Griddled Breads of Northwestern Europe
Cold and damp areas that favored the culture of rye, oats, buckwheat, and barley also favored the bakestone, since those glutenless grains respond so well to unleavened baking. For most of the bakestone's preindustrial heyday, it literally consisted of a slab of appropriate rock installed in a hearth. Particular, geologically appropriate quarries were dedicated to sourcing bakestones, which must be "capable of withstanding high degrees of Heat, without melting or falling to pieces," according to an early English geologist. Bakestone mining left behind both place-names (in Britain) and a dense archaeological record (in Norway). The reputedly superior bakestones from Hardanger, Norway, accompanied the Norse folk on their famous sea adventures of the early medieval period; tell-tale shards have turned up in quantity in the British Isles, especially the Shetland archipelago, and in Iceland.
Evidence seems to show that the people of ancient Britain, whose cultural toolbox held much in common with that of the Scandinavian cultures, possessed their own preexisting bakestone tradition dating back to at least the Iron Age, if not much earlier. (Once again, consider Stonehenge, a much larger-scale quarrying project.)
The breads baked on these bakestones varied over time, and with cultural tradition, microclimate, and harvest. Two or more varieties of grain were frequently milled and baked in combination, because until the modern period, Northern European farmers often sowed a couple of cereals together in one field, a hedge against total crop failure. Marginal conditions also encouraged the use of short-season cultivars such as bere, a barley relative that could be baked into flatbreads and malted for ale, and which is still grown and milled in Orkney. Thus the characteristics of the breads reflected the agricultural reality of life on the chilly, wet edge of Europe's arable zone, at least until well into the nineteenth century.
Protohistoric Multigrain Flatbread
There's nothing like thinking about charred remains in cremation burials to make you want to get cooking! Nonetheless, that's the best source of physical evidence for the actual breads people lived on over a millennium ago in Scandinavia. Charring is an excellent preservative, and archaeologists have found hundreds of fascinating ancient bread specimens in Swedish cremation interments from the Viking period and much, much earlier. These excavated flatbreads were shaped as disks, rings, or half-circles, from tiny to large, and composed of mixed cereals, legumes, flax seeds, and animal fats or even blood.
This recipe is based on that data, uses ingredients easy to lay hands on today, and surprisingly results in a completely addictive treat. The ancient Scandinavians are said to have accompanied their many sorts of crisp flatbreads with a range of dairy products -- butter, curds, whey, buttermilk, or skyr, a strained yogurt. And, indeed, this bread's crunchy nuttiness proves to be a delicious complement to any kind of cheese. Also, broken up in a bowl of whole-milk yogurt, it makes a soul-satisfying supper or breakfast, better only with a handful of blueberries or lingonberries.
Excerpted from Cooking with Fire (c) Paula Marcoux. Photography by (c) Keller + Keller. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.
Richard Wrangham, a professor at Harvard University and author of Catching Fire, studies the role of cooking in human evolution. "Once you start thinking about the importance of cooking -- its supply of energy, its strange distribution compared to natural foods -- it's bound to have affected our evolution hugely, our behavior, our society, our cognition, all sorts of features about us," he says.