Bread is a curious topic to go a-hunting in the recipe archives because there are relatively so few recipes. Considering how central it was for such a large part of the population, the proportion of recorded recipes is surprisingly low.
The reason for this might be similar to that often cited as being behind Marco Polo’s failure to mention paper money in his account of travels in China: familiarity. It is a theory that Polo was so familiar with its usage after his many years in the country, and since his memoirs were written so long after his return, he completely forgot the surprise and wonder that the concept paper money would have for his readers. Perhaps the ability to make bread was so fundamental, so ingrained, few thought to write down the recipes since it was a skill everyone possessed.
It was also, however, a specialised craft, requiring both skill and equipment to produce on a large-scale, not to mention the unsociable hours and back-breaking work mixing huge quantities of dough without machinery. As such, as hard, manual labour, it was firmly in the province of the labouring classes, however skilled.
The more well-to-do, whose recipes have survived in household manuscript books, seem to have been partial to French bread, and it has been interesting to note the numbers of recipes for French bread consistently exceeding those for anything English. A large proportion of them are variations on this recipe, using egg whites as part of the liquid component.
I chose this 1703 recipe because of its simplicity – other recipes use whole eggs/butter/milk/cream, and I wanted to see whether the egg-whites had a noticeable effect on the flavour and texture of the loaf without any other distractions. The answer is yes – it is certainly different to a bread made without egg-whites. There’s no way to tell whether this is a genuine approximation of the French bread of the time, but I suspect that it wouldn’t have been too far removed from the sourdough bread enjoying a resurgence today.
Traditional sourdough, baked in a wood-fired oven, is a wonderful thing – insanely crusty with a great ‘chew’. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, though – which is where this loaf might gain favour. After baking, the crisp crust softens as it cools, making it easy to slice without the dangers of crust fragments ricocheting off at alarming speeds that comes with cutting a traditional sourdough. The crumb is open and springy with enough of a chew to make it very satisfying. From the photo above, it would appear that the centre of the loaf actually has a more open texture than the edges. It can be relished spread with just a little butter – and how long is it since you can say you honestly enjoyed a slice of white bread and butter?
I’ve obviously scaled this recipe down from the original and have made just one change: salt. True to my own code of conduct when working with old recipes, I did bake it ‘as written’ in the first instance, and while it had the great crust and texture described above, the flavour was lacking. Finally, I find it amusing to note that 300 years after it was jotted down, this recipe still takes just 30 minutes to bake.
18th Century English French Bread
450g strong white bread flour
1 sachet fast-action yeast
50ml egg-white whisked with 300ml warm water
Additional warm water (maybe)
- Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl.
- Whisk together the eggwhites and the warm water and add to the dry ingredients.
- Mix thoroughly, adding more water if required (unlikely), to form a rather soft dough.
- Knead for 10 minutes.
- Cover lightly with plastic and set in a warm place to rise for 1 hour. If your kitchen is on the cool side, you can turn the oven to 160°C, 140°C Fan for 2 minutes, then switch it off and put in your dough to prove.
- Tip out the risen dough and pat gently to deflate.
- Shape the dough into a smooth ball and transfer to a greased 1kg loaf tin. The dough should half-fill the tin. If you’d prefer a taller loaf, use a smaller or longer shape.
- Set aside to rise for 30 minutes. On cold days I put the loaf into the small top oven while the main oven below warms up.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
- Bake for 30 minutes, turning the loaf around after 20 minutes to help colour it evenly.
- Cool on a wire rack.
- Slice when cold.