There are times at the British Library in St.Pancras when I get my teeth into a book or an avenue of research where it is rather reckless to keep going, because I gradually become aware that this particular topic is never going to make it into my book (unless it is to be a massive tome of one thousand pages, heaven forbid).
One such case concerned an account in a splendid book, Practical Bread-making,1897, by a baker named Frederick Vine. It was published by the “Baker & Confectioner” in London, something that was not uncommon in those days when trade magazines had more impact on their craft and trade than today. I had delved into this book to find out more about how 19th century bakers managed their own yeast that they periodically got from the brewery.
At the start of the book there was an account of how Mr.Vine had made a visit to the countryside where he was treated to a viewing of the way a country housewife made her bread. He was informed that the household had threshed their meagre harvest of grain a few days before by flailing it on the floor, then tossing it in the air with a shovel, allowing the wind to blow aside the chaff and hulls which were retained in sacks while the grain was placed in other sacks. On the day of his visit some grain was already back from the nearby mill as a sack of flour, and it was baking day.
In a large three-legged earthenware pot some flour, water, yeast, and salt were made into dough by the industrious housewife. On the ground outside the cottage some chaff was turned out of its sack, formed into a pile, and set alight. After burning away briskly it remained as a heap of very hot ashes. This was swept aside, the risen dough set upon the hot earth where the fire’s centre had been, and the earthenware pot placed over it.
The live embers were placed back over the pot, more fuel was added for another blaze, and in this way the bread was baked. Mr.Vine observed that when it was served for afternoon tea he had never tasted sweeter bread.
Reading this reminded me of the excellent bread made when I was working on a boat in Northern Queensland – before I knew I would choose to become a baker. Our baking vessel was not an earthenware cloche, but a cast iron pot called in Australia a “Dutch Oven”. The fire burned in a hole dug in the sand, then the cast iron pot with risen loaf inside was placed into the hole now full of hot embers. More embers were piled around the rim of the pot’s hefty lid, and beautiful bread came out. Probably not quite as sweet as the bread enjoyed by Frederick Vine that had been baked in earthenware.
Some household bakers like to imitate this way by baking in their domestic oven with the proved bread placed inside a lidded vessel. The bread bakes in there surrounded by its own steam, giving a very satisfactory result. Try it.