It is impossible to overerestimate the importance of bread as the staple food of Britain and Europe, and of ale or beer as the staple beverage of all, including children – and hence the enormity of the disaster when the grain crop was poor.
For many centuries, from the early middle ages onwards, bread was commonly sold in the form of a ‘gallon loaf.’ This was not, as is often quoted, a quantity of bread made with a gallon of water. In interpreting historical anecdotes and recipes, it is important to remember that weights and measures have changed over time. It is also interesting that a measure for one commodity might actually be a different amount (weight or volume) than for another.
A delightful dictionary cum household reference text from 1725 explains the concept of a ‘gallon’ at that time. I give you the full title in all its wordy glory:
Dictionaire Œconomique, or, The Family Dictionary. Containing the most experienced methods of improving estates and of preserving health, with many approved remedies for most distempers of the body of man, cattle and other creatures ... The most advantageous ways of breeding, feeding and ordering all sorts of domestick animals ... The different kinds of nets, snares and engines for taking all sort of fish, birds, and other game. Great variety of rules, directions, and new discoveries, relating to gardening [and] husbandry ... The whole illustrated throughout with very great variety of figures ... Done into English from the 2d edition, lately printed at Paris (1725), Noel Chomel, Richard Bradley.
And here is all you needed to know about gallons at that time:
DRY MEASURE; the Measuring of dry Commodities, of which scarce [?] no Body should be ignorant; as Corn or Grain; for whch there is first the Gallon, which is bigger than the Wine-Gallon, and less than the Ale or Beer-Gallon, containing Two hundred seventy-two and a quarter Cubick Inches, and None Pound thirteen Ounces, twelve Drams and a half, of Averdupois Weight. Two of those Gallons make a Peck, four Pecks a Bushel, four Bushels a Comb or Curnock, two Curnocks make a Quarter, Seam, or Raff, and ten Quarters a Last, which contains Five thousand one hundred and twenty pints, and so many Pounds Troy Weight; so that a Garrison of Five thousand Men, allowing each but a Pound of Bread a Day; will consume near a Last, or eighty Bushels every Day; and Two hundred and fifty Men in a Ship of War, will drink a Tun of Beer in two Days, allowing each Man about a Pottle per Diem.
So, a gallon(or half-peck) loaf was made with a gallon of flour or grain, not a gallon of water, and weighed 8 pounds and 11 ounces, or 8.6875 pounds. It was considered that a gallon of bread (a little over a pound a day) was the basic ration for one adult for one week, and it was on this basis that labourer’s wages and parish poor relief were based.
As the recipe for the day, I give you a marvelous recipe that requires grain in both forms – flour and beer – but is a far more manageable quantity for the modern household.
Pearl Beer Bread.
One cup syrup, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 pounds rye flour, 6 cakes yeast, 8 orange peels, 4 cups Pearl beer, 2
pounds white flour.
Heat beer and syrup together until lukewarm; mix yeast and salt and stir in some beer mixture. Cut small pieces of orange peel separately into the rye and white flour. Make a smooth dough by mixing all ingredients; let stand for 3-4 hour. Knead dough into long loaves; rub with flour; and cover dough until it raises. Bake an hour over slow fire; and brush loaves with hot water, rolling them in cloth until used.
Makes 3 loaves. Excellent for sandwiches.
San Antonio Light; Nov 12, 1937
Quotation for the Day.
Man does not live by bread alone, even presliced bread.