When those words were first spoken, most bread was made at home, with entirely different ingredients than what we now find for sale. They likely used a grain, Emmer (Farro), a hybrid of Einkorn, which was in use as early as 12,000 B.C. Emmer was the first widely cultivated domestic wheat.
It was then hybridized into Spelt, which could grow in more northern climates. The last major hybridization, long ago, resulted in modern wheat.
In recent times, wheat has taken a beating from many health professionals and natural foodies due to its connection to celiac disease and gluten intolerance, but those conditions are fairly recent. I doubt Jesus was aware of them, or he would have added, “…except those with gluten intolerance who must be given barley gruel”.
The underlying reason for those conditions, developing recently, may lie in the modern lack of variety in grains eaten and modernized methods of baking. When Spelt was hybridized into what we know today as wheat, it continued to be tweaked and changed. Not only was early wheat continuously hybridized to grow larger, faster, and easier to harvest, it has now been genetically modified in more modern ways. In the last 15 years, fields of wheat and barley have been sprayed with glyphosate (Roundup) a few days before harvest to kill the stalk and leaves, so the job can be done earlier. Unfortunately, it causes glyphosate to be absorbed into the grain kernels themselves.
Methods of leavening bread have changed as well. For thousands of years, the only type of leavening was a cultured yeast method, which is commonly known today as a “sourdough starter.” In early times, a mix of flour and water was exposed to the wild yeast in the air. The yeast would eat and digest the starches, multiply, and grow. The yeasty starter was added to the wet dough. It produced tiny pockets of gas, creating air bubbles throughout the dough, causing it to rise before baking.
Some people have gone back to using heritage grains and cultured yeast in baking for several reasons, especially for health. According to them, cultured yeast predigests the flour better than packaged yeast, making it a more nutritious product. They contend that the heritage grains are less prone to cause reactions, such as gluten intolerance, and provide overall better nutrition too. Some folks are like my brother, who prefers it for the great flavor artisan bread provides.
Lastly, there are people like me that simply enjoy the challenge of doing things the “old way,” especially if I think it is beneficial for other reasons. Yes, I am the guy who uses a straight razor to shave, a scythe to mow some of my grasses, and I mill my own organic chicken feed.
I’ve been making bread from whole wheat flour and packaged yeast since the 1970s. I’ve used many types and brands of flour. In the last few years, I’ve been using a product that is milled by the “unifine” method. I find it the best form of whole wheat and/or pastry flour. If you Google “unifine”, you will see why. I am unable to buy it locally, so I order it from Azure Standard online and pick it up at their monthly drop shipments in the Walmart parking lot in Ennis.
My cultured yeast starter is growing now in my electric oven with the light bulb on for warmth. Soon, I will be meeting the challenge of making my next yummy (and healthy) sourdough bread!