Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Medieval Bread, Myths and Misconceptions

This topic is actually what made me want to start this project: that modern people are so willing to turn pre-modern men and women into knuckle-dragging imbeciles who are not just non-technological, but non-common sensical.

Take this quote in answer to a student’s question about medieval bread for a school report (Posted on Yahoo Answers):

...all bread in medieval times was a flat unlevened bread as yeast had not yet been thought of as an ingrediant to make the bread rise. it was baked in kilns fired by wood, most prominent households would have one in the house when the bread was baked the under side became a lot harder than the top part of the bread , the harder part was given to the servents and children while the upper part given to the more important members of the household, thus they became known as the upper crust still used as a name for a class system to this day you will often hear people of more importance called the upper crust...

Besides indulging in perpetuating that awful e-mail meme, “The Bad Old Days” it is neither helpful to the student nor accurate. The discovery of yeast, leavened bread and wine/ale/mead is lost in history but even the Romans recorded that the Gauls skimmed yeast off of their ale to make bread rise (Pliny, Natural History XVIII-26).

One website I found (that I now cannot, for the life of me, re-find) asserted that since the earliest medieval text to mention salt in a bread recipe dated to the 15th-Century, salt must have been unknown or unavailable to earlier bakers. This is another one of those over-simplifications that so annoys me.

Salt? Unavailable? Unknown? Salt was a prime medieval commodity, required in large quantities for the preserving of meat and fish. Extracting salt from seawater or mining it was a major industry. A little salt goes a long way in flavoring and lightening a loaf of bread.

Even good articles talk about medieval ovens in such a way as to imply that there is no other way to cook dough. To we modern Americans, it may seem like bread must be cooked in an oven, but that is simply not the case.

Every village house would have had a fire pit/area for cooking and heating. Bread, even leavened bread, can be cooked on that fire -- either fried above it or by immersing a both under the coals, dutch-oven-style. These methods make a lot of sense to me. A specialized oven seems to require a lot of wood and resources to operate. There must be another method, smaller in scope, more personal, that the oven evolved out of.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Planting Day, 1 week plus

Since my last post, I’ve gone out twice to weed some more. Those weeds grow like . . . weeds. Really fast. For the most part I’ve just been content to rip the heads off the weeds as I try to get them out. There are a few places where the newspaper has deteriorated enough to expose patches of grass. I’ve been trying to rip out what I can and place newspaper as best I can back over them.

This, though, is all the problem of converting a lawn to a garden.

The wheat itself seems to be doing well. Here are a few pics of sprouting seeds:

So far, that darn lawn has been the biggest obstacle. I suppose next year I should do it properly and actually dig up and till the soil.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I have a bread machine. It makes great bread. But what it does inside that that plastic box has always been a mystery to me. A wonderful, fragrant mystery that fills the house with such wonderful smells.

Part of this whole experiment is removing those mystery processes between ground and belly.

Last Election Day I tried making a loaf of bread and was pretty impressed by the result. Don’t get me wrong, it tasted like jogging shoe, but I actually made bread!

Since then, I’ve wanted to make good bread. Recently I was at my local used bookstore and found a book called The Tassajara Bread Book. I was convinced it was a small press, never-be-able-to-find-another-copy-of-this-great-book, but here it is on Amazon touted as the best bread baking book ever.

And it is.

I’ve baked several loaves of their basic bread recipe (using fresh ground flour) and have found it to be good, but not perfect. Earlier this week I made a few changes to the recipe and the two loaves (yes, their basic recipe is for four, so this is smaller too) and it turned out perfect. The recipe looks something like this.

3 cups of Water
0.5 cups of Honey
1.33 cups of Powdered Milk (the next time I make it I’ll try leaving this out)
4 cups of flour
1 Tblspn of Dry Active Yeast

Whisk these ingredients together and leave for an hour to rise. Then add (by folding, not stirring):

1 stick of Butter (melted)
0.5 cups of Honey (if you don’t have my sweet tooth, leave this out)
1 Tblspn of Salt
6 cups of Flour

When the dough becomes too dense to stir, knead it on a floured tabletop until it no longer sticks to the table.

