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This one is a long shot, I'll admit.

The French nineteenth century chemist Boussingault - who later became quite famous - went as a young man to what would become Ecuador in the early 1820's. Very much in passing, he raved about the bread. This at a time when French bread was often criticized and had not yet gone through a change that would be helped by the arrival of Austrian techniques. So naturally I'm more than a bit more curious what was different about South American bread, or at least bread in that region, at the time. One would expect that, if anything, it would have been cruder.

Were they using some other European technique? Or maybe some local method that was the equivalent to yeast (as opposed to sourdough leavening)? (Not impossible - the ancient Gauls used yeast - "beer foam" - in bread centuries before it returned to French baking.)

And is bread-baking today largely derived from Spanish techniques, or some version of the French? Is there a distinct moment when it changed, either in specific countries or throughout the region? (Argentina, for instance, I would imagine was influenced by the Italians and Germans, at the least.)

I'm not under-estimating the rarity of all this information - even hard facts on French baking of the period are spotty. But maybe a more fluent Spanish speaker might spot something on the Spanish Google Print, or in another on-line repository of Spanish-language books? Or even (oh joy) be a bread historian themselves?

Thanks for any help.

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I don't know much about it, but certainly know someone that probably does. Rachel Laudan, who posts here as "caroline," is a food historian currently living and working in Mexico. I'd suggest you pm her.

And here's a link to her blog: Rachel Laudan

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Thanks for the link. We've corresponded but with no result so far.

It occurred to me it might be useful to quote Boussingault's comment, in describing his first days in Quito:

We were served and well served by Indian women. The food, very copious, consisted in meat from the haciendas, a very white bread such as is not made in Europe, numerous vegetables, jams, cheeses, and, for drink, clear water.

Boussingault, Memoires

What is frustrating here is that by the time he wrote these, Boussingault was known not only as a chemist, but a chemist who made important contributions to bread-making. So he was unusually well-qualified to describe how the bread was made. Further, when he had left France, its bread was still being criticized (after being praised in previous times), but by the time he was writing the arrival of August Zang and Viennese baking techniques had transformed it. Did he find the Ecuadorian bread whiter (which for the French long meant better) than the later bread as well?

I'm very dubious about finding hard data on all this. But if in fact a Spanish colony was making bread better than one of the more cultured countries in Europe, it would be very interesting to know how. My own guess is that, though the French had been using milk and yeast for a while in the finer breads, something about the leavening, and perhaps the milling, made it better.

Edited by chezjim (log)

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Hmmm.... Here's an intriguing - if not necessarily appetizing - note that might have some relevance here:

Fue práctica seguida en toda América, la masticación de algunos granos de maíz para echar a la masa o grano triturado, con el objeto de acelerar el proceso de fermentación. El padre Acosta, después de describir la azua hecha con granos germinados, llamada sena, y antes de refenirse a la que se hacía de maíz tostado que no embriagaba tanto, dice: "Otro modo de hacer el azua o chicha es mascando el maiz y haciendo levadura de lo que así se masca, y después cocido; y aun es opinión de indios que, para hacer buena levadura, se ha de mascar por viejas podridas, que aun oillo pone asco, y ellos no lo tienen de beber aquel vino" (Acosta, 1954, 110). Los oninoqueses, en cambio, preferían para este menester indias jóvenes (Gilij, 1965, II, 243-244).

Historia de la Cultura Material en la América Equinoccial (Tomo 1)

Alimentación y alimentos

Víctor Manuel Patiño


In a word, this describes Indians chewing corn to produce a fermented mass which was then used to make yeast. It's not clear (to me at least) if this was only part of making chicha (a drink) or if the yeast was for more general use. But certainly, just as the Gauls skimmed "foam" off beer to use in bread, it might well be that this chewed and spitted yeast was what made Quito's bread so white (and Boussingault reluctant to go into details?)

Suggestive, at least, if not at all decisive.

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Here's the source text, as translated in the fifteenth century:

There is another maner of making this Acua or Chicha, which is to champe the mays, and make a leven thereof, and then boile it; yea the Indians holde opinion, that to make good leven, it must bee champed by old withered women, which makes a man sicke to heare, and yet they doe drink it.

