A Paeon to Flour

I believe I could live on carbs alone. Preferably derivatives of wheat. Refined into cake. Angel food cake. Chocolate cake. Lemon cake. Pound cake. Cupcakes! We’ve made up holidays so that we can have more cake.

Or cookies. Peanut butter cookies, oatmeal cookies, sugar cookies. Cookies! Biscuits slathered with butter and strawberry jam. Biscuits with sorghum molasses. Biscuits!

I bet you didn’t know that the Roman legions’ staple ration of food was wheat.  Or that from 123 BCE, a ration of unmilled wheat (as much as 72 pounds) was distributed to as many as 200,000 people every month by the Roman state. Hence the old reference to ‘bread and circuses’. Juvenal, a first century Roman poet who originated the phrase, used it to decry the “selfishness” of common people and their neglect of wider concerns because the government pacified them with bread and entertainment. The phrase implies a population’s erosion or ignorance of civic duty as a priority. (‘Circuses’ referred to elaborate spectacles in the coliseum.)

Not surprisingly, the Romans knew how to make flour into piecrust.

In these times of political crisis and viral contagion, I’ve increasingly come to admire the qualities of flour. Bread of course. Bread for sandwiches, toasted bread with eggs, with jam, with melted cheese and tomato soup. Breadsticks!

Without flour, there would be no gravy! No puddings! No graham crackers or the heavenly crusts made from them that lie underneath and beside the beautiful maidens of cheesecake and cream pies. Pretzels, bagels, tortillas, English muffins, blueberry muffins, banana nut bread, crumpets, scones. Scones baked with bits of crisp bacon, or with sharp cheddar, or dried cranberries.

Crackers. Salty crisp crackers.

Pies. Lots of my favorite foods come in pie crust, thick crumbly crust of flour and butter brought to its most exquisitely evolved state. One could argue that American cuisine is lacking in regard to pie crust. Our cousins across the pond seem far more advanced in regard to food wrapped lovingly in crust.

Like pasties.

The genius of pasties and its ilk is its perfect use of crust by wrapping crust entirely around the contents. Maximum crust.

We do have a descendant of pasties in our half-moon pies. Steam some apricots until tender, mash with appropriate sweetener. (There used to be dried apricots that carried the perfect balance of tart and sweet. You can’t find those anymore. Now they’re all too sweet.) Still, with a judicious hand on the sweetener and a hint of ginger, the apricots can be made ready for their marriage bed in crust. She finds herself spread on one side of a flat circle of rolled-out dough where the other side is brought to rise up over her, cover her… Ahem.

The most perfect apricot pies were fried. In deep hot oil, the butter in the dough sizzled, cooking the flour into tender flakes that, once in the mouth with a portion of apricot filling, dissemble like a velvet-tongued seducer, drawing everything connected to the mouth into bliss. For those aging beyond heavily fried foods, the alternative is to bake the pie – with so-so results.

WAIT for the pie to cool. Oops, sorry.

The genius of the Brits with pasties is that the filling is a meal.

A pasty is a baked pastry, a traditional variety of which is particularly associated with Cornwall, United Kingdom. It is made by placing an uncooked filling, typically meat and vegetables, on one half of a flat shortcrust pastry circle, folding the pastry in half to wrap the filling in a semicircle and crimping the curved edge to form a seal before baking.

The traditional Cornish pasty is filled with beef, sliced or diced potato, swede (also known as yellow turnip or rutabaga – referred to in Devon and Cornwall as turnip) and onion, salt, and pepper.

Despite the modern pasty’s strong association with Cornwall, its exact origins are unclear. The English word “pasty” derives from Medieval French (O.Fr. paste from V.Lat pasta) for a pie, filled with venison, salmon or other meat, vegetables or cheese, baked without a dish. Pasties have been mentioned in cookbooks throughout the ages. For example, the earliest version of Le Viandier (Old French) has been dated to around 1300 and contains several pasty recipes. In 1393, Le Menagier de Paris contains recipes for pasté with venison, veal, beef, or mutton.  

