Vic­to­rian Bak­ers

BBC Two

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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

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