Rye/spelt 'trencher bread' made with 'thick beer' leavening

(using a recipe from Food and Drink in Medieval Poland, by Dembinska and Weaver)

Though many experts feel that bread made of mixed rye and wheat was the most common form of bread in the Middle ages, very few bread recipes survive, none of them for rye bread. According to Bear (Terry Decker), an acknowledged SCA bread expert, the recipes we have are: "four in period bread recipes.  They are Platina's (1475), Rastons from the Harleian MSS (15th Cent), Fine Manchet from the Good Huswife's Handmaide for the Kitchen (16th Cent?), and Restons, also from the Good  Huswife's Handmaide.  The first three recipes are to be found in Stefan's  Florilegium." (from a message on SCA-Cooks@ansteorra.org)

According to Food and Drink in Medieval Poland, by Maria Dembinska, edited and with recipes by William Woys Weaver, Polish bread was leavened with a yeasty substance that Weaver calls 'thick beer' (p120, p183), which also was used to make beer.  I believe  that this leavening agent is actually what is called in English 'beer barm'. (The leaven or 'leavening agent' is the part that makes the bread rise. Yeast is the most common leavening agent. Beer barm-- the yeast 'overflow' that rises to the top of  a fermenting beer, mead, etc, and can be obtained from the dregs when the beer is racked-- is an excellent source of yeast organisms. In English Bread and Yeast Cookery, it is mentioned that beer barm was the usual source of yeast, and most of the leavened bread product recipes that survive call for beer barm. I theorize that instead of creating sourdough mixtures to trap wild yeast as 19th century housewives and prospectors did, medieval people cultivated wild yeast through beermaking. Note that beermaking provides a semi-cultivated, tested strain of yeast to the user.

The recipe included in the book by Weaver calls for a sourdough mixture:

2 c. hops tea
2 c. German wheat beer (Hacker-Pschorr in this case)
1 c. spelt flour
1 c. barley flour
combined and left to sit, uncovered (for five days in this case) until it begins to bubble.

Dembinska also says that wheat, spelt, and rye flours were used in varying amounts; rye, rye/wheat, and whole wheat and 'white' wheat types (p114-15). This would be an approximation the bread described as the 'common rye bread' (p.114) by Dembinska.

Weaver's re-created recipe calls for a flour mixture of 7 c. spelt flour/whole wheat mixed with 8 c. of stone-ground rye. I halved the quantities, and mixed 3.5 c. spelt and 4 c. rye. However, I ended up using an additional 3 c. rye in order to get a dough that was kneadable (sticky, but still kneadable, instead of sticking to everything but itself.)

Using the leaven obtained as described above, I created a bread sponge:
1 c. 'thick beer' (above), 3 and 1/4 c. flour mixture, 1/4 ounce active dry yeast proofed in 1/2 c. lukewarm water (Note: I am unsure why Weaver adds this additional yeast), 2 c. room temperature water.

Mix to smooth consistency, cover and let sit about 11 hours.

Dough: punch down sponge and add 2 tsp salt to remaining flour mixture. ** I actually had to add about 3 cups more flour than the recipe called for in order to get a dough that would stick to itself rather than to me. Knead remaining flour mixture. Knead for 20 minutes. Set aside and allow to rise again until doubled. Punch it down and knead again. Mold into loaves. Cover and allow to rise.

Place loaves on greased sheets and slash pattern into the top of loaf.+

Bake for 15 minutes in an oven heated to 400 degrees; lower temperature to 350 and bake for 15 more minutes; lower temperature again to 375 and bake for 10-20 minutes until it sounds hollow on the bottom.

+I don't know if tops of the loaves were slashed in medieval Poland, but I recall pictures of medieval breads with slashed tops. Weaver says that bread stamps or signs of the cross were used (Dembinska, p182)

Resources consulted:

Food and drink in Medieval Poland. Maria Dembinska. Revised and adapted by William Woys Weaver. (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999)
For information about medieval Polish bread baking.

English bread and Yeast cookery,  Elisabeth David.

Bake your own bread. Floss and Stan Dworkin (NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972)
For sourdough tips and recipes.

The Little House Cookbook. Barbara Walter. (NY: Harper & Row, 1979)
For sourdough instructions.


All materials copyright Jennifer Heise or original authors as otherwise specified. Permission is granted for use as printed handouts and for cooking as long as you let me know (jenne.heise@gmail.com) and if you republish, get me a copy. My homepage: http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga