September 27, 2013 7:20 pm

The history cook: The English Bread Book

The poor of Victorian Britain lived off bread and little else, made cheaply and sold dearly by commercial bakers
Acton's book was a polemic for domestic baking©Nina Mangalanayagam

Acton's book was a polemic for domestic baking

The English Bread Book by Eliza Acton, 1857

Eliza Acton, a published poet and spinster who kept house for her mother in Kent, is best known for her 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families. Witty, accurate and concise, Acton was the first cookery writer to itemise recipe ingredients and include cooking times. Mrs Beeton borrowed heavily from her and cooks such as Elizabeth David and Delia Smith cite Acton as an influence.

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Soon after finishing Modern Cookery, Acton moved from Kent to London and started on her next work, The English Bread Book, a polemic for bread and domestic baking as a vital national issue.

The humble loaf, Acton claims, is “the first necessity of life to the great mass of the English people” and it is not unusual “for the entire earnings of a poor hard-working man to be expended upon bread only, for himself and family”.

Acton was not exaggerating – in 1857 a loaf of bread cost 1 shilling. With labourers earning 12 shillings a week, sometimes less, the cost of buying bread for a family ate into a large chunk of household wages. Home baking, advocated by Acton as cheaper and healthier than buying from a baker, was on the decline. Poor people living in urban slums seldom had ovens, and women who worked in factories and mills had little time to carry out traditional domestic tasks. Acton argued that baking skills should be taught “to the women of the working orders” and “domestic appliances be furnished to their dwellings”.

According to Acton, bread “prepared by trade” is so “insubstantial it cannot satisfy the appetite” and, worse, bakers are guilty of adulterating it with “[the chemical compound] alum and other deleterious substances”. Alum was routinely added to flour in the 19th century to bulk out ingredients, improve the appearance of bread and enable bakers to charge a premium. A medical study in 1851 found alum in every loaf of bread tested from a random sample.

Doctors raised concerns in The Lancet about the dietary impact of alum, citing the prevalence of rickets in urban populations as compared to rural populations, whose bread was home-made and alum-free. Recognising that the poor relied on bread disproportionately for sustenance, Acton wrote: “The grievous wrong of gross adulteration and of short weight falls the most oppressively on the very poor – often on those who are surrounded by half-famished children, for whom their utmost efforts can scarcely procure the means of life.”

Bakers, meanwhile, are to be pitied for “the laborious and exhausting nature of their occupation” and should be “regulated by the stringent laws emanating from the government”, as they were in France.

Commercial bread production, she explains, involves such a “muscular effort” that the baker’s body “is overflowing with perspiration, which falls in large drops, and is amalgamated with the dough he is kneading”. English bakers, according to Acton, should adopt French innovations such as mechanical kneading machines to produce bread more efficiently.

There are practicalities as well as politics. Acton advises on “How to know when bread is sufficiently baked” and “Management of a bread oven”, followed by 31 recipes for breads, buns and rolls, from “The Frugal Housekeeper’s Brown Bread” to “Turkish Rolls made with almonds and milk”. When flour is costly, Acton advises incorporating vegetables to make breads with potatoes, parsnips and French beans.

Acton has been much celebrated as a cookery writer but she deserves to be remembered as a committed campaigner too, a precursor not only to Delia and Nigella but also to Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Some 156 years after The English Bread Book was published, debate about the dietary values of bread and how it should be produced continues. A government consultation recently concluded that fortification of bread with calcium, iron and niacin and thiamine should remain mandatory. If she were alive today, Acton would have something to say about this.

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Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; The English Bread Book by kind permission from the British Library collection.

To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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Brown Fadge

(An Irish Breakfast Cake)

Break up very small an ounce and a half of butter into a pound of meal just as it comes from the mill (whole meal is meant by this), and make it into a paste with about half a pint of milk. Roll it out to the size of a plate, and to the third of an inch thick, and bake it on a griddle or in an oven. If made with buttermilk and a pinch of soda, it will be improved. This is the exact receipt by which the brown fadge is made in Ireland, where it is served at the breakfast-table, even in wealthy households, and in those of some of the nobility. If rich slightly acid buttermilk were used to make it, and a small but due proportion of carbonate of soda were well mingled with the meal, the butter might be omitted.

Meal as it comes from the mill, 1lb Butter, 1½ oz.

Little salt

Nearly ½ pint of milk

Baked in oven about 20 minutes, or on a griddle.

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