Other early references to pasties include a 13th-century charter that was granted by Henry III (1207–1272) to the town of Great Yarmouth. The town is bound to send to the sheriffs of Norwich every year one hundred herrings, baked in twenty four pasties, which the sheriffs are to deliver to the lord of the manor of East Carlton who is then to convey them to the King. Around the same time, 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris wrote of the monks of St Albans Abbey “according to their custom, lived upon pasties of flesh-meat.” A total of 5,500 venison pasties were served at the installation feast of George Neville, archbishop of York and chancellor of England in 1465.[1]

The family of pasty-style meat pies includes those fabulous empanadas which spread with the advance of Portuguese and Spanish conquests of the New World from Argentina to Indonesia (panasan) and the Philippines (several versions).[2] Then there are the Russian and Ukranian pirozhoks, boat-shaped pies made of yeast-leavened dough, with filling completely enclosed. Also the Italian calzone made with pizza dough wrapped around salami, ham or vegetables with mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan or pecorino cheese, plus an egg. Don’t forget the samosa of India, a crusty wrapping of dough around a filling such a spiced potatoes, onions, peas, cheese, beef or other meat, or lentils. And the Jewish knish. Or the Mongolian khuushuur.

We do have Hot Pockets, which hardly merit mention.

The lines blur with the jianbing, a Chinese wheat flour pancake that is wrapped raw around fillings and cooked on a griddle and folded. Traced as far back as 2,000 years, this food was originally made from millet flour or other grains. It is a cousin to crepes, usually served with fruit or other sweet fillings rather than savory ones. But then that brings up pancakes… PANCAKES!

Never forget those thin wrappings of eggrolls and spring rolls, deep fried to crisp perfection, thanks to wheat flour. Spring rolls appeared in the historical record in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (266-420 CE) of ancient China, leading one to theorize that the Western European rise of pasties as a flour-based wrapping around meat fillings might have resulted from the Italian Marco Polo’s wanderings along the Silk Road into Asian lands (1271-1295). Interestingly, the 12th century Arthurian romance Erec and Enide, written by Chrétien de Troyes, includes pasties eaten by characters from the area around Cornwall. Which brings back the question of whether the pasty was indigenous to Cornwall or if the idea followed Polo back from China.

Then there’s pasta. How lost we would be in this world without it? Spaghetti, ravioli, pizza and, among many other shapes of this water and flour invention, macaroni, that star of American comfort food, mac ‘n’ cheese! Developed as early as the 14th century in Italy, the charm of mac ‘n’ cheese quickly gained pride of place in English cuisine of the same century.

Let us not forget the forms of bread that serve us daily in their embrace of hamburger patties or hot dogs, soft pillows of compliant wheat dough providing a handhold on meat and fillings without the trouble of frying or baking a pasty.

People have been making delicious food with flour since, well, since a time before history. We just don’t know exactly when those clever women (of course it was women) started harvesting and then replanting the largest grains of native grasses; the first known cultivation was around 10,000 years ago in the area around modern day southeastern Turkey. Around 6,000 years ago Egyptians figured out how to make wheat bread in an oven. Evidence of the first identifiable bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) with sufficient gluten for yeasted bread is found in Macedonia circa 1350 BCE.[3]

But for flour, someone had to figure that out. Some woman rubbing two rocks together smashed wheat kernels into dust, and flour was born. Sometime before 2,000 BCE, a recipe for chicken pie was written on a clay tablet in Sumer.

One of the most sublime of all human flour experiences is to wind through the process of making risen bread – the mixing, the kneading, the waiting for it to rise only to punch it down again before waiting yet again for it to rise before shaping loaves or those manna parcels called ROLLS. And then, suffering through the baking as yeasty aroma fills the air, one arrives at the moment of completion when the golden loaves are lifted onto cooling racks and the truest torture begins. One is exhorted to wait until the bread cools, but who can wait? Yes, the soft interior suffers when a knife plunges into the hot loaf.  Equally true is that a slice of bread still steaming from the oven will melt the butter before it can be spread.

But who needs to spread it? Drop thick slabs of cold butter onto the incandescent bread and let it vanish into the textured magic, cooling the bread as it goes so that your trembling hands can bring the slab of hot bread to your mouth and you can absorb the entirely decadent ambrosia directly into your bloodstream.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasty

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empanada

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat