Eliza Acton’s English Bread Book is the first to be devoted entirely to bread and has an almost legendary status. I like it because the book is a kind of polemic against adulterated, mechanized, mass-produced bread, encouraging home baking, the use of wholemeal, intelligent economising, and the improvement of working class diets. Bread wasn’t (and isn’t) just food – it’s the heart of social reform, the front line of battle against the improverishment of workers in the industrial revolution.
Bread was the main, sometimes the only, meal of most labourers, with an onion and a smear of lard if times were good. The cheapest bread was made of rotten, adulterated flour cut with chalk, plaster of paris, clay, bones and other chemicals. The Corn Laws made its price unpredictable, often prohibitive, taking up almost the entire wages of many working men. Bread was responsible for supplying, or failing to supply, the energy which fuelled the labourers in industry.
Acton notes that bakers sold such good bread to ‘aristocratic tables [that] it is sometimes difficult to convince persons of rank and influence that there is any foundation for the complaints… after all, to them it is not a matter of vital importance whether the small portion of bread which they consumer, amidst the abounding variety of their richer fare, be of indisputable genuineness or not’.
The book is small, formal and written with the authoritative tone of a woman who knows what she’s doing. It has the formal typesetting familiar from Trollope or Dickens and is split neatly into two parts – what bread is and how it should be made in the first part; recipes in the second. The reader was expected not just to cook but to understand. In an are before the predictable temperatures, ingredients and ovens of our day considerable judgement was required.
(The Rectory Receipt.)
I am indebted for the following receipt to an admirable housekeeper, — the wife of a country clergyman, — in whose own words I present it to the reader. It is given with so much exactness in all its details, that I have not considered it needful to have it tested before inserting it here, especially as it is the result of positive and long experience.
“We have been for some time in the habit of using a portion of rice for our bread. We commenced this plan when flour was very dear; and we think the bread so much improved by the addition that now we seldom omit it. We generally bake two stone (that is to say four gallons or twenty-eight pounds) of flour; and for this quantity we allow two pounds of rice. We first wash the rice, and then soak it for three or four hours in six pints of water. It is next turned, with the whole of the water, into a large tin dish with a cover (a Nottingham jar well tied down would be a good substitute for this), and put it into a tolerably hot oven for two hours, when it will be nicely swollen, and will have absorbed all the water. When it has cooled down sufficiently to be handled easily, we rub it into half the flour, in the same way that we should rub butter or lard into it for pastry, and proceed to make the bread. If we can procure good home-brewed yeast, we prefer it to any other, and find a quarter of a pint sufficient for our baking ; but we very frequently use bakers yeast, which we find we can depend on better than on the brewery. It is a thin liquid, somewhat resembling beer, of which we are obliged to mix three quarters of a pint with the dough. We add first to the flour and rice two small handfuls of salt, and then wet them up gradually with ten pints of warm water, reserving the yeast until they are tolerably well moistened, when we pour it equally over the mass, and beat it in well with the hand, and knead it about. This dough will be very lithe. We make it about four o’clock in the afternoon, and place it by the fire, or on the top of the oven, where it remains until nine in the evening, when three quarters of a stone (a gallon and a half) more of flour is kneaded into it, and it is left to rise until the morning, when the remaining half gallon of flour will fit it for the oven. It should be put into large tins and allowed to rise to their tops before it is set into the oven. We divide it into ten loaves, which are baked for two hours. We consider that the rice renders the bread lighter, and prevents the crust of it from becoming hard, and it materially increases its weight. The four gallons of flour, two pounds of rice, and sixteen pints of water, produce forty-two pounds of excellent bread.”
For baking at home:
The first dough (with two-thirds of the flour) is very wet, the second (after the addition of the rest of the flour) is very dry. I added a bit more for the first and a bit less for the second than Acton recommends, although I suspect the recipe is intended to have more rice-water in it at the start creating a sloppy sponge which then becomes firmer in the second knead.
I used short grained white rice – by the mid-nineteenth century I think this was much more popular than brown and would break down in kneading more easily.
The long proving time means that very little yeast is necessary – all the better for the taste. Mine 0ver-rose on both provings (5 hours and around 10 hours!).
I stuck to regular loaf baking time (c. 30mins) – two hours must only be necessary for ten loaves.
620gr flour (I made it with a mix of wholemeal and white, I’d imagine the housekeeper made it with a whiter flour – but not as white as modern white flours)
30gr uncooked rice
250ml warm water (use leftovers from cooking the rice)
c. 10gr salt
Sourdough starter/5grams yeast
Cook the rice according to the packet’s instructions, but mak sure it is soft enough to squish, then drain and allow to cool. Squidge the rice and 450 grams of the flour together in your fingers, then add the warm rice water and yeast (I added a little extra flour here as the dough was almost unmanageable). Knead for 10 minutes and leave to rise. When it has risen by about double (unlikely to take the full 5 hours) add 170 grams of flour (I used much less here), knead again, and leave to rise overnight. Shape, place in greased tins and bake at 240C for 15 mins then remove from the tin, turn the oven down to 200C and bake for another 15. Cool on a rack.
With a cooking time of around 18 hours this isn’t a loaf to make in a rush. On the other hand, every hour adds another 10% to the taste and final article is delicious, light, soft, almost moist, with a great dense crumb and rich bready flavour. The crust is excellent – I can’t think why this would be, but the housekeeper is spot on.
I upped the quantity of rice by about double and thought it was even better. A bit of butter (5gr) adds to the flavour and keeping time. Good for toast, sandwiches, the works. Make three at a time and freeze two.