Early Period Grains and Their Uses

We tend to think of early people sitting around the fire eating loads of roasted meat. We underestimate how much of the early diet was composed of grains and grain products. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the grains used in Europe, here is a short description of the major ones.

Much of early period man's nutrition came from grain. Many early grains had a husk so tightly fitted that the only way to remove it was to burn the husk off. This resulted in a toasted grain, which had much better keeping qualities than the untoasted variety. From this, the people produced "grain pastes" by mixing the crushed toasted grain with water to form a sort of dumpling. This could be eaten without baking and was quick to prepare. The toasting made the grain digestible. Grain pastes were a major part of the diet of the poorer classes through Roman times, especially in the cities where the hazard of fire meant that many people could not have a fire in their home. Even today the Tibetan natives mix toasted millet flour with hot tea to form a grain paste. If this idea bothers you, remember that oatmeal is toasted grain slightly cooked.

Leavened bread is said to have originated in Egypt. This may have been because their vast brewing industry yielded the yeast to leaven it, but is probably due more to the development of gluten producing wheat. Barley and millet flours do not leaven well, if at all, which is why barley and millet breads are generally on the stodgy side. Wheat on the other hand contains a starchy endosperm with gluten-forming proteins which combine with the carbon dioxide gas produced by the yeast. This produces a spongy mass at gas bubbles and elastic dough. When the dough is baked, the proteins become firm and the finished bread has a network of small holes where the gas used to be. If the wheat or flour becomes hot before it is combined with the yeast, the proteins become firm and will not respond to the leavening action of the yeast, therefore leavened bread requires an easily threshed wheat grain. Rye will also support yeast, but not a well as wheat.

In Britain, wheat was brown in drier areas and barley, rye and oats in the wetter ones. As an insurance against crop failure two grains were often planted together, the most common mixture being wheat and rye. This mixed crop was called "maslin" in later periods. By planting crops that did well in both types of conditions, the farmers were fairly well assured that at least one crop would prosper. Without broadleaf weed killers and other modern farming practices, seeds from weeds were included in the harvest adding to the nutrition but changing the taste. Sometimes this resulted in new types of grain being produced for cultivation. Grain mixtures high in weed seeds have been found in the stomachs at bodies found in the bogs of England and northern Europe.

Roman soldiers diets were mainly breads and grain pastes. It has been estimated that each soldier consumed about 1/3 ton of wheat a year. Barley was reserved as punishment for units that had disgraced themselves. There are documented cases of troops rebelling when I forced to eat rations composed mainly of meat. Each group of soldiers carried a grinder to grind their ration of wheat into flour. The flour was often baked into hard biscuits called "buccellata", probably similar to the hardtack of navy fame.


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