This article has been submitted to Cockatrice (Lochac’s A&S Magazine) and was published in the May 2000 issue.
One of the main components of the European diet is bread. One of the most surprising things I encountered when I first started looking at period recipes was the lack of recipes for bread. In fact, this belief is so widespread that Black has this to say…
We have no recipes for medieval breads, but we know their names and uses as well as Chaucer’s miller did. The finest, whitest wheat flour, boulted several times, made bread called wastel or paynedemain (demesne bread). This is what the prioress fed to her dogs. The only finer flour was the wheaten type used for the light pastries called simnels and cracknels, or wafers (the sacramental Host consisted of these delicate white wafers).
It was with great interest that I found this information concerning bread in Platina’s “On Honest Indulgence”…
Therefore I recommend to anyone who is a baker that he use flour from wheat meal, well ground and then passed through a fine sieve to sift it; then put it in a bread pan with warm water, to which has been added salt, after the manner of the people of Ferrari in Italy. After adding the right amount of leaven, keep it in a damp place if you can and let it rise. That is the way bread can be made without difficulty. Let the baker beware not to use more or less leaven than he should; in the former instance, the bread will take on a sour taste, and in the latter, it becomes heavy and unhealthful and is not readily digested. The bread should be well baked in an oven, and not on the same day; bread from fresh flour is most nourishing of all, and should be baked slowly.
The bakers amongst you should have recognised this as what we now call a sourdough recipe, from the problems Platina describes. Modern bakers recognise yeasts as the leavening agent, not enough yeast and you get no leavening action. Too much leaven, and the lactobacilli in your sourdough starter start to produce too much acetic and lactic acids, and hence sourness. So, Platina’s writings have confirmed what is usually conjectured to be medieval practice, that being that medieval bread is made by sourdough methods.
To actually provide instructions on baking sourdough bread would be well beyond the space limitations here. For more information on sourdough bread, have a look in your local library or on the web at the Sourdough QA.