Bread has traditionally held a central role in our culinary culture. Today it holds a secondary role, but it is still common to all of the diets of the Mediterranean.
Easy to prepare, nutritional, delicious, it appears in an infinite variety of meals… who can resist a bite?
- Mediterranean culture has been influenced by the cereals, perhaps more than any other element of the diet. One of the most common ways we have to consume them is in the form of bread. Throughout the region we find many varieties which are part of the local culture, such as Moroccan khubz, turkish dürüm, eastern mediterranean pita bread, pan payés in Catalonia, etc.
- Bread’s origins can be traced back to the Middle East, in ancient Mesopotamia, though some historians trace it back to Egypt. Some argue that the Egyptians were already making hard cakes of ground grains some 10,000 years before the rest of the peoples in the Mediterranean had access to bread. That is where 4,000 years ago fermented breads were discovered, when the dough was accidentally left too long before baking and fermented.
- Yeast travelled from Egypt to Greece, where bakers became respected workers and the first tools of the trade were developed. That is where the first bakeries were born. Later, the Roman Empire was responsible for extending bread throughout the rest of the Mediterranean.
- Wheat is the cereal most used in baking bread. In the Mediterranean basin there are heirloom varieties of wheat, rarely grown conventionally but highly nutritious, such as spelt, farro oremmer (in Italy and also in Morocco, Albania, Turkey, Israel…), kamut (in Egypt and the Middle East), einkorn (in France, Italy, Turkey, Morocco…) or escaña wheat in Asturias.
- Mediterranean production of bread wheat, the cereal from which most bread is made, accounts for almost 14% of world production. The countries which consume the most of this grain are: France, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and Spain.
Bread is a staple that is made from just four basic ingredients: flour, yeast, water and salt. When flour and water are mixed and kneaded, they form dough. When left standing long enough, natural yeasts begin fermentation which is what gives the dough the texture we know well (elastic consistency, sponginess, etc.). More than anything, bread provides us with fiber, but also the proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins that the grain from which it is made. The properties and the nutritional content of bread and depend on the quality of ingredients used to make it (flours and yeasts) and the means of production (type of fermentation, additives). Choose the bread which is healthiest and best fills your nutritional needs.
- Breads made from whole grain flours and mixed flours have more nutrition and fiber than breads made from white flour alone. This is because whole grain flour has all of the nutrition and fiber of the wheat, whereas in white flour, in the process of removing the bran and the germ, the fiber, some of the protein, and virtually all fats, minerals and vitamins have been removed as well.
- Bread that is made from slow fermentation (sourdough) are easier to digest and have a richer flavor and odor.
Consumerism has also attacked bread, and today there are fashions and manufactured needs such as enriching bread with minerals and Omega 3, breads without crust that are easier to eat, etc. So it’s important to be clear about what we want bread to provide (nutrients, flavor, health) and not be fooled by the racket of advertising and fashions.
- Keep in mind that these appeals to the consumer do not always mean an improvement in the nutrients that bread brings. One example is parbaked bread – though it is presented as warm and fresh from the oven, it is less nutritious and only keeps for a day.
- Enriched breads have nutritional supplements that are very unnatural. In a fresh and varied diet, all of the nutrients that we require are already present in whole foods. They are better off without processing.
- With industrial white bread or bread without crust, we chew less and salivate less. Chewing helps maintain healthy teeth, and saliva is responsible for the first part of digestion (breaking down certain molecules).
A variety of grains can be milled into flour, among them wheat, rye, spelt or triticale.. The most common in the West is wheat, a native of Europe. In Europa most cereals are produced by intensive agriculture, with significant impacts on the environment and on society. Production by organic methods is more respectful of people and the environment. When buying bread, look for those produced locally and from organic raw materials.
- Seals or certifications can help to identify organic bread. These are some of the seals in the Mediterranean.
- However, there are also breads made from local and organic ingredients that do not have these seals. By showing an interest and asking the baker about the origin of the ingredients, it deepens trust between producer and consumer.
- In every country one can find organic bakeries.
Currently, the trend is to get breads to rise ever faster, which improves economic performance. This is done by adding several supplements and additives to the dough to make it ferment faster. This is all part of the industrialization of the manufacturing process, and the chemical industry plays its part by creating additives. Parbaked bread is the most widely manufactured type of bread in industrial breadmaking. By contrast, there are some baking companies and bakeries which use traditional methods and produce healthier breads (with fewer additives, slow fermentation) and buying from them helps sustain a decentralized and local grassroots economy. Look for handmade and organic breads, usually associated with slow fermentation.
- Breads made by slow fermentation are easily recognized, as they are much denser than rapid rise breads.
- Ask in the bakery what type of yeast is used to make the bread, and what supplements and additives are used.
- Parbaked bread is what we see going into the oven at most bakeries, where customers have grown accustomed to having warm bread at any hour of the day.
Large baked goods factories are producing industrial quantities of bread and distributing over long distances. This model is facilitated by the phenomenon of parbaked bread, which keeps for longer periods (before being “warmed up”) permitting long term storage and transport. In this way, this model of large scale production also increases the need for transport and limits local populations’ autonomy in terms of meeting this basic need. Choose local, nearby, and small to medium scale channels of consumption.
- The best choice is to buy in small or neighborhood bakeries, which make their own bread (not parbaked), and encourage local autonomy. In most Eastern Mediterranean countries and in the north of Africa, these types of bakeries are still the norm, above all in rural areas.
- In retail outlets (supermarkets) it’s more likely that the bread being sold is industrially made.
Often we buy bread that we do not end up eating, because it quickly becomes hard or rubbery. Knowing how to reuse leftovers, is a key element in reducing consumption, and preventing these staples from winding up in the trash. In that way, only what is needed is used and nothing is wasted.
- Slow fermented breads are denser, and while eating less we can get the same amount of nutrients.
- If unsure of whether it will get eaten before it dries out, avoid those breads which don’t keep well: with a thin crust, with long loafs (ie: avoid french bread and choose rustic rounds), light (weight) breads, or parbaked.
- Here are some tricks to keep bread from drying out so quickly: store it in away from humidity, in a breadbox or a bag that breathes (paper or cloth) and keep it at room temperature. Remember that a whole loaf will keep for longer than sliced bread.
However, even if careful to buy only what we can use, there is often a slice of dried bread left over, but you can still use these leftover slices in another meal.
- There are lots of recipes to find new uses for dried bread.
- We can also make homemade bread, by buying the ingredients and discovering the process for ourselves.
- Bread is easy to make, we only need a few ingredients and a little patience. Bread machines are also available these days, which simplify and speed up the process. In the web forum Foro del Pan (in Spanish) there are lots of recipes for homemade breads, including typical Mediterranean specialties such as pita pockets, Italian focaccia, rustic bread, Catalonian cocas…