We asked Professor John Walter from the University of Essex and Dr Sara Pennell from the University of Roehampton to take us through the history of baking.
Baking is a luxury few are able to enjoy. But for those who can afford a wood-burning stove and to heat it, you would start with bread. The better the quality, the higher up the social order you are.
“Ovens were not a standard fixture in any household, so bread-baking never really entered the home in the medieval period,” says Dr Pennell.
“It was a niche, commercial activity. For example, you had bread-bakers in London.”
Prof Walter adds: “The rich ate fine, floured wheat bread. But if you were poor you cut your teeth on rye and black bread.
“Only the very wealthy had the cakes we tend to think of today. But they were much heavier – 10 to 20lbs.
“This was subsistence-focused baking, with an emphasis on bread and pies.
“If you were wealthy, your baked goods would be rich in exotic colour. But if you were poor, you were grateful if you could afford meat for your pie.”
Britain sees an explosion of expensive spices, such as saffron. Sweet dough, with lots of cream and butter, start to be enjoyed by those who could afford it.
The wigg – a small bun made with sweetened dough and herbs and spices – becomes popular.
But mince pies are made with minced beef or mutton, and biscuits “are the equivalent of Ryvita – pretty nasty stuff,” says Prof Walter.
Meanwhile, gingerbread is made with breadcrumbs.
16th and 17th centuries
Baking is transformed by globalisation, which heralds an explosion of treacle and currants. Plump cake and bready dough with lots of butter, cream and raisins become popular.
“Economic growth prompted an emerging middle class, and baking ‘trickled down’,” says Prof Walter.
“Amid growing wealth and social change, people could think about eating things other than bread, and imitate the upper-class diet.
“Baking became more accessible, and so more people baked cakes and biscuits.
“By the late 17th century sugar was cheap, and so you saw the emergence of mince pies as we know them, made with sugar and spices.
“And with the refinement of flour you see the development of gingerbread as we know it.”
Dr Pennell adds: “From the 16th century you had the onset of cookery literature, in which you start to see recipes for things we might recognise today as small, yeasted cakes and buns.
“They would be eaten as part of the dessert course, to help you digest the rich meal you had eaten beforehand.
“You also started to see the emergence of kitchen equipment, such as the ‘cake hoop’ – that is, a cake tin. The tin was lined with buttered paper.
“But cakes were made with ale and were very solid. The modern-day equivalent, in terms of the yeast-bread-based dough, would be a lardy cake.
“Seed cakes were also popular.”
Pastries too were considered fashionable in the late 17th century. “The English prided themselves on their pastry-making,” says Dr Pennell.
“It was considered a skill all good housewives should have.
“London cookery schools were teaching pastry-making. It was a fashionable skill.”
Cake making soars in popularity, but the industrial revolution from 1760 sees a return to more stodgy baked goods.
“This was when cake making really took off,” says Dr Pennell.
“The Art of Cookery, written by Hannah Glasse and published in 1747, contained a catalogue of cake recipes.
“Integral to this was the development of the semi-closed oven. The development of baking is as much to do with technology as it is taste.”
Fast-forward to the industrial revolution and Britain sees “a return to heavy baking, where the working class eats bread and jam,” says Prof Walter.
“But at Easter, Christmas and other seasonal occasions, a richer diet would be available to even the poorer members of society.
“Merchants and shopkeepers can afford ovens, and to bake.”
Convenience food grows in popularity, and the advent of baking powder sees cakes become lighter.
“As more working class women were employed in the 19th century, they had less time for elaborate food preparation,” says Prof Walter.
“We often think of the ‘fast food culture’ as being a recent thing, but women in Britain in the 19th century increasingly relied on convenience food such as pasties and pies.”
Meanwhile, the introduction of baking powder saw “the style of cakes change from dense, yeast-based bakes, into cakes made with flour, eggs, fat and a raising agent,” says Dr Pennell.
In our July podcast, Dr Sara Pennell explores changing attitudes to food in the early modern period. To listen, click here.
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