Tuesday, November 16, 2010
The Ancient History of Bean Cake
Image at left: A stitched depiction of two cooks on the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry.
One of my favorite gluten free baked goods made by my wife is her Vanilla Bean Cake. Making a cake with beans is an innovative way to to replicate the spongy texture of wheat. We've all seen those packaged gluten-free mixes that use garbanzo bean flour (which tastes gross if you ask me). Kelly's bean cakes and breads* use white or navy beans (which don't taste like beans at all). Such a progressive idea, right? Well, it turns out the practice of baking with beans goes back to at least the 11th century.
This month I was reading a history of daily life in Norman England when I came upon a passage describing how peasants would add beans to their bread flour when there was a poor harvest. This text inspired me to find a kids book about Medieval life to read Zoe and Ashley at bedtime. We borrowed The Luttrell Village, by Sheila Sancha, an illustrated book about a 14th century village in England. It too explains "...the villagers also made barley or rye-bread, and when their sacks were getting empty at the hungry time of year—before the next harvest—they but beans into the dough." I was surprised. Until recently I have only read about the ancient food of the Celts, Greeks, and Romans, which never mentioned bean-bread. I then checked my book about Saxon food. It doesn't offer much detail, but it says the Anglo-Saxons also added beans to their flour when ordinary bread grains were in short supply.
Kelly was fascinated to hear this. The first thing she wanted to know was whether the beans were ground into a dry flour or boiled and mashed. I knew boiling was the most common way of cooking food. There was nearly always a cauldron of something simmering over the fire in ancient households. I also knew that Medieval villagers resented grinding their grains at the lord's mill. In feudal villages it was actually against the law to own a personal size hand-mill for grinding grains into flour. Peasants were obligated to bring their wheat, barley, and oats to the village water-powered or wind-powered mill. The miller, always an unpopular member of the village, took a cut of the villager's flour as a fee. My assumption was that the beans were most likely boiled and mashed. This conclusion is supported by reading Life in Medieval Village. The authors of this text say boiling was preferred because "it required no milling and therefore escaped both the millers exaction and the natural loss of quantity in the process."
In Medieval England wheat bread was indeed the most desirable, but it tended to be eaten mostly by the upper class. Most of the wheat grown by peasants went to market or to the lord of the village. Peasant bread was made primarily from lower-gluten barley or rye. And when those grains were in short supply beans were mixed into the dough. As time went on wheat became more abundant and less expensive, so the cost-saving measure of adding beans became unnecessary and unknown to most us.
*Kelly's second cookbook, Grain-free Baked Goods & Desserts includes bread recipes using beans.
1. Hagen, Ann. Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink.
2. Gies, Frances and Joseph. Life in a Medieval Village
3. Rowley, Trevor. Norman England
4. Sancha, Sheila. The Luttrell Village