Let rise an hour, punch down. Let rise another hour. Cut into two pieces and place into bread pans or roll into balls. Let rise for 30 minutes. Cook in a 325-350 degree oven for 50 minutes.

See, this blog isn’t always about growing wheat. ;)

Thursday, April 23, 2009


I mentioned the other day the lack of books about peasant life. Here are the few that I have found and read. When I start to run low on things to talk about, I’ll write up some reviews of these books.

Life in a Medieval Village by Frances Gies and Joseph Gies

Anglo-saxon Food & Drink by Ann Hagen

Lost Country Life - How English Country Folk Lived, Worked, Threshed, Thatched, Rolled Fleece... by Dorothy Hartley

Peasants and Landlords in Later Medieval England by E. B. Fryde

Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White Jr.

Feudal Society: Vol 1: The Growth and Ties of Dependence by Marc Bloch

Feudal Society Vol. 2: Social Classes and Political Organization by Marc Bloch

The Medieval Economy & Society by M. M. Postan

A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century by Tania Bayard

To the King's Taste: Richard II's Book of Feasts and Recipes Adapted for Modern Cooking by Lorna Sass

A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat

Marc Bloch’s books are classics in the field and I haven’t read them since college. I think I’ll take them with me on the plane to Kalamazoo and give them a good re-read.

I haven’t read Peasants and Landlords, mostly because it’s later than my preference, but that really shouldn’t dissuade me. Lost Country Life is even later, stressing the conservative and cyclical nature of rural life before the 20th Century, but giving details about farming life on a month-by-month basis.

I almost forgot, I also have a copy of Hesiod's Works and Days that I often pick up, read a couple of pages and then put down again only to not come back to it for a month or so. It too is off-period and Mediterranean rather than Northern European, but is one of the earliest discussions of agriculture, dating to 700-600 BC. This edition is excellent as it has a tremendous amount of notes and comments accompanying the text.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Planting Day, 1 Week Later

It’s been a wet week -- lots of rain, a few grey days. But it was actually dry today so I went out to take a look. There was a lot of green and that was not good. Dandelions had pushed through. Grass had found some cracks in the newspaper. And there were no wheat shoots. Here’s a picture of the dandelions:

I got down and tried to weed them out. The dandelion stalks break with very little pulling. Instead of pulling out the plant by the roots, you just get a handful of crunchy greenery. I guess I’ll have to keep that up for a while, at least until the wheat grows taller than them.

The seeds on the other hand, have just started to sprout. It took a few days longer than I expected, but they are starting. I tried to take a picture of them but all of the close-ups came out really blurry. I’ll try again in a few days.

I don’t know what to do about the grass. I guess I’ll rip it up as it grows. My advice to anyone else doing this though -- use more layers of newspaper (more than 3) and make sure they overlap more than a few inches.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Why Am I Doing This?

I’m really interested in a lot of the details of early, everyday life -- the kinds of things that no one things about, everyone takes for granted and that so many people dismiss our early ancestors for. I want to see early village or farmstead life as a complex system of struggle against nature, time, resources, law, tradition, overlords and invaders. I want to understand the personal, social and technological institutions that help regulate and manage those struggles. I want to see what those coping mechanisms were and how they worked.

I want to understand it because it interests me, but also because I want to write a game about it. Or should I say I want to write a _good_, historically accurate (at least sort of) game about it. I can’t count how many games I’ve seen brag about the “realistic medieval economy” only then to put a general store and a mercenaries guild in every village. Or even more prevalent, to have the common villager be the “damsel in distress” figure, in need of rescue by the daring hero.

I want to understand why people bake bread instead of just cooking the wheat berries. I want to understand to movement away from individual preparing of food (milling and baking) to the communal manorial monopolies. I want to understand early medieval trade, especially in important natural resources like salt and iron. I want to learn more about the shift from Roman-style slave-run villas to the serf-inhabited manor of the medieval age.

