"Flour, the Staff of Life"
While the inhabitants of Europe were still chewing primitive flat bread, the baker’s art was already flourishing in other parts of the world. In the third millennium BC the Egyptians started mixing yeast into the dough. The raw dough pieces were placed in the sun to rise and then baked in a pit or, later, in an oven. The result was a soft, pleasant-tasting loaf of bread. With the aid of various ingredients the inhabitants of the Nile Valley produced about forty different kinds of baked products. And from malted barley, emmer and yeast they brewed a cloudy, sweetish beer.
In Ancient Egypt, one of the great granaries of the ancient world alongside Mesopotamia, bread was more than just a food. It was sacrificed to the gods and buried with the dead as nourishment for their journey into the next world. At the same time it served as currency and was used to pay the workers who built the pyramids. In order to feed over 20,000 men every day for years on end the bakers had to mass-produce the bread. Archaeologists discovered an “industrial bakery” of this kind, possibly the oldest in the world, near the Pyramids of Giza. In the remains of the 4,000-year-old building, close to which a grain silo had existed, they found implements for preparing and baking dough.
The Hebrews, a pastoral people, also benefited from these achievements. The Bible tells how they took bread with them on their exodus from Egypt – albeit unleavened bread, “since they could wait no longer”. When the food they had taken with them had all been eaten, Moses and his followers started to bake their own bread with divine help. On their long journey to Israel, it is said, they collected manna fallen from heaven, “and ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, and boiled it in pots, and made cakes of it”. The corn they grew after their subsequent arrival in the Promised Land was probably treated in a similar manner. Unleavened bread, eaten by the Jews to this day at the Feast of the Passover, became a religious and political symbol of a new state.
Bread had a similar significance in the religious beliefs of the Greeks, who were originally a pastoral people too. It played a central role in the Eleusinian mysteries, the annual rites in honour of the corn goddess Demeter. But the Greeks enjoyed bread in their daily lives too. In the city states of the classical period, that began around 500 BC, the wealthier citizens could buy it fresh every day at the bakeries; the poor had to make do with a mush of barley. The laborious crushing of the grain on grinding stones was traditionally the responsibility of the women. As long ago as the eighth century BC, Homer wrote that at the court of Odysseus “there were twelve miller-women whose business it was to grind wheat and barley, which are the staff of life”.