Natural and Moral History of the East and West Indies

By Jose de Acosta, trans Edward Grimston 1604

The same passage specifically references Pliny and his accounts of similar beverages causing intoxication in his time.

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Wow. It is scary what one can find with a little persistence:

Antiguamente cuando se hacía uso como fermento de las heces de la chicha llamado concho, teníamos buen pan; y ahora con mejores molinos ha desaparecido por completo el pan de buena calidad.
In olden times when the sediment of chicha called concho was used as a ferment, we had good bread; and now with better mills good quality bread has disappeared entirely.

José María Troya, Vocabulario de medicina doméstica 1906

Not only was the use of a byproduct of chicha the key, but even the Ecuadorians themselves apparently noticed the difference, once this fell out of favor.

The lines preceding this describe a crude ferment made with potato skins in pre-used (and not very sanitary) barrels.

By the way, Rachel and I having corresponded, she noted that the Mexicans used pulque in a similar way. The question of native ferments being used to initially make European bread is probably a rich subject, should any specialists be tempted by it.

Edited by chezjim (log)

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Damn. There's always a faster gun - or a quicker researcher.

Having discovered the excruciatingly obscure factoid outlined above, I have since received the new French Dictionnaire Universel du Pain where I find the following under the heading "Perou" (Peru) (from Sirley Rios Acuña):

Des pains qui ont été créés à partir de ce qu'on trouvait sur place...Le concho de la chica de jora (boisson de mais fermenté) et le masato (liqueueur de manioc fermenté) remplacent la levure traditionelle.

That is,

Breads created from what was found locally... concho from chica de jora (a drink of fermented corn) and masato (a liquor of fermented manioc) replace traditional yeast.

I already had high expectations of this dictionary - I wrote several articles (including those on the baguette and the croissant) for it. But finding something this obscure floors me.

In fairness, Ms. Acuña does have an advantage here: she is a curator at the National Museum of Peruvian Culture. Still, I gotta say: I'm impressed.

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This is all fascinating...but doesn't "a very white bread" suggest it was the flour (the wheat and its milling), not the ferment?

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I would hesitate to be categorical, but I can say that my original intuiting of the fact that there had to be a fermentation agent equivalent to yeast (as opposed to sour dough) to make the bread white led me pretty neatly to the use of concho.

The subject is more complex, having looked around just now, than I would have thought. No, the whiteness of the bread did not depend only on the wheat. The leavening did indeed play a part (so could the type of salt). But here's where it gets dicey: yeast, say several sources over a century or more, actually made the bread LESS white than sour dough. And yet I had the opposite impression. Why? Well apparently the sourdough bread sold in the countryside WAS darker than the yeast-based bread made in Paris (which was also, and definitely because of the yeast, lighter). In general, overall, bread made with yeast was finer than that made with sourdough. But the reasons bear further research (and yes may have had to do in this case with the quality of the flour or the milling).

And then to complicate matters:

La couleur du pain fermenté avec du levain,est plus foncée que celle du pain préparé avec de la levure de bière
The color of bread fermented with sourdough is darker than that of bread made with yeast.

Brevans-Le pain et la viande-1892

(Which contradicts a number of other writers, but also is from fairly late in the century.)

So, no short answer. Most authors say in a word that French bread made with yeast tended to be whiter than that made with sourdough, but not, necessarily directly because of the yeast but because of other measures associated with finer breads.

Certainly, the milling methods in South America bear further research. (Or maybe are described somewhere in the new dictionary?) For now, I am left with the non unfamiliar experience of having started with a faulty premise and being led to a useful result (that is, an insight into how indigenous products were used for European breads).

Edited by chezjim (log)

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Let me note that I am no historian and have done no research on this topic. However, there is a few points that might help understand how bread making in South America evolved (although I might be just guessing here)

Flour (wheat) was introduced by the spaniards. As with wine, for religious reasons, they needed to have bread in the table (or at least during some catholic ceremonies.

As for "milling", latina american pre-columbian cultures already used that technique. Most cultures for corn.

Fermenting is also an old tradition. Not always by saliva, and mostly for beverages. I am unaware of any fermented indigenous bread.

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