But there is so little written about the common man and woman. So little written a the time results in little to write about today. Even if there was a good, definitive book that answered all of these questions, I think I’d still be doing this. I’m loving it. It’s pushing my personal boundaries and forcing me to grow.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Methods and Methodologies

So what am I doing here? I mean, first I said I wanted to re-create medieval life and then in practically the next breath I’m laying down newspaper. So what are my real goals? What am I really trying to achieve here? What am I willing to do and what am I unwilling to do?

There are several keys. First off, I have to succeed. This one is personal and unprofessional and indicative of the hobbyist nature of the project. If I spend weeks working on a project only to have it fail, I stand a good chance of getting disappointed and quitting or taking a break. I don’t want to do that.

So I’m starting off using a modern wheat strain rather than an ancient one. So I’ll use pre-packaged yeast to make bread or ale. So I’ll start off with a steel grain mill. The point is that once I become comfortable using these modern methods, I can always go back to the historically accurate version.

Secondly, if a bit of modernity helps me or is cheaper, and I can’t see any real difference in how it will effect the project, I’ll go with the modern. I may wind up being mistaken about whether a piece of technology makes a difference or not, but I’ll be honest about what I do use and will consider changing the experiment if I later learn that it makes a difference.

For example, while fermenting the mead, I plan to use a glass carbouy. I would expect that this would have been done in a ceramic vessel in earlier times, but I don’t have one and they are probably expensive. I’ll also use modern sterilization methods to make the stuff safe to drink.

There are also a few things that I just can’t do. I don’t have a team of oxen. I can’t even borrow one from my fellow villagers. I don’t have access to a lot of the tools, supplies and know-how that a good Iron Age or medieval farmer had. So I’m just going to do my best, trying to stay away from chemicals.

The last one is also a bit of a personal conceit, but the one that bothers me the most. The results of these experiments will result in food and other products. Those products are going to be consumed and used by me and my friends, so they have to conform to my tastes.

I’m not going to deny it. I have a sweet tooth, like many modern Americans. After years of Wonder Bread as I child, I expect my bread to have a pretty sweet taste to it, so my recipes are going to have more honey in them than they should. In my daily life, I still drink a 6 pack of soda a day, so I’m shooting for a sweet mead.

There’s not a whole lot I can do about this one. I want to enjoy the fruits of my labors. Since this is a hobbyist venture, I _need_ to enjoy it in order to keep it going. I do feel guilty, though, that my palette is far from medieval and so that is going to skew my results.

I will be honest about what I am doing and open to comments and criticism. I’m going to try to post frequently (I’m not sure how long I can keep it daily . . . ).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Planting Day, 24 hours later

It was another sunny day and I went out to check my work from the day before. Here’s a photo:

The newspaper has turned brown, presumably from soaking up water made dirty from the top soil. The seeds have changed in appearance. Where before they were dry, slightly shriveled little things, they have plumped up and look much healthier. You can compare the picture of the seeds in the package:

With this one of a seed in the garden:

It’s good to see that something is happening so quickly.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Planting Day

Today, actually April 6th because I’m delaying these posts a bit, was the first 65 degree day of the year here in the Seattle metroplex. The sun was very nice, even for an indoor troll like me. I got an early start and mowed the lawn, after fighting with the mower for nearly 20 minutes. It’s always a pain to start the first time after the long winter, but this year was worse than usual. It probably needs a tune up . . .

Anyway I got the lawn mowed. Here’s a pic of my garden plot after mowing.

The plot is 13.5 feet by 8.5 feet, about 115 square feet and on the north side of the property. It gets good morning an afternoon sun, but is blocked in the midday by a big evergreen tree and a rundown shed.

It wasn’t breezy yet (we often get a very nice easterly wind coming off of Puget Sound in the afternoon) so I figured it would be good to get the newspaper down fast. The first problem I was faced with was how much newspaper. One layer? Seems really thin. Two layers? Also seemed pretty thin. So I went with three. I started running out of the two weeks worth of newspapers I had saved near the end, so the last row was only two layers thick. It went without any problems (though with several “oh, I missed that article, let me stop and read it” moments). Here are a few pictures of the progress.

