A loaf of bread

Ann Lee rounds up the story of Brixton Windmill in 16 objects with a brief history of bread during the life of the mill

A book of Verses underneath the Bough
A jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Image: Jeff Thomas

This charming and romantic verse from Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is often quoted, conjuring up one of those fleeting, perfect moments of pleasure, nourishment and sensuality.

You may think the presence of a humble loaf in this lofty scene a little strange. But think of the supermarkets' habit of spraying 'essence of baking bread' in the aisles, or that haunting fragment of Dvorak from the old Hovis ad, or even the perfect feel and taste of a fresh cheese sandwich (insert filling of your preference!) – and you will instantly understand how bread can spell satisfaction to the senses.

It's also true, as our '16 objects' series has shown, that the symbolic meaning of a loaf of bread has taken on many different forms through the ages, reflecting the vagaries of the times. Here are just a few of them.

Bread, famine and political turmoil

1816, the year that Brixton Windmill was built as a grain mill to serve the surrounding countryside, heralded an unprecedented famine as the volcanic cloud from the explosion of Mount Tambora caused harvests to fail throughout the world.

Combined with the new Corn Laws (which limited import of foreign grain), the shortage of wheat in Britain, following many years of war and poor harvests, led to distress, unrest and bread riots throughout the land, epitomised in Shelley's poem 'A view of England in 1819'.

All this added to the ferment which resulted in the terrible massacre of Peterloo (1819) – and many more political struggles before the Great Reform Act of 1832 and repeal of the Corn Laws (1846) brought a measure of progress.

Bread (most commonly made from wheat flour) is still the staple food in most parts of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and many parts of the Americas, Australia and Southern Africa.

Today the world's trouble hotspots, from Caracas to Idlib, demonstrate the vital importance of bread in the diet of large populations, as impossible bread queues break into riots, or bakeries supplying a population of many thousands are targeted for bombing campaigns.

With two-thirds of human food consumption consisting of just three staple foods – wheat, rice and maize – such strangleholds on the means of existence have featured throughout history. Poor harvests, inefficient distribution and creaking, unresponsive political structures played a large part in the lead-up to both the French and Russian Revolutions, 130 years apart.

For similar reasons, 'the staff of life' also features in the history of major religions, particularly Christianity and Judaism, providing an instant metaphor for spiritual nourishment because of its links to our livelihood.

Into the age of Dickens

Fire at Albion Mill

Image: British Library

And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

 – William Blake

In 1791, just as the Industrial Revolution was getting under way, the grand Albion Flour Mills south of Blackfriars Bridge were totally destroyed by fire.

Constructed just five years earlier with the help of James Watt, pioneer of the steam engine, the mill had been an emblem of progressive technology, using water from the Thames for the steampower to drive 20 pairs of stones and produce flour 24 hours a day.

The mill was never rebuilt. Its burnt out shell was the dark Satanic mill that William Blake saw on his daily journey into the City from his 'lovely Lambeth home'. Arson on the part of traditional mill-owners, who used wind- and water-power to drive their stones, was suspected but never proved.

But progress could not be halted in this way. The turn of the 18th century was indeed the dawn of the industrial age and of all we now think of as 'Dickensian', full of rogues, cheats and villains, downtrodden workers, and unbridled exploitation of poor consumers. It was also the age of marvellous technical inventions and improvements.

The production of flour and bread provides examples of all these features. More scientific crop management, improved trading links with grain-producing countries, the harnessing of steampower to traditional millstones, and later the introduction of roller mills – all multiplied the supply of daily bread to feed the masses.

But the greed of unscrupulous food manufacturers also led to the phenomenon of adulteration of flour with additives such as alum and chalk, plaster of Paris and even sawdust. Following advances in the detection of adulterants, the first British Food Adulteration Act was passed in 1860.

Advances continued at a slow pace throughout the 19th and 20th century, culminating in the Food Safety Act of 1990, with a wealth of legislative requirements which form the framework for today's regulations.

Speeding up the process

By the end of the 19th century, automated factory production of bread was the norm, and home-baking had largely disappeared from the national way of life.

This trend continued throughout the 20th century (with 'make do and mend' interruptions during the world wars) and culminated in the 1960s with the introduction of the Chorleywood Bread Process. By the addition of vitamin C, yeast and high-speed mixing, this system allowed the use of lower-protein domestic wheat in the making of dough, and greatly reduced processing time. With modifications aimed at producing tastier bread, the system is still used in 80% of bread production in the UK.

The age of Aquarius

Image: Brockwell Bake

It's not surprising that the New Age which dawned in the 1970s, with its emphasis on a simpler, more spiritual life, saw a rebellion against convenience and conformity in the production of bread.

Stoneground wholegrain flour, advertised as a healthy alternative to white flour and processed bread, had occupied a small but respectable niche in the commercial market since the late 19th century, when Thomas Allinson set up his Natural Food Company in London.

But the 1970s now saw a frenzy of experimental home bread-making, often incorporating a range of 'healthy' additional ingredients which could (as I well remember) produce a loaf having the weight and consistency of lead, and leaving little appetite for anything else.

Wholegrain and gluten-free breads, as well as loaves made from less popular grains, made an appearance on the high street, on their way to more mainstream popularity.

Time, research and technological progress have tempered some of the initial excesses, but the enthusiasm for more nutritious and tastier bread has not diminished. Home bakers and artisan bakeries now abound, and cultural diversity has brought an exciting range of new breads onto the scene, from naan to simit, pitta to focaccia.

With the advent of the internet, communities of bread-makers now share their tips online, and organisations such as The Fresh Loaf, the Real Bread Campaign and our local Brockwell Bake provide a wealth of techniques and background information. (If you are confused about the different kinds of white, brown, whole wheat and wholemeal bread, you're not alone. Try this website for a quick rundown.)

Backing Brixton

Image: Owen Llewellyn

At Brixton Windmill, where our volunteer millers, working on a stalwart modular machine that is over 100 years old, produce a fine stone-ground wholemeal flour, we don't (yet) claim to have the secret of superior breadmaking.

So if you are looking for the perfect recipe, please use your loaf to find one – and let us know the result!

Email info@brixtonwindmill.org. Photos welcome.

If you need some inspiration, you can see some loaves made with Brixton Windmill flour here.

Click here to find stockists of Brixton Windmill flour.