Bread Making at West Stow

The English Companions 2nd Annual Visit to the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village
(Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th August 2004)

By Rosie Wilkin (gesith)
(an article submitted to the English Companions magazine 'Withowwinde')

   A week before the English Companions visit to West Stow my husband Glenn announced that he might like to have a go a baking bread in a proper bread oven. He is quite a good cook, but he has never touched on making cakes or bread before. Explaining to him that it's just like mixing cement didn't seem to go down too well either!
 
Recipes
   Having done a little bit of research on the Internet into the construction and uses of the bread-oven, he didn't seem to think it would be too hard. We found some bread recipes and he tried them out one evening. One batch was very heavy and didn't rise or cook properly in the middle, although we discovered that this was probably because he had neglected to put any honey in with the yeast (no sugar in Saxon times)! The other batch that did have honey in did rise and had a very nice crust. It was a very nice loaf, as my colleagues in the office will agree. (Two of them took the recipe and have made their own loaves since.)
   Feeling that he had mastered the art of baking to a recipe, Glenn then discovered a recipe for Roman bread on the back of a packet of spelt-wheat flour. This would be ideal, a very ancient recipe which has most likely been used throughout the ages.
 
The Modern Recipe
Roman Army Bread

Ingredients

1lb (500g) Spelt Flour 1oz (15g) Fresh Yeast
1 tsp Sea Salt 14floz (400ml) Warm Water (37 degrees C/100 degrees F)
3 tbsp Olive Oil 1tsp Honey
  1. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Blend the yeast into half the water and roughly mix into the flour.
  3. Dissolve the salt in the remaining warm water and add to the flour, followed by the oil to form a sloppy dough.
  4. Mix vigorously for 15 minutes with a wooden spoon.
  5. Either divide the dough between two large greased bread tins, or for a typical 'slipper' loaf, cut the dough in half and form into ovals on two large greased baking trays.
  6. Dust with flour and allow to rise in a warm place for 20-25 minutes.
  7. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C (370 degrees F/Gas Mark 5) and bake 'slippers' for 35 minutes and tin loaves for 40 to 45 minutes.
   We tried using different sorts of flour, rye flour was very heavy, but stone-ground and the spelt-wheat seemed to work best. If we left the heavy dough to prove overnight it might have been better.
 
Yeast, Oil and Salt
   We believe that the Saxons knew how to collect air-borne yeast by leaving a mixture of flour and water out in the air. They certainly could brew ale - so they must have got the yeast from some-where. Oil and salt were also available (ele and sealt in Old English).
 
The Demonstrations
   When we arrived at West Stow, it was scheduled to be a baking hot day (appropriately enough) and so Glenn decided to use the larger of the reconstructed bread ovens which was inside a craft hut, rather than the smaller oven out in the open next to the Oldest House. (During the excavations at West Stow a bread oven was found within the outline of a Sunken Featured Building by Stanley West and his team.)
   The principle of cooking in a bread oven is that you light a fire inside and let it get very hot. The oven is made of clay over a basket work structure - clay inside and out for insulation. Once the fire is exhausted the ashes are raked out and the bread goes in and is cooked by the residual heat left inside.
   Glenn set up his supplies in the craft hut - large water container (hidden), wooden bowls and spoons, hastily made linen bags for nuts and seeds (made by me), ash rake (supplied by West Stow), etc. Then Christine White (Ranger/Events Organiser) came by to have a look at what he was getting up to and offered some advice, which was to build the fire small to start with and work up. We shouldn't expect the first batch to be any good!
 
Day 1
   The first batch on the first day was a mix enhanced with pine nuts, but indeed was not very good. It took an awful long time in the oven and when it came out was not brown and was doughy in the middle. The problem was that the fire was too small and was too restricted to the middle of the oven. The fire burnt for about 2.5 hours and the bread was in for about an hour.

Day 1 - raking the ash out of the oven.

Day 1 - the dough going into the oven on a greased iron skillet.

Day 1 - the loaf is pulled out of the oven.

Day 1 - Glenn with the poorly baked loaves and some of the bags and pots of ingredients.
 
Day 2
   Day 2 was a lot better. The mix was the same for the first set of loaves, with added pine nuts. The fire was built a lot bigger and covered the whole of the floor of the oven. It burnt for about 3 hours or until the outside of the oven was uncomfortably hot to touch at the base. (The first day, Glenn said it was only just hot enough at the top.) The first set of loaves went into the oven and came out 5 mins later, beautifully golden brown on the outside and fluffy and light on the inside. However, they were odd shapes. This was because the dough is very wet and was put into the oven on a greased iron skillet and then 'plopped off'. There was very little ash on the bottom of the loaves.

Day 2 - a selection of loaves, far left is a good loaf baked in the clay oven; next is a leaf we baked at home' then one of the poor loaves and finally another of the good loaves (slightly burnt).
   Glenn then made up another batch of dough, this time with linseeds. This went into the oven about an hour after the first lot and took about 20 minutes to cook. He reckoned you could do about 10 loaves in that oven at a time. Meaning that if you had your dough already mixed up you could probably cook between 30 and 40 loaves before the oven cooled too much.
Glenn's Anglo-Saxon Bread Recipe
Ingredients
1 small wdnspoon yeast 2 large wdnspoons oil
1 small wdnspoon salt 2 large wdnspoons honey
warm water to mix 1 bowl spelt-wheat flour

1. mix yeast with sufficient water to make a milky liquid
2. place flour in large bowl add oil and honey
3. dissolve salt in water and add to flour
4. when yeasty water is frothy add this to the bowl
5. add and mix water until mixture has consistency of sticky dough
6. mix with wooden spoon until your arm aches
7. make into 2 loaves
8. allow the time it takes to play a game of 'King's Table' to prove
9. bake in the oven until crisp and brown

*one of our small wooden spoons is about the equivalent of a teapoon; a large wooden spoon equals a tablespoon and a small wooden bowl holds about 1lb of flour.

   We shared 2 of the loaves with the other companions and had half of one ourselves with our authentically cooked leek and pea stew (made by me). The remaining half of our loaf Glenn took to work with him and I took a loaf to my office. Everyone said they enjoyed it.

 

Sources:
Regia Anglorum website (see links)
Ann Hagen's books 'A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food, Processing and Consumption' and 'A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink, Production & Distribution'
Organic ingredients - spelt-wheat flour, rye flour, hazelnuts, linseed, poppy seeds, pine nuts, etc from Raindow Wholefoods in Norwich
Roman Army Bread recipe from Organic Spelt-Wheat flour packet - Doves Farm Foods, Salisbury Road, Hungerford, Berkshire, RG17 0RF. www.dovesfarm.co.uk

© Rosie Wilkin
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