Protohistoric Multigrain Flatbread

(c) Keller + Keller

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.
 

  • 3 ounces (1/2 cup) steel cut oats
  • 2 ounces (1/2 cup) dark rye flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • 1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) rendered animal fat or butter -- lamb or mutton tallow is appropriate and extraordinary
  • 1/4 cup water
1. Set up a griddle arrangement and get a fire going. A large flat griddle is handy for this project, since these breads cook rather slowly. Also set out cooling racks for the finished breads.

2. If you happen to have a grain mill and want to start with whole grains, by all means grind both grains coarsely together. Then it's easy to mix the rest in by hand, cutting in the fat first, then stirring in the water and salt.

3. Otherwise, place the oats, flour, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the grains several times. This makes the texture pleasantly less uniform. Add the fat and pulse until evenly cut in. Add the water, mixing just till a soft dough forms.

4. Preheat the griddle over a moderate fire.

5. Divide the dough in four, and round each quarter into a ball. Lightly flour your work surface with rye flour. Pat out one dough ball into a disk, keeping the edges nice and round. Flip it over, flouring a bit beneath. Use a rolling pin (or just keep patting) to make a circle as thin as the oat groats will comfortably allow, 6 to 7 inches in diameter. Poke a hole less than an inch in diameter in the center. 

6. Use a bench knife or metal spatula to help transfer the bread to the hot griddle. Keep half an eye on it while you roll out the next bread. The baking bread should begin to look drier and perhaps curl a bit after a few minutes. You don't really want it to take too much color at this point. Flip it over and cook the other side. After a couple of minutes, when that side seems done, use your cooling rack to prop up the bread (which should now be totally rigid) on one edge before the fire. The idea is to let it continue to dry and toast a bit while you bake the rest. I like them to get some brown flecks at this point, but, unlike some wheat flatbreads, they're not tasty if they burn at all.

7. Use the hole in the center to string the bread up in your kitchen for storage.

Excerpted from Cooking with Fire (c) Paula Marcoux. Photography by (c) Keller + Keller. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

Categories: 
Breads
Yield: 
Makes 4 medium flatbreads; multiplies easily

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