A (Brief) History of Bread
When you think of bread, you don’t necessarily think of it as a symbol of innovation, at least in the modern sense. But the bread loaf has been a staple in the diets of humans for over 30,000 years. National Academy of Sciences even discovered traces of starch in pre-historic mortar and pestle-like rocks. The earliest grains would have been hand ground with rocks, resulting in coarse, dark, whole grain bread – think pumpernickel. How we’ve been able to move away from the gruel of prehistoric times to the robust slice of ciabatta for portable lunches and compact sandwiches, is thanks to human innovation.
Towards the end of the 19th century, bread went through several changes according to developing technology and ingredient availability. For instance, in 1868 a Fleischmann Brothers created commercially produced dry yeast for home bakers, which replaced natural starters made with wild yeasts – which were tedious to bake with. Eventually, most bread recipes called for commercial yeast and the Fleischmann Brothers have been in the yeast business ever since. In 1873 French-American Edmund LaCroix invented a flour mill that was more efficient than the Swiss steel roller previously used. His very efficient mill resulted in new refined white flour that became popular with American consumers.
Then, when Iowan Otto Rohwedder invented the bread slicer in 1928, pre-sliced and packaged became the standard. Wonder Bread was America’s first nationally distributed sliced bread, ushering in 50 years of, what some would consider, a low point for bread – the public revelation that some millers were bleaching their bread flour using nitrogen peroxide to make it an even brighter shade of white was a sobering fact for some consumers.We’ve come to see the pitfalls to white pre-packaged sliced bread, particularly with regards to quality. As with any recipe, the less fresh the ingredients are, the less enriching and satisfying the meal can be.
Enjoying Bread Today
Bread in the 21st century has become as diverse as ever, with the consumer turning away from loaves that contain too many unfamiliar ingredients and additives used to extend their shelf life and boost flavor, towards breads made using a variety of sustainable grains and seeds. That brings us to Bob’s Well Bread, the café and bakery in Los Alamos that inspired me to learn more about bread. Bob Oswaks*, the founder of the bakery, created his recipes using old-world, European-inspired traditions and techniques.
Precision and patience seem to be the key to making bread, as it can take up to 20 hours to for one loaf. This starts with their long fermentation process, the point at which the bread starter – a fermented mixture of water and a combination of white and whole grain wheat flour – infuses the bread and provides a natural preservative. The bakers at Bob’s Well Bread “feed” this mixture twice daily, once in the early morning, and again in the evening. After a few more steps, and before the café opens, the dough is put in the stone deck oven to bake. The custom-made stone-deck oven is built to maintain a high heat, allowing for a delicate crust to form with an even golden brown color. When the fresh loaves are cooled they are ready to be eaten by the customers at the bakery, or they are packaged and delivered for far away customers.
On most Sundays in Los Alamos, a line forms inside the cafe (renovated from an old gas station) to get some breakfast at Bob’s Well Bread. On one particular Sunday, I enjoyed an English muffin for breakfast and a salami sandwich on a demi-baguette for lunch. The muffins were served warm and sliced in half with a dollop of fresh churned butter and jam. The crust was crispy, not too golden, and the insides were soft and light, but not doughy. The spread of melted butter, churned in-house, was a creamy juxtaposition to the crunch of the muffin. For lunch, biting into the fresh slices of baguette, enclosing the delicate provolone and salty salami, was a welcomed reprieve from the challenging route we made it through. Though I was able to fit the sandwich in my water bottle cage, you’ll want to sit down to enjoy this one.
The trip to the bakery provided some essential fuel for our ride and also provided a great taste experience; I don’t believe I’ve ever had such a perfect English muffin. The care with which the bakers took in creating the recipes made me feel privileged to indulge in it. Breakfast at Bob’s Well Bread is the perfect beginning to an all day ride. Don’t want to wait to find a time to make it up to Los Alamos? Bob’s Well Bread will ship out their fresh baked English muffins, pretzels, bagels, pastries and bread loaves when you place an online order. Bob recommends never putting your bread in the refrigerator, and to always eat it at its peak freshness.
*in the print magazine we incorrectly stated Bob’s last name was Ozarks, not Oswaks.