Culi-Temp Corner: The History of Bread

“...the Swiss enjoy a good loaf of bread and have for hundreds of years.”

Bread is a food made from flour or meal by moistening, kneading and baking, usually with the addition of yeast or leaven. It is the oldest, most common, convenient, and cheapest form of food. It would be fair to say that the Swiss enjoy a good loaf of bread and have for hundreds of years. The earliest evidence for flour, which was likely processed into an unleavened bread, dates to the Upper Palaeolithic period in Europe, around 30,000 years ago.[1] However, the oldest known loaf in Switzerland dates back to about 3530 BC, found in Twann on Lake Biel in 1976.[2] These communities would have most likely been lake dwellers, who built house near the edges of lakes and cooked flat bread on hot stones, covering it with ashes.

Flour and meal for bread have been made with one or more kinds of cereal, as well as various grasses, roots or seeds. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians and Hebrews made flat cakes from wheat flour and water without leaven.[3] The art of making fermented bread is attributed to the Egyptians; every Egyptian village had public ovens and all nobles had their own bakeries.[3] Still, the use of leavened bread did not supersede the older method in all countries. Flat cakes made from flour and water were the only form of bread familiar to the Roman soldiers. Known as 'trenchers' in the Middle Ages, they were used instead of plates and were then eaten or thrown to the peasants.[2] Today the commercially baked leavened loaf is the most common form of bread in all countries except India and the Middle East. In the wheat-growing areas of India and Pakistan unleavened flat cakes, or chapattis, are eaten traditionally but they are now being replaced to some extend in the large cities by commercially baked bread.

The importance of bread in the formation of early human societies cannot be overstated. It enabled humans to become farmers rather than hunters and foragers, and became a relatively available dietary staple that was rich in carbohydrates. This in turn led to the formation of towns, as opposed to the nomadic lifestyle, and gave rise to more sophisticated forms of societal organisation.[3]

From the 18th century, bread began to be included more widely in recipes for regional specialities, like soups and fillings. Fondue, which uses cubes of bread to soak up cheese melted in wine, is the classic Swiss dish, although its precise origins are not known. The Swiss made a breakthrough in flour production in the 19th century, when they invented the roller mill to replace stone grinding. The new technique, which broke open the wheat berry, made it easy to separate the wheat germ from the bran.[3] It eventually drove out windmills and watermills far beyond the borders of Switzerland.

The industrialisation of bread making was a formative step in the creation of the modern world. Once an essential staple in the diet of many ancient civilisations, bread is now a basic commodity found on the supermarket shelves in most developed countries. The consumption and availability of a wider variety of breads has increased dramatically over the last few centuries. A study for the European Commission in 2010 found that the European bread market was around 32 million tonnes in the EU 27 countries.[4] While bread has become mass-produced and commonplace, it is still possible to purchase traditional, home-baked breads in boutique shops; however, these breads are quite expensive, with a loaf costing up to AU$8.00 in some instances.


  1. Revedin A, Aranguren B, Becattini R, Longo L, Marconi E, Lippi MM, Skakun N, Sinitsyn A, Spiridonova E, Svobodah J. Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2010;107(44):18815-18819.

  2. Jacob HE. Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History. 2007. 1st Edition. Skyhorse Publishing.

  3. Dupaigne B. History of Bread. 1999. 1st Edition. Harry N Abrams.

  4. Monitoring Consumer Markets in the European Union: Final report – specific contract 2011 86 09. Prepared by: GfK EU3C. Final Issue: 20 November 2012. Available at:

  5. 2013. History of Bread. [ONLINE] Avaiable at [Accessed 15 November 2013].

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