Anyone who finds a certain romance in bread will want to watch the recently-aired three-part series Victorian Bakers (BBC2), if they haven’t already.

(Photo credit: BBC)

The series charts the role and work of the baker throughout Queen Victoria’s reign.

The week episode 1 was shown, television critic Alison Graham wrote in the Radio Times:

… come on, it’s bread. Just bread. It pretty much all looks the same, so it’s not televisual. They aren’t making artworks like they do on Bake Off. What emerges from the magnificent bread oven is no-nonsense stuff; fortifying, dull, heavy; a bit like Victorian bakers itself.

“For me this is actually tasting history,” says one of the historical experts.

But it’s not though, is it? Again, it’s just bread, but the participants are encouraged to melodramatise, to over-empathise with their baking ancestors. “It’s like retreading history,” says one. But, yet again, no it isn’t …

After the series ended, Graham wrote an apologetic blurb in her column saying that, actually, the series was rather informative after all.

I enjoy watching bakers make bread. SpouseMouse and I are currently watching the first series of La Meilleure Boulangerie de France (‘The Best Bakery’) on M6 which takes the viewer to 84 family-owned firms to find the very best in the nation. I am applying many of their techniques at home in my own bread and pastry making.

Back now to the UK and the Victorian bakers. The first episode takes us back to 1837. Three modern-day bakers and one cake maker are put in a restored bake house to make dozens of loaves by hand. Two historians tell them they must use a large, deep trough to mix and prove the dough. There is no machinery, so two of the three men try to cope with heavy bags of heritage wheat flour, getting the contents in the trough and, after water and brewer’s yeast are added, getting everything combined to a smooth, even consistency. Not easy. It involves bending down into the trough and a few hours of back-breaking kneading. The third baker was in charge of the oven, stoking it with wood and maintaining it at the right temperature. If I remember rightly, the cake maker was allowed to help shape the loaves before baking. Overall, it was man’s work.

An Independent reader indirectly — politely — stated the men should not have added all the flour at once:

The method for hand mixing dough in a trough is to work a little at time from end to end , I learned that from a bakery tutor in 1982 who had actually done it for a living and delighted in making my class of fellow bakery students perform the exercise.   I believe the procedure for checking the oven temperature was to wet your hand and touch the oven sole (oven floor for non bakers). They were fit tough folk in those days too, probably why they didn’t live as long as we do now.

Every loaf had to be consistent and edible because most Britons relied on bread as their main foodstuff — every day. The bakers also had to sell their loaves door-to-door. There was no shop. So, after all the backbreaking work, they had to walk around their village or, if in town, their local district. After that, it was back to the bakery to begin all over again.

The 21st century bakers surmised that the heritage wheat, whilst making a dense loaf, would have been more nutritious than most wheat available today. They pointed out that there were no gluten allergies then, possibly for this reason.

Episode 2 put the bakers in the 1870s during the Industrial Revolution. Although the historians said that bakers’ conditions had improved, the bake house — at the Black Country Museum in Dudley — did not look much different. The huge trough was still there and one of the bakers did what some did in the 19th century: knead the dough with his feet. There was no mechanisation, although there were now coal-fired ovens, which the 21st century bakers said were a huge improvement. By this point in history, being a baker was not considered a very good occupation. Society looked down on bakers in general, possibly because of the additives they had been forced to add (e.g. chicken feed and other questionable substances) when there were poor wheat harvests. However, the historians explained that Canadian wheat was being exported to the UK in the 1870s and sugar from the West Indies was becoming cheaper. The cake maker was delighted to be able to experiment with the new wheat as she made London buns, the closest one could get to pastry or cake at the time.

Another change that was taking place during this period was the movement of poorer people from towns and villages to cities for work in factories and mills. Yet another was a demand on the baker from the middle class for lighter, sweeter creations. These two developments meant more business for bakers but much more work. Our 21st century participants found they had to bake through the night to satisfy their customers.

In Episode 3, mechanisation finally arrives in the form of the electric dough mixer in 1900. The bakers could not have been happier. The cake maker was able to finally take charge in this episode as she taught the bakers how to make cakes and sandwiches for afternoon tea. They said they were quite relieved they did not have to do that in real life. Bread making was much more their thing — and much easier.

We saw how the late Victorians craved brightly coloured icings — the gaudier, the better. The trend persists in commercial British baking to this day. The look was also rather inelegant, which did not bother the Victorians. The unrefined appearance remains the same today and its familiarity reassures Britons of continuity through the generations.

(Photo credit: Bakingmad.com)

Another development in the late Victorian era was the insistence of trade unions on new health, hygiene and safety rules. These brought about a much better working environment. With that came an increased appreciation for bakers, and it was at this time that the number of Master Bakers began to grow. Bakeries now had a clear hierarchy of a knowledgeable boss with assistants who specialised in one task every day. Hats and caps were worn, and the Master Baker had the floppy toque.

Some readers will remember the respect and awe they felt when buying bread in the late 20th century and seeing ‘the man in the white hat’ walk from his place by the ovens into the bake shop. Nowadays, nearly all of us buy bread from the supermarket. Another slice of history has vanished.

Spa towns in England still have vintage tea rooms which are more popular than ever. If you have the opportunity, make time for afternoon tea.

And, if you enjoy bread and history, Victorian Bakers is an excellent series. Watch now to avoid disappointment. It might only be on iPlayer for another few weeks.

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