Thursday, March 22, 2012

Aprons, Bosoms, and Bread.

Ah! The joys of following a research trail, with no fixed research point in mind. Or is that not really research?

Last week I had a bit of fun with a Facebook post on aprons:

“The woman who does her own cooking will do it easier and take greater pleasure in her work if she is properly dressed.”

[From an advertisement for ‘The Right Kind of Aprons and House Dresses’, in the Twentieth Century Cook Book (1914), by the Twentieth Century Club of Berkeley.]

There followed a brief discussion on pinafores (my mother always referred to her ‘pinny’) versus aprons, which of course led me to look at the origin of the words. ‘Apron’ is related to ‘napery’ (from the French) and was originally ‘a napron’. The English lost the ‘n’, (perhaps accidentally, perhaps just to spite the French) but were then forced to add it to the ‘a’ to make it comfortable to pronounce. ‘Pinafore’ is a very nice, very uncomplicated word. It indicates that it is something to be ‘pinned before’ (meaning ‘in front of’) the clothing, and usually suggests an apron with a bib.

The French origin of ‘apron’ does not imply that before ‘1066 And All That’, the English were grubby and careless about the state of their daily dress. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that an earlier name was ‘barm cloth’ – from an old word meaning bosom or lap. So, a barm cloth covered the bosom or lap. Lovely, isn’t it? Bring back barm-cloths, I say.

Next detour. We seem to have been steered to a consideration of barm, ‘the froth that forms on the top of fermenting malt liquors, which is used to leaven bread, and to cause fermentation in other liquors ...’ Ale-yeast used to be an be an important leaven - perhaps the most important - in centuries past. The local baker simply purchased the barm from the local brewer, in a beautiful example of one man’s waste product being another man’s essential ingredient.

Is the barm in a bosom-cloth related to the barm which ale-yeast? The OED does not clarify this to my complete satisfaction and understanding, but it seems that perhaps they both reference the verb ‘to bear’, which makes some sense.

Now, if you can source some barm, here is how to use it. Don’t forget to put your barm-cloth on before you start.

Of baking Manchets.
Now for the baking of bread of your simple meals, your best and principal bread is manchet, which you shall bake in this manner:- First your meal being ground upon the black stones, if it be possible, which makes the whitest flour, and boulted through the finest boulting cloth, you shall put it into a clean Kimnel, and, opening the flour hollow in the midst, put to it your best ale barm the quantity of three pints to a bushel of meal, with some salt to season it with: then put in your liquor reasonable warm and knead it very well together with your hands and through the brake, or for want thereof, fold it in a cloth, and with your feet tread it a good space together, then, letting it lie an hour or thereabouts to swell, take it forth and mould it into manchets, round and flat; scotch about the waist to give it leave to rise, and prick it with your knife in the top, and so put it into the oven and bake it with a gentle heat.
The English Housewife (1615), Gervase Markham

Quotation for the Day.

Eaten bread is forgotten.
Thomas Fuller.


Mama Hen said...

Very interesting post!

Liz + Louka said...

You might like to ask Michael Quinion ( about the relationship between barm (yeast) and barm (bosom). He has a fascinating newsletter too.