Wheat, Bread and the Dawn of Civilization

by Sarah on December 9, 2009

Wild barley falls over sage

In part of the Fertile Crescent in Iraq, between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, the first civilizations of Acadia, Sumeria and Babylon developed. These civilizations arose only because the conditions for the development of agriculture were favorable, without it population growth could not have been sustained. Although humans must be perceptive and organized enough to cultivate plants, the main prerequisite of agriculture lies not with them, although they may like to believe so, but in the natural resources available to them. As Vavilov observed, this area contains the highest percentage of edible wild grains such as wheat, barley and other plants from which the budding farmer could cultivate. The four most important domesticated animals, namely, sheep, goats, cows, and pigs were also domesticated in the same area.

wheat field post harvest

Surplus food allowed the development of communities, large building projects and complex irrigation schemes.  This era displayed advancement in mathematics and astronomy that even surpassed the understandings of the ancient Greeks, which were to come thousands of years afterwards. Some of the foods eaten even before biblical times, such as bulgur, still exist today.  Even after three thousand years, the basic staple of the world remains unchanged.  Because of its proximity to many regions of the world and its highly developed agricultural society many battles were waged to gain control of the area.

Merchant bagging bukhara bread

Today bread is an important part of the diet throughout much of the world, most notably the Middle East, the Mediterranean region, Inner Asia, the United States and Europe. Each area has developed a unique way of baking bread which is an inseparable part of their identity and culture. At the Ramla shuk a few weeks ago I came upon the most colorful display of breads from around the world (despite tasting pretty much the same). Luckily the merchant was more than happy to be photographed, unlike others (who, I joked with Miriam from Israeli Kitchen, are afraid we come from the IRS and are investigating tax evasion). Because the shuk caters to people from diverse backgrounds, the breads the Afghan merchant sells with his Bukhara helper reflect this.

Afgan, bukhara, Iraqi breads and more

During most of history commercial fast rising yeast was not available and every baker cultured natural yeast to produce sourdough bread. The flavor of sourdough bread is what makes the bread unique and is caused by the symbiosis between lactobacillis bacteria and yeast. In addition, research by a group in Ontario has discovered that blood sugar levels do not rise as high after eating soughdough bread compared to commercial white bread or even whole wheat or barley bread.  This has important implications in controlling diabetes.

sourdough- overproofed so had low oven rise

Sourdough bread

Before I begin, I should point out that I am an amateur sourdough baker and I am still learning.  Sites such as the Fresh Loaf and Sourdoughcan give you more information. I need to thank Paul Nurflus for soudough baking tips.

First rise:

350 grams white bread flour

50 grams whole-wheat flour

100 grams sourdough mixture (made from 1:1 flour to dough, although I don’t usually bother with measurements)

450 ml water

After first rise:

Add 500 grams of white bread flour

2 teaspoons salt

Mix together all the ingredients for the first rise. Cover and place in a warm place until it bubbles happily. Add the remaining 500 grams flour and salt. The additional flour should be enough to create pliable dough. In a mixer (or by hand if you like) knead the dough for about 10 minutes or until a piece of dough can be stretched between two figures to form a window. If it is too wet add additional flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. Cut the dough into two equal pieces. Shape each one, making sure to pull surface tight and place on a piece of parchment paper. Leave in a warm place covered with a damp towel (otherwise the dough will dry out). When the dough doubles in size it is time to bake. A little before it is time to bake turn on the oven to 260 C with a baking stone in place at the bottom (I use a caste iron tray instead). Slash a deep cut down the middle of the bread to allow bread to expand in the oven. Spritz the surface of the bread with water. Using a large flat tool, gently lift below the parchment paper and glide the dough onto the baking stone. Add one or two ice cubes where they can evaporate without touching the bread (Steam allows for better oven rise and crust). Bake until the internal temperature reaches of 210 C or the bottom part of the bread sounds hollow when tapped. Remove the bread immediately and transfer to a rack cooler and wait and additional 20 minutes before eating. When you take the bread from the oven, listen to it, when it cools it starts to crackle like rice krispies, a sign of a well made loaf.


The acute impact of ingestion of breads of varying composition on blood glucose, insulin and incretins following first and second meals., British Journal of Nutrition, 2009 Feb;101(3):391-8.f

Guns Germs and Steal, Jared Diamond

Beyond Mesopotamia: A New View of the Dawn of Civilizations

And now for something a little bit different: The Kreativ Blogger Award

A few weeks ago Jennifer Greco of  the lovely French food blog Chez Loulou tagged me (thank you!), now it’s time to have some fun. Rules are simple, if I am tagged I have to write 7 random and interesting things about myself and then list 7 other bloggers who will do the same.  For more information on the origin and details of this award see Simon’s food blog. Here is my list:


1 I took a two star scuba diving course but was scared I would be eaten by a shark

2 I regularly have to throw my makeup away because it passes the expiration date.

3 I love looking at photographs, even of people I have never met

4 Don’t really like the taste of liver or egg yolks

5 I collect heart shaped stones and love real rainbows (doesn’t rain often in Israel)

6 I used to play flute in high school but wished I picked the cello

7 I don’t really get molecular gastronomy (and all the foams)

Now it’s your turn:

Miriam from Israeli Kitchen

Lisa from Lisa is Cooking

Michael from Herbivoracious

Christie from Fig and Cherry

Elle from Elle’s New England Kitchen

Maryam from My Marrakesh

Sabera from One Life to Eat

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Yaelian December 9, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Really interesting posting and lovely pictures again.That first one is beautiful!! I don’t eat much bread these days, but when I do,it usually is some kind of rye bread. Where do you find heart shaped stones….?


Sarah December 10, 2009 at 3:40 am

Thank you, I don’t buy heart shaped rocks but find them on walks and hikes around the country (and abroad). I don’t have many for the amount of time I have been collecting them, most of them are scattered around the house in drawers and closets. Rye bread was considered poor man’s bread in Europe during the Medieval era, but now it has become more fashionable.


yael December 10, 2009 at 1:37 am

Sarahle, what a wonderful blog! i love the fact that you are so professional and informative without being dry and boring.
BTW, it seems that i know all your secrets! nothing that you worte about yourself was new to me….We’re like married couples.
have a wonderful day!


Liz@Cafe Liz December 10, 2009 at 3:18 am

Nice! It’s amazing how long humanity has been eating foods like bread.


lisaiscooking December 10, 2009 at 6:49 am

Your bread looks wonderful! And, thank you so much for the award. You just made my morning!


Alexavia November 22, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Your article perfectly shows what I needed to know, thkans!


OysterCulture December 10, 2009 at 8:42 am

Congratulations on your award, very much deserved. I learn something new every time I stop by.


Elle December 10, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Wow, what an informative post–very interesting! Beautiful bread. Thank you so much for the award!


Sabera December 10, 2009 at 4:58 pm

THANK YOU for the nomination Sarah! I appreciate the support. You know how much I love your blog as well. Too bad I can’t tag you back :-)


Sabera December 10, 2009 at 4:58 pm

And congratulations on being nominated yourself! You deserve it!!


rebecca December 11, 2009 at 10:28 am

wow what a fab blog you have and thanks for visiting mine, these bread looks amazing and congrats on the awards



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