Focaccia, pumpernickel, knäckebröd: Europe's varieties of bread are a feast of different grains and flavours, different textures and colours. Christiane Warmbein serves up a banquet of Europe's most basic food...

"Give us this day our daily bread"

Give us this day our daily bread - this is what millions of Christians pray every Sunday. A Protestant charity named itself "bread for the world", underlining the spiritual importance of this staple food. But bread also has a cultural meaning: each region has its own beloved recipes. In Paris,  German exchange students run through the city exploring all the supermarkets in desperate need for dark bread with rye - poor old baguette! But all over Germany, French visitors are hankering after that crusty white dough... The omnipresence of bread in our everyday lives shows that it is not just one of many staple foods, but has been the most important one in the Western hemisphere for a long time.

Photo: 4028mdk09 (CC-SA)
This German seagull wanted his "daily bread" too...

The distinct importance of bread is also obvious when we look at the spiritual roots of modern Europe. In Christian and Jewish symbols, it's always bread that is the sign for nourishment: Jews eat unleavened bread during the Pessach-celebrations, whereas the host is the ritual food in the Christian sacrament. Furthermore, bread was, unlike many other foods, never reserved for rich people, but always considered as unifying society: from a historical point of view, it was a staple food for everyone as the resources needed were cheap. It is also a product of teamwork, with many basic life-giving elements working together: one needs the water (to grow plants), fire (for the oven), earth (in which the plants will grow) and human work. It is not surprising that we speak of "earning our bread" when we mean "making a living".

The price of a baguette

Image: painting by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (copyright free)
Marie Antoinette is famous for saying "Let them eat cake!" which she heard that the peasants had no bread - although she probably didn't actually say those words.

Bread is an important element of nourishment for almost every region worldwide and was invented when humans began cultivating plants, around 10 000 years ago. On other continents, foods like potatoes and rice enriched the daily meal plan. In Europe however, bread was the most important food until the introduction of the potato in the 1500s. For centuries, bread prices have been a political issue, and were often controlled by government to prevent famine. In France, the price of a classic baguette was strictly fixed by the state until 1986. Even today, the rising price of bread can cause uproar: when baguette prices rose in 2007, a Le Monde cartoon showed Nicolas Sarkozy's then wife Cécilia as a modern Marie Antoinette saying, "Let them eat cake!"

Endless variations of bread

The importance of bread in Europe has created a huge diversity of recipes. Generally, one can divide breads into unleavened and unleavened. Unleavened breads include most flatbreads; they are made simply with flour and water, whereas leavened breads contain yeast or yoghurt to make them rise. Unleavened breads are common in the Middle East and India, but also in France (crêpes), Italy (focaccia), and Turkey (bazlama).

Europeans also like different grains in their bread: in Germany, rye breads are popular whereas in some areas of Finland, barley breads have a long tradition. Maize or potatoes can also be converted to flour and then bread: a Northern Irish fry-up isn't complete without a couple of crispy potato farls. In fact, almost every country has its own national kinds of bread which are celebrated intensely. In France, the baguette is a classic food consumed every day, whereas Swedish people love their knäckebröd, a very crispy wholegrain bread. Spanish pan bread is similar to a wider baguette, whilst Scandinavian emmer, spelt and rye breads that tend to be much heavier than wheat breads.

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