It may seem as if the business of preparing a loaf can’t have altered much down the years, but don’t be so sure. “Baking changed almost beyond recognition during the years of Queen Victoria’s reign,” says Alex Langlands, Wartime Farm veteran and co-presenter, along with food historian Annie Gray, of a new living history series devoted to our daily bread and how it reached the table.
Why is this important? Because, Langlands tells WDYTYA? Magazine, charting the development of baking through the 19th century “provides a fascinating window into the wider social, economic and cultural developments during a critical period of our island’s history”.
The three-part Victorian Bakers, which finds four expert bakers recreating life in the past, begins in 1837. This was a time when bread was a mainstaystay of people’s diets,diets and every community had a local baker. In a recreation of a rural bakehouse, the quartet make loaves by hand using heritage wheat flour and brewers’ yeast. The bake is done in a tiny, wood-fired oven.
This process of trying to work out how our forebears did things, says Langlands, is far more revealing than merely reading about the past. “History books only get you so far, and our bakers were able to demonstrate how getting hands-on with the past can generate new understandings of what life was like for our ancestors,” he says.
The second show moves the story forward to the 1870s, and an urban bakery at the time of the Industrial Revolution. The ovens are now heated by coal. Bakers have to work through the night, in part to provide “fancy breads”breads for a growing number of demanding middle-class customers. Conditions are brutal. Victorian bakers, we learn, died young, their health probably not improved by the number of dubious adulterants added to loaves during this era.
The series concludes in 1900, in an elegant high street bakery, where the quartet don’t just make cheap loaves, but pastries, cakes and confectionery, too. Underlining just how physically demanding baking was in the 19th century, the invention of the electric dough mixer proves transformative.
“I have no doubts in my mind that over the course of the series we were able to recreate not only the authentic look and feel of the 19th century but, most amazingly, the tastes of the past,” says Langlands. Jonathan Wright
is presented by Alex Langlands and Annie Gray