Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

History revisited - a bit about bread

Apparently, the first bread slicing machine was invented by Frederick Rohwedder. Rohwedder started work on the machine in 1912, but bakeries were reluctant to use it for fear that the bread would go stale. Then in 1928 Rohwedder invented a machine that would slice and wrap bread. The modern mass produced sliced loaf was born.

It took some time for this new trend to reach Australia. Here mass production of sliced and packaged bread had to wait until the rise of the supermarket. Tip Top, the first national bread brand, was launched in 1958.

Prior to the rise of the supermarket, bread was produced, distributed and sold by small, independent family-owned bakeries. The bread, unwrapped and unsliced, was mostly white and was often delivered to homes by horse-drawn cart or, later, vans.

The mass produced sliced loaf may have been slow to reach Australia, but it quickly wiped out the old bakeries, a process aided by selective purchase and closure. Then came new bread making technology that allowed the proliferation of the bread shops along side the supermarkets. Still, the bread they make does generally taste different from the old loaves.

Older Armidale residents will remember those old loaves. As kids, we used the break them open and pull out the soft bread from the centre. They tasted different in part because the bread was fresher, in part because of the absence of chemicals added now to extend shelf life. They also provided the raw material for bread pellets that could be thrown at other kids!

Bread is one of the oldest human foodstuffs, with a history extending back at least 30,000 years.

In Aboriginal Australia, bush bread or seedcakes formed part of the staple diet across the slopes and plains of inland Australia. The seeds used varied depending on the time of the year and area.

Women harvested the dry seeds, winnowing the grain sometimes several times. The grain was then ground using a millstone to create flour. This was mixed with water to create a dough that could then be baked in the ashes, providing a bread that was high in protein and carbohydrate.

We know about these bread making techniques in part from the observations of early explorers and settlers, in part from the presence of millstones and plant residues found at Aboriginal sites.

While exact dates are uncertain, it seems likely that Aboriginal bread making is one of the oldest examples in the world, pre-dating the rise of agriculture that would make bread a basic ingredient supporting the growth of urban populations.

The existence of Aboriginal bread making in fact challenges one of the continuing assumptions about the evolution of settled society, that hunter-gatherer communities did not have access to technologies that would come with farming.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 28 January 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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