For the next step I took one bag of top soil and one bag of steer manure (each bought the week before at Lowe’s and each equivalent to 1 cubic foot) and mixed them together in my old, rusty wheelbarrow.

After mixing, I spread it as evenly and as thinly as I could across the newspaper. I wanted to weigh it down, give the seeds some soil to start growing in and as the paper broke down, give some nutrients to the soil. Then I did another bag of each and added it to the plot.

The newspaper was resting on the grass like a man lying on a bed of nails. Adding the thin layer of soil was enough to push the paper down in some places, but not enough in other places so I got a strange, “rolling hills” effect.

I watered the whole area thinking it might weigh things down a bit more and even out the newspaper with no luck. Here’s a picture after watering:

Now I was ready to seed. My process was to dump a small pile of seeds into my hand and then toss them out over the damp soil. It worked well close in, but farther than four feet or so my accuracy really suffered and it was hard to get an even covering of seeds. The directions of the seed packets said that each packet was enough for 100 square feet. I used a packet and a half to get what I considered a “reasonable-looking” coverage. I then sprinkled the entire plot with fresh grass clippings and watered again. The clippings are there to protect the seeds and to absorb and hold in moisture (the weather forecast now shows a week of rain showers coming in a few days).

In the end, it all looked like this:

Not a bad day’s work, if I do say so myself. Now let’s hope it actually grows . . .

Monday, April 13, 2009

Unexpected Finds

While I was ordering the Spring Wheat, I clicked the box that said “Send me a catalog.”

I just got finished going though it and . . . WOW.

They have an incredible selection of seeds and the catalog is packed with information about how, where, and how long they grow. There is so much information that they have to abbreviate it, so there are lots of codes to look up. They have a huge selection of books, one titled Ancient Agriculture, a translation of a 16th century Spanish instruction manual. Others that give directions on sustainable agriculture in limited space.

One offers the following trivia: “Currently it takes a minimum of 10,000 square feet to feed one person in the US and often 16,000 square feet in the Third World. This booklet gives a step-by-step approach . . . in as little as 2,100 square feet.”

Bountiful Gardens also gives lectures, runs classes and travels around the world (Mexico, Afganistan, Kenya) to teach and practice their impressive trade.

Friday, April 10, 2009

New Field, New Corn

I need some seed to start this off. If anyone read any of my old posts, you’ll see that I took some wheat berries that I bought at the local food co-op and threw them into a planter and, big surprise, got sprouts growing in my backyard. I planted those in September of 2008. Here’s the state of the grain in the first week of April:

It’s winter wheat, so it’s on target to produce some tall stalks by summer.

But now it’s April, and I don’t want to wait until next year. I want some grain now! So I went back online. I found the Bountiful Gardens website (located very near the small town I grew up in) and ordered some Spring Wheat. They had an ancient strain of wheat that they said dated back to the Stone Age. I was really tempted but it also talked about how difficult it was to thresh and clean.

Here’s a picture of the Modern Hard Red Wheat.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Standing on the threshold

I am about to plant some wheat. What do I do to prepare the soil? How do I get rid of the grass in my lawn? What about fertilizer or peat moss or manure? I have no idea.

So I did what anyone would do in this day and age. I went online. I googled.

I came up with a plan. To build a raised bed. To make a wooden frame, kill the grass under it with wet newspaper (which will starve the grass for sunlight and biodegrade), fill it with good topsoil and plant in that. It can’t go wrong. The wood is cheap. The hard part is getting a cubic yard of topsoil.

I never got around to finding out how much that would cost. Because I found this website. On page 8 it suggests a procedure to prepare a grassy plot to turn it into a garden. It says to lay down the newspaper, thrown on some compost and seed that with wheat. Once the wheat has grown, till it back into the earth and instant (well maybe not instant) garden.

Well, I’m not looking for a garden, I want to grow wheat. So this method seems perfect. That’s what I’ll do.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Who is this guy anyway?

