
Our love affair with bread can be traced back to the charred crumbs of a flatbread made by Natufian hunter-gatherers from wild wheat, wild barley and plant roots between 14,600 and 11,600 years ago, evidence of which was found at an archaeological site in the Black Desert in Jordan.
In medieval Europe, bread served not only as a staple food but also as part of the table service. According to British Heritage’s A Taste of History, the “trencher” was a piece of stale bread that served as an absorbent plate. The richer you were, the higher the stack of used trenchers in front of you.
1266 saw the appearance of the first law regulating food in England: the Assize of Bread and Ale. The idea was simple: bread would be measured by grain weight and the price would remain at a farthing, no matter what fluctuations occurred in the cost of grain. This rule provided much-needed protection for the poor, since some bakers were notorious for swindling their customers. Those caught flouting the rules could now be severely punished, fined or even sent to gaol. The new law gave rise to the “baker’s dozen” of thirteen rather than twelve rolls, the extra one being thrown in for free to ensure the weight was correct and the baker couldn’t be accused of short-changing his customers. It wasn’t overwritten until the nineteenth century.
An article in the National Archives states that during World War 1, the Ministry of Food introduced the 1917 Bread Order. This made it illegal to sell bread until twelve hours after it had been baked, because the government realised that stale bread was “more nutritious”; staleness also meant the nation would eat less. Many people were prosecuted for breaking the Bread Order, including a London tailor, Louis Horowitch, who was convicted for buying “new bread”. He was charged with a £50 fine or 51 days imprisonment.
Our language and history are peppered with references to bread. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was reportedly started by a baker and the famous legend of the French Revolution is that when hungry crowds mobbed the palace gates demanding bread, Marie Antoinette supposedly said “Let them eat cake!”, a half-baked response that ultimately cooked her fate.
Being “on the breadline” is thought to have originated from famished people queuing for government handouts during the 1920s Great Depression in the US, but equally applied to British people queueing for bread rations during and after World War II.
The phrase “use your loaf” derives from cockney rhyming slang (as in, use your head / bread). Not being a fan of mass-produced Mother’s Pride-type loaves, I can’t say I agree with the saying “the best thing since sliced bread.” Luckily, my hard-working mother didn’t either – for her, “mother’s pride” still meant baking her own filling brown loaves for her family. I’m sure all that kneading and knocking back was also the perfect energetic antidote to the noise, chaos and shattered nerves that go with having four small children and a husband who works from home…. you could say we all knew which side our bread was buttered!
Nowadays bread can be a luxury item, given the high prices commanded by an “artisan” loaf of rye sourdough and its many variants, currently on offer in town and country delicatessens. Since the lockdown there’s also been a huge resurgence in sales of bread flour, resulting from so many of us becoming home bakers. My family had its own Great British Bake-Off contest on Zoom during the pandemic, with a hotly-contested “star baker” apron going to the prize focaccia loaf. Many a modern child is growing up not at their mother’s apron strings but at their father’s, since many men have taken over as the baker in the house. Working from home means not only are they making our daily bread but earning a crust at the same time – who said men cannot learn to multi-task!
For the crostini bases, cut one baguette into 20 slices, ½cm thick, discarding the ends. Drizzle or brush with olive oil or melted butter and place under the grill. Cook for 2-3 mins until lightly golden, then turn over and cook for another 1-2 mins until golden and crisp all over. Do this in batches and store in a large, airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.
Then top with either the traditional chopped ripe tomatoes and basil or a slick of pesto and a slice of just grilled halloumi. Maybe some thickly-spread pea puree and a sprinkling of rocket. Even some coronation chicken works well. Then, with glass in hand and a plate balanced on your knee make the most of the sunshine.
Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com