In the Middle Ages bread was a luxury product enjoyed by the wealthy. Ordinary people ate their grains mostly as porridge. In the Kempen for example people ate a nutritious buckwheat porridge. However, bread became increasingly popular; in the cities to start with, and subsequently in the countryside. Between 1600 – 1900 bread comprised the staple food in Western society. A large part of the population earned their crust by growing bread grains. In the Kempen countryside rye was primarily grown, and right up until the twentieth century a dark leavened bread was baked in the home using this grain.
The bread we know today has evolved over a long time. In the beginning, grains of seed –barely edible as such – were roasted to make them more digestible. Later, they were pulverised and combined with water or milk to make a porridge. The first ‘bread’ was a type of flat, unrisen biscuit that came about by spreading out the pulp of flattened grains onto a hot base. The next step was to let the dough rise. This may have been a coincidental discovery. A scrap of left-over yeast fermented and was then baked. Several ancient Middle-Eastern and European cultures made and ate fermented foods, such as bread and beer. Egyptians let the dough rise by making leaven. The Romans used fermented grape juice and processed grains into countless types of breads and patisserie. Bread was baked in pots, either above or in a fire, or in an oven.
By around 1600 bread became the staple food in Western Europe. Food production and processing, such as baking bread, all comprised part of a family’s self-sufficiency tasks. In Flanders too, many families primarily ate the grain they had themselves sown. Once the local miller had milled it, it was baked into bread at home in their own oven. Those who didn’t have an oven made arrangements with another family member or neighbour, used a communal oven, or paid for baking to be done in a baking house, or at the bakery.
Were there no bakeries then?
Every village and town had a mill and a miller. Bakers weren’t to be found everywhere though. When they started to come about depended on the region. In the eighteenth century, there were one to two bakers per 1000 inhabitants living in the Brabant countryside, and the bakers primarily settled in larger villages. Towards the end of the eighteenth century there were still villages that didn’t have a baker, for example, Oevel and Schulen. In 1835, in Kalmthout, there were seven bakers, a few of whom were millers too. In the nineteenth century, in Genk, there were four bakers, two of whom also had a hostelry.
That didn’t necessarily mean that with the presence of a baker in a town or the countryside that everyone bought their bread from them, but rather, at the very least, that a percentage of the population no longer exclusively baked at home. Where there was a baker in a village it was primarily families living in its centre who bought their bread there. However, the vastness of the Kempen municipalities meant a considerable number of farms lay a long distance away from the village centre. Some bakers capitalised upon that, by making bread deliveries by cart.
Rye versus wheat
For many centuries, your social status, wealth and location determined the type of bread you ate. The choice in grains differed per region, between the rich and poor, between the town and the countryside …. Over the centuries wheat slowly supplanted rye from the plough and from the plate. However, this process didn’t occur at the same pace everywhere. In the nineteenth century, an inhabitant of Meeuwen’s daily bread comprised rye bread; at the time, for someone in Leuven it would have been wheat bread for quite some time already.
From the sixteenth century onwards there was a significant increase in the sowing of wheat in the fertile loamy regions. Many abbeys also became prominent wheat producers, such as Hoegaarden and Averbode. The townspeople’s preference for wheat increased, and the farmers could sell it there at higher prices. Whoever was able, sowed wheat therefore. In the sandy regions, such as the Kempen, the locals stuck to rye and spelt. These grains are more winter-hardy than wheat, and more likely to produce sufficiently large harvests. In some regions rye made up to 50% of the cultivated surfaces (in around 1800, prior to the advent of the potato).
Rye also yielded more straw then wheat. Moreover, it was long straw. This was used, among other things, as roof covering and for making hampers and baskets. Rye straw also served as litter in the loose-barn, and as such contributed towards useable livestock manure. This was vital to the Kempen agricultural farmers who needed this manure to enhance the sandy soil in the fields. To the farmer and his family in sandy regions, cultivating rye meant going for the safer option.
Town versus countryside
Rye consumption was rapidly decreasing in the towns. After all, the inhabitants could be more exacting in their choice of bread. Importing grain became increasingly easy, and the rulers’ and lords’ choice in food influenced the lower middle classes too. In Brussels, unbolted rye bread (very dark, 100% flour), started to disappear from the bakeries in the sixteenth century already. Standard rye bread (bolted rye) similarly went by the wayside in the eighteenth century; even maslin (a blend of wheat and rye) bread disappeared.