I guess the most important part is that I know nothing about agronomy or gardening. My parents had a large garden in their first house, but when they moved out of that house (when I was 5), they had other things to do. My father planted roses while I was a young adult, but never involved me in the practice (I was given the job of doing the landscaping). I’ve planted tulip bulbs with mixed results. I’ve planted hearty juniper bushes and had them die.

So I am definitely confident that I can screw this project up at any point.

One of the things that gives me much trepidation is the ground. I don’t know anything about soil.

I do know that the area used to be a swamp and that there is a lot of gravel about 8-12 inches below the surface. Many websites I’ve looked at say that grain is just grass, and if grass will grow in an area so will wheat. That makes a certain amount of sense, but at the same time there has to more to it than that. I mean, if it was that easy to grow, there’d be no discussion of crop rotation. I never have to rotate my lawn . . . though I guess some people spend a lot of money on lawn fertilizer and weed killer . . .

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Things That Have Come Before

I do have another blog. That is where I post about my daily life, my writing and where I rant about the injustices of the world and sulk at the pain and sufferings inflicted upon me. So naturally, it’s on LiveJournal.

I decided to start this separate diary to give it a more professional/academic feel (while trying to be up-front about the fact that it is neither). To have all of these experiments and experiences available in one place without having to sort through the LOLcats and cute pictures of the family, though I may still sneak those in.

But I did write several articles in that other blog about growing wheat and bread making before deciding to split that subject off on its own. In the interest of completeness (and so I don’t have to re-write those articles) here are links to them.

  • It begins on a cruise....
I went back and read all of my blog entries from the Alaskan Cruise the family and I took in August of 2008, and even though my next entry refers to a decision being made on that cruise and it being discussed in the cruise diary, I don’t see it. I do remember deciding on that cruise, that there were a number of things that intrigued me about medieval food, and that I wanted to investigate them.

I list one of my long-term goals as:
I want to work on this medieval peasant cooking project I mentioned in my cruise blog. It will consist of trying to make for myself a number of medieval meals, not the good tasting ones that appear in the cookbooks of the times, but rather the subsistance foods that the common person would have eaten. I see this as something I dabble with for a long time, with large gaps between experiments, but I get to combine my interest in medieval life and cooking.
Medieval Cooking: I cooked some barley much like I did the Wheat Berries and it turned out equally well. The barley is more suited (at least to my palette) for just eating boiled and puffs up and gets starchy much like rice does (though the process take 3 times as long). Reheating it on the third day I forgot it on the stove and burnt the hell out of it.

Medieval Cooking, part 2: Last weekend (I think) I took some leftover, uncooked Wheat Berries and through them into a planter that I had just emptied of all the grass that had been growing in it. Just to see what would happen with no real expectations. Yesterday, I noticed green grass-like sprouts growing in it, and figured it was just the grass that I had not cleared out entirely. On poking around however, the green shoots were definitely coming from the little white seeds I had thrown in. I have successfully planted wheat!

Monday, April 6, 2009


Hello! Welcome to my little corner of the Interwebz.

My name is Tim Morgan and I’m a 40-something guy living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. I’ll talk more about myself as this series of postings goes on, but the important bits are:
  • I have a great and abiding love for the history Medieval, Classical and Iron Age Europe.
  • I am, by trade, inclination and passion, a gamer. I play and write pen-and-paper roleplaying games (like Dungeons and Dragons). I play board games and computer games. Someday, I may write a computer game.
  • I am very interested in how things work, the rules by which processes and institutions operate.

These three things have led me to this blog, where I am going to post about my strange and naive experiments into re-creating various aspects of pre-modern life. I will be:

  • Planting and raising my own grain
  • Hand Milling the grain
  • Baking Bread
  • Building a medieval-style quern
  • Building an oven
  • Cooking food the way the common folk would do it, making pottage and soaking grain
  • Brewing Mead and Ale
  • Reviews and discussions of books and other media about Medieval/Iron Age life
  • and anything else along those lines that interests me