Bread, in its most basic form, dates back over 20,000 years to the Paleolithic period. Although, the 'bread' of that time would be unrecognisable from the loaves we eat today. Early humans would crush the cereal grains with rocks to remove the inedible outer husks, before mixing with water to create a sort of gruel. By simply leaving the paste to dry out in the sun, a bread like crust would be formed - nothing like our nice fluffy, crusty breads nowadays! The biggest breakthrough in the bread making process came with the discovery of yeast and its leavening effect on breads. Reports differ as to whether baking yeast is a bi-product of the advent of brewing, or vice versa, what we can be sure of, however, is that leavening techniques were used and understood by the Egyptians in 4000 B.C. As people began to travel between the ancient civilisations, the knowledge of bread leavening spread across Asia and Europe.
The Romans and the Greeks both were regular bakers and consumers of bread, both leavened and unleavened. The Romans formed a Baker's Guild in 168 B.C, and had a vast array of bread types that they made - from the cheapest, roughest acorn and millet breads, to rich, expensive breads with added milk, butter, eggs and cheese. One of the most widely rated breads today - Pita - came from the latter stages of the Ancient Greek empire, and they used have huge rivalries between cities as to which produced the best bread - a Great Ancient Greek Bake Off, if you will.
Throughout the middle ages in Europe, bread became a staple of peoples diets, from rich to poor. Medieval bread was very similar to the loaf we know today. According to historic sources, the taste was comparable to modern wholemeal bread made from stone-ground flour. Nowadays it’s possible for anyone to become a Baker (as I have done); all you need to do is go to a Baking School, go on bread making courses or open a shop. In Medieval times it was much harder and there were often apprenticeships which took 7 years. There were statutes to keep these rules in place and it preserved the art of baking.
The industrial revolution had a massive impact on bread making, as the process of milling became ever more streamlined and advanced. First, the invention of the Boulton & Watt steam engine in 1786 which drove the Albion Flour mill in Battersea took milling to speeds and volumes as yet unseen. It was so large and efficient that in one year it could produce more flour than the rest of the mills in London, put together. And then in 1874 a Swiss engineer invented a new type of mill; abandoning the use of the stone mill-wheels, he designed rollers made of steel which operated one above the other. It was called the reduction roller-milling system, and these machines soon became accepted all over Europe and in Britain.
The last revolution in the bread making process came in 1961, with the Chorleywood Bread Process. It enabled mass production of bread, using a lower protein flour, and halved the time it took to make a loaf. All kinds of chemicals have to be added for this to happen however, and still to this day companies get away with putting a cocktail of chemicals into our breads under the umbrella of 'flour improvers'. A normal loaf of bread contains 4 things - flour, water, yeast and salt, and usually takes about 3 and a half hours to make from start to finish. Bread made by the Chorleywood Bread Process can contain upwards of 12 ingredients and take under 1 and a quarter hours from start to finish. 80% of bread in the UK is produced using this method.