It constantly amazes me that ideas about health and nutrition are considered ‘modern’ have, in fact, been around for a long while – perhaps not with the validation of science, but certainly as a fine testament to the powers of observation of medical men of older times. I have been browsing the pages of Food in Health and Disease Isaac Burney Yeo, published in 1785. Here is what he says of wholemeal bread.
A great deal has been written, without very much reflection and without any very great regard to accuracy, about the evils attending the separation of the "bran," or outer coat of wheat, from the flour of which bread is made. It has been urged that not only is this practice very wasteful, but that it leads to the loss in the bread made from such flour of much of the most important nutritive constituents of the grain; and, indeed, it is admitted that the bran is rich in nitrogenous (15 per cent.), fatty (3-5 per cent.), and mineral substances (6'7 per cent., chiefly phosphates). But, as has been pointed out by Parkes and others, if the "bran " is used, much of it is probably entirely undigested, and it can therefore yield but little nutriment, and that, unless ground very fine, the outer envelopes of the grain are very irritating, and especially unsuited to sick persons with any tendency to intestinal irritation; indeed, according to Parkes, "dysenteries have been found most intractable merely from attention not being directed to this simple point." The method, now extensively adopted, of decorticating the grain — that is, of removing the two or three outer highly silicious envelopes and leaving the fourth or inner envelope—has certainly more to recommend it, and it no doubt yields a meal very suitable for bread-making, especially for young and growing persons with sound and active digestions; but we have seen some—-otherwise very pleasant—bread made from such decorticated whole-wheat meal prove very indigestible to adults leading sedentary lives. It makes a bread which is usually heavier, moister, and of closer texture than that made from the finest white flour. Pavy also urges, with much cogency, that "if bread were our sole article of sustenance, the rejection of the principles contained in the outer part of the grain would be a serious error in dietetics; but if other food be taken which furnishes a free supply of them, as is actually the case with a mixed diet, there is nothing to condemn as erroneous. It must not be considered, because we do not consume the bran and the pollard of the meal ourselves, that their constituents are thereby wasted or lost to us. Employed, as such articles are, as food for other animals, we may, in reality, although indirectly, get their elements in association with other matter. Looked at in this way, it being granted that animal food is taken, we are at liberty, if our inclination so dispose us, without incurring any charge of wastefulness, to select one part of the grain for ourselves, and allow the other to pass to the lower animals."
There is not much to argue about that argument, written over two hundred years ago, is there?
The following selection from the book, which follows on directly from the above piece, is perhaps a little politically incorrect by today’s standards, but by culinary standards, it seems like fine general advice about bread-baking to me. As a bonus, it gives us a recipe for bread, and one for baking powder – then a relatively new concept, bread and cakes previously being risen by some sort of yeast.
Sir Henry Thompson advocates strongly that the bread of the labourer should be made from entire wheat meal; "but it should not be so coarsely ground as that commonly sold in London as ' whole meal.' This coarse meal does not readily produce light, agreeable bread when made in the form of ordinary loaves: a solid mass of this meal, being a bad conductor of heat, will have a hard, flinty crust if baked sufficiently to cook the interior; or it will have a soft, dough-like interior if the baking is checked when the crust is properly done. Consequently the form of a flat cake, resembling that of the ordinary tea-cake, is preferable, since it admits of the right amount of heat operating equally throughout the mass. The following recipe will be found successful, probably after a trial or two, in producing excellent, light, friable, and most palatable bread :—To 2 lb. of coarsely-ground or crushed whole wheat-meal, add half-a-pound of fine flour and a sufficient quantity of baking powder and salt; when these are well mixed, rub in about 2 oz. of butter, and make into dough with half milk and water, with skimmed milk (warm), or with all milk, if preferred. Make into flat cakes like 'tea-cakes,' and bake without delay in a quick oven, leaving them afterwards to finish thoroughly at a lower temperature. The butter and milk supply fatty matter, in which the wheat is somewhat deficient. A palatable addition is made, in my opinion, by exchanging the half-apound of flour ordered in the foregoing recipe for the same quantity of medium-fine Scotch oatmeal . The change adds to the brittleness and lightness of the product."
The baking powder is made by mixing well together—Tartaric acid, 2 oz.; bicarbonate of soda, 3 oz.; common arrowroot, 3 oz. Keep perfectly dry in a wide-mouthed bottle.
These instructions for baking powder would work just as well today, and almost made it into my file of Not-so Extreme Kitchen DIY.