Monday, September 19, 2011

A Baker’s Dozen.

Did you ever wonder why and where the ‘Baker’s Dozen’ idea originated?   The written phrase was first recorded in 1599, but we know that for a long time – centuries, in fact – bakers routinely gave one or two extra loaves or buns for the price of a dozen.  Customers love to get something for nothing and tend to see the practice as a generous gesture on the part of the baker, so from that angle it is a smart marketing idea. It did not start out that way however. Originally the motive was to avoid the possibility of an unpleasant punishment if the baker inadvertently sold underweight bread.

In olden times, bread was truly the staff of life. It was the staple, essential food on which most people lived, and even for the wealthy it was the basis of every meal. The corresponding everyday beverage in these days was ale. Ale was a weakly alcoholic drink brewed for immediate consumption in every moderately large household, and it was the regular drink even of children, because the brewing process made it much safer than water, which was frequently contaminated.  The absolute importance of these two products to the life of every ordinary citizen meant that even from very early times their production was subject to regulation.
In 1266 in England, King Henry III revived an ancient statute that determined the price of a loaf of bread and a quantity of ale in relation to the price of wheat. This Assize of Bread and Ale remained on the statute books in England until 1863! The aim of the Assize was to fix the size (weight) of a loaf of bread, regardless of the cost of wheat (called ‘corn’ in those days). Loaves were sold at a farthing, a half-penny, or a penny. As the price of corn went up, the size of the loaf purchased for a particular price went down. The limits were set once a year at harvest time, after the Feast of St Michael on September 29, but were occasionally modified during the year if the price of corn varied significantly. 

As all professional bakers are aware, even with the most honest of intentions, there are so many variables in the process that it is difficult to produce a loaf of consistent weight. In order to avoid being accused of selling underweight loaves, bakers would add an extra loaf (when selling a quantity of bread to a middleman) or an extra piece of bread to a small purchaser. This extra was called the inbread or vantage loaf, and it is the origin of the ‘Bakers Dozen’.
There are of course, unscrupulous members of every profession. Dishonest medieval bakers developed some creative ways of cheating both the public and the official Bread Examiners. An obvious technique was to keep the full-weight loaves on the shelves when the Examiners were due, and hide the low-weight ones out the back. Another method was to hide coins or bits of metal in the dough, which were presumably taken out once the bread was weighed. Even more creatively, in the sixteenth century there is a record of some bakers found to have been soaking stale bread in water and mixing it with the new dough 'to the great abuse and scandall of their Mysterie [their Trade] , and the wrong of his Majesties' subjects.'  

Up until relatively modern times, most ordinary households did not have ovens, and it was usual for housewives to take their own dough to the baker, where for a small fee it would be cooked in the residual heat of the oven after the baker had cooked his own bread for the day. The prize for the most creative deceit must go to bakers at a public bakehouse in 1327. There were secret cavities built under the moulding boards from which an assistant would reach up and pinch off a chunk of the dough from a customer’s loaf, and over the course of the day built up a nice supply for themselves.
Those bakers who did get caught cheating their customers were punished in a variety of ways. In England they could be fined (usually for the first three times), lose their occupation, be put in the pillory, or sent to gaol. The pillory or ‘stretch neck’ was a very public humiliation. The accused was locked with head (sometimes shaved) and hands fixed in holes made between two horizontal boards set up in the market place where he or she could be pelted by disgruntled customers with anything noxious that came to hand. There was a strong feeling in medieval times that the punishment should be seen to fit the crime, and in the fraud of 1327 the offending bakers were placed in the pillory with slabs of the dough around their necks. In other instances, bakers were forced to sell the underweight loaves at a loss (which was a gain for the customer.)

In other parts of the bread-eating world the punishments varied. In Vienna, bakers caught selling underweight bread were put in the baeckerschupfen – a sort of cage which was then plunged into the river several times. In Turkey, a bad baker was stretched out on his own kneading table and the bastinado (foot-beating with a stick) was administered. Perhaps the most public and painful punishment was in ancient Egypt, were an offending baker could be nailed by the ear to the door of his shop, where no doubt his customers gave him even more abuse.

We may feel that we live in an over-regulated society, but think on these punishments next time you are frustrated by the rules, and be glad you did not live and bake in ‘the good old days’!

Milk Bread.
Take one quart of milk, heat one-third of it, and scald with it half a pint of flour; if the milk is skimmed, use a small piece of butter; when the batter is cool, add the rest of the milk, one cup of hop yeast, half a tablespoon of salt, and flour enough to make it quite stiff; knead the dough until it is fine and smooth, and raise it overnight. This quantity makes three small loaves.
The Cooking Manual of Practical Directions for Economical Every-day Cookery, (1877) by Juliet Corson.

Quotation for the Day.
It would be nice if the Food and Drug Administration stopped issuing warnings about toxic substances and just gave me the names of one or two things still safe to eat.
Robert Fuoss.

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