Bannock was unknown to me until the Brockwell bake at Brockwell park Brixton in 2009. The bread stall had Bere meal for sale, and I had never heard of it. I soon discovered its an ancient form of Barley now grown only in the Orkneys. It is thought Bere was brought to the Orkneys in antiquity by the Danes and is still grown there. Apart from being a curiosity, it is a heritage item, not to mention a genetic resource. It was made into a bread and still is, and my curiosity was raised as Barley is not easy to make into a bread and I wondered what sort of bread? It was definitely not the architectural phenomenon we now know as bread, because Barley does not have the gluten/gliadin proteins found in wheat which enables it to rise around the superstructure formed by the proteins. Curiously Barley was the most widely eaten cereal in the UK until the 18th and 19th centuries, yet it is hardly to be found today except as pot Barley for a soup or stew. How could the most commonly eaten dietary staple just disappear, and how was it made into a digestible and pleasant item of food…eaten by all?
The answer is to forget modern notions of what constitutes “bread”, which after all is an artefact of the recent Industrial revolution and in a more modern sense, of the post WW2 Chorleywood process which enabled the substitute for kitchen sponge now regarded as “bread”. Here lay the answer, barley was commonly made into bannock and still is in the Orkneys, and is a heritage culinary staple.
Of course other forms were made from barley, and it was often mixed with whichever cereal was available such as oats, rye or less often except in the South east UK and London, wheat. But bannock appears to be the most common form, and surely there were different names for it throughout the counties. “Bannock” is the surviving Scottish name, the old English was “Bannuc”. As I couldn’t find it in any bakery, the Internet provided the answer with a good photograph of the Bere meal bannock in all its glory, about ¾ of an inch thick, greyish but with that blue tinge of barley and circular 10 inches/25 cm in diameter….it looked really appealing and my curiosity peaked.
Of course I was making it immediately, but as I had no barley to hand, I decided to use Emmer flour, which after all was the commonest wheat in ancient England, and once used far and wide, and by the Roman invaders as well. Emmer is a valid choice because it is the ancient wheat which predates all wheats except Einkorn, and working with this ancient form of flatbread I realised there were shadows of the form in every ancient culture….the bannock form and production was extremely ancient and possibly one of the most ancient forms of “bread”, amazingly still extant in the Orkneys, and a rich cultural heritage.
There is of course a craft of considerable skill in the making of a proper and digestible bannock. The dough must be worked to ensure the cereal is properly hydrated, especially the bran, which must be given time to swell and provide texture as well as the release of important nutrients. Once mixed, ideally the dough should be rested for at least an hour to ensure it is “right”. The dough should be slightly sticky, which becomes less so with rhythmic kneading. After an hour rest, which I imagine could actually have been overnight or a days length in ancient practice, I shaped the bannock into the correct form and again rested it briefly before putting it into my cast iron frying pan set on a moderate heat. The pan must not be too hot as the bannock ideally should not have a bubbly or flakey top which can be from too much heat, and it must be thoroughly cooked which is best achieved by a slow but sure heat. After 10 minutes the dough started to become a bread with a very pleasant aroma. I peeked at the underside and decided to leave it a further 5 minutes, and by then it was thoroughly cooked and very pleasing. Here was an ancestral form of bread, eaten for a far longer time than our modern breads have been. My ancestors ate this bread, over generations and generations it nourished them. It was very simple to make and required little of the technology and fuss which surrounds modern bread making, and was so nourishing.
Ive since discovered that bannock survives as “campfire” bread and has many forms as I suspect it did in the past, many of which have undoubtedly survived in the modern breads. The Selkirk bannock is famously enriched with butter eggs sugar and dried fruit, which with modern wheat and yeast are our fruit breads. Today bannock is made in quite a few forms by hikers and campers, some looking decidedly less digestible than ideal, but some having the rustic appeal of yore. It is often baked in a fire pit and enjoyed with that ambience, and may be baked under or in the ashes, wrapped in foil or, as of old baked on a griddle or girdle, or a fry pan, either dry or in lard, now oil. It travelled to the USA with English colonists and has adapted forms there as well, commonly with bicarb soda to leaven it, which of course relates to the soda bread of Eire, which appears to be an aerated bannock?
My understanding of archaic bread making also lead me to realise that this form was also made as what we would call a sourdough. The dough was simply made and left to prove overnight or through the day, in which time it was leavened by the forces of nature and rendered more delicious and digestible, something not lost on people of the before time. To this end, I made a sourdough with the Emmer wheat and followed the same procedure, except after I had made the final dough and let it rest, I pricked it well with a fork, called “docking”, which prevented it from bursting open and kept the texture even. It was a real surprise and worked extremely well. I did turn it over and griddled the top briefly to finish it, but the result was decidedly edible and so much less fuss than regular bread making. I had some left over dough which of course led me to make smaller shapes, rounded, which are classic English muffins…mini bannock. They were easily cooked and extremely delicious, eaten in the traditional way with good butter or farmhouse cheese, the food of millennia….nutritionally complete with an accompaniment of herbs and greens…which would have usually accompanied the bannock meal.
The simple recipe I followed and which can be varied is as follows:
500gm wholemeal emmer flour
370 ml of water/milk/buttermilk
1 ½ teaspoons of good salt
Dissolve the salt in the water and add to the flour. Mix well and work/knead for about 10 minutes. Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes. Form or roll with a pin into the ¾ inch thickness and 10 inch diameter..or so. Griddle for 10-15minutes and turn over if desired.
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