That’s not to say rye bread was no longer eaten, but the local bakers were no longer baking or selling it. They baked and sold three types of wheat bread: coarse wheat bread, fine wheat bread and milk bread. Rye took far longer to die out in the countryside. In the middle of the nineteenth century consumption still comprised around 70% rye bread, supplemented with maslin bread. White wheat bread made up a small percentage of consumption. In some regions, such as Limburg, farm labourers didn’t eat any wheat bread at all.
Workers’ bread consumption in towns in the middle of the nineteenth century amounted to wheat bread (50%), rye bread (25%), and maslin bread (25%). In towns with more modern industries (such as Liège during this period), wheat bread was more popular, and in towns with an obsolete, stagnating industry more rye was consumed.
Poor people’s bread
Between 1830 and 1850 a loaf of wheat bread was twice as expensive as its rye counterpart. That difference in price ensured that wheat bread was more profitable to the baker, but also that differences arose in the choice in bread between groups of town labourers, depending on their income. Those who ate rye bread in the towns were poor. Those who could afford it, ate wheat bread. This wheat bread was lighter in colour than rye bread, but it shouldn’t be confused with the ‘white’ bread we know today.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century rye and maslin had nigh-on vanished from the towns, thanks to the import of cheap wheat from America. In around 1900 town-dwellers ate more bread than half a century previously, and then nearly exclusively wheat bread. In fertile regions such as Haspengouw and Zeeland (where wheat was primarily grown), the farmers also ate wheat bread. In less fertile regions, such as the Kempen and Friesland, brown or ‘black’ rye bread was still on the menu. In the Kempen rye remained the predominant crop, although even here it increasingly struggled to combat cheap American wheat. As arable farmers switched over to cattle breeding, the farmer fed the rye to his cattle, and personally ate more wheat. This was region-dependent. In the north-west of the Kempen the locals had switched over to wheat bread at an early stage. Elsewhere, it took until after the Second World War for wheat bread to gain the upper hand.
Tradition and identity
Besides income, a family’s choice in bread also depended on taste and state of mind, familial and local customs, and geographical, class and familial identity. All these aspects influenced each other. Choices in food are cultural choices. Both the choice in cultivation, and thus ingredients, as well as the way in which it is prepared and eaten, holds symbolic value. The more food is linked to daily survival, the greater its symbolic value. During the nineteenth century town labourers no longer wished to eat ‘farmer’s bread’, unless they were struggling. Wheat bread became a symbol of social struggle and emancipation; rye bread of poverty and misery. In the countryside rye bread didn’t necessarily hold the same stigma. The Kempen inhabitant was attached to his bread, the bread his mother baked, made from the grain his family had been growing for many generations.
Hunger is the best sauce
To the Kempen inhabitant rye bread was first and foremost the bread that fed his family, and safeguarded them against hunger. The aroma of bread became associated with a full stomach and that too made rye bread ‘delicious’. Across other European regions where dark bread baked from cheaper grains such as rye, spelt or barley were on the menu, a similar taste preference developed. Research shows that ‘taste’ entails a complex cultural process. People who are hungry or have a (familial inspired) memory of the fear of hunger, develop a preference for food that is readily and sufficiently to hand and that is satiating, such as grains, nuts, pasta and potatoes.
Home-baking disappeared …. Except in the Kempen!
Across most regions home-baking sharply decreased during the nineteenth century. Although numerous farms still retained a baking house, artisinal bakeries began to spring up. There too for a long time a great number of processes were undertaken manually (such as mixing and kneading), and fires were stoked with wood.
In some parts of the Kempen, home-baking remained in vogue for longer. In the middle of the twentieth century there were villages where bread was still principally baked at home, such as Berbroek, Hamont, Valmeer, Schakkebroek, Zolder and Helchteren. Elsewhere it had nigh-on disappeared.
Would you like to know more?
You can find more information about the history of bread and the different types of grains in the comprehensive research report that can be downloaded here (in Dutch).