Variety in world’s oldest breads is anything but flat

Since man mastered the use of a mortar and pestle (think back to about 10,000 B.C.) he’s been grinding some sort of grain into some sort of flour. Before yeast (think back to around 2,000 B.C., most likely, when evidence of beer making and baking were found in Ancient Egypt), he made those flours – wheat, corn, potato, teff, rice – into bread.

The story I used to tell to my baking students at Johnson & Wales University is that leavening bread with yeast most likely went something like this: Unleavened dough was left exposed to air for whatever reason; it absorbed wild yeasts from the air. When the baker returned to the dough, a miracle had occurred: The dough had risen.

That’s probably an accurate anecdote for what happened. But this isn’t a story about yeast; it’s a story about flatbreads – the breads before yeast. “Flatbreads are the oldest breads on earth,” said Craig W. Priebe, chef and author, with Dianne Jacob, of “Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas” (DK Publishing, 2008). “They evolved from simple flour and water paste cooked on a hot rock. Middle Eastern pita, Indian roti, paratha & naan, Armenian lavash and Norwegian lefse are popular Old World examples.”

Venture to any corner of the world, and you’ll most likely find a flatbread. Some are slightly leavened (often with a sour, but yes, sometimes yeast); many are not. Many are made with wheat flour (pita, pizza, piadina, pissaladiere, naan, lavash); many are not (arepa, tortilla, injera, johnnycake, banh, dosa. Try South Indian dosa at Masti, 2945 North Druid Hills Road, Suite C, Atlanta, 470-236-2784, where it’s wrapped like a cone-shaped hat atop fillings buttered chicken, onions, potatoes and cilantro).

If necessity is the mother of invention, then flatbreads are certainly the proof for that pudding (or, ahem … dough), and it’s the most probable reason for their proliferation around the world. Follow the path of whatever grain was milled, and the rest will follow.

Indeed. That stone may have as much significance as the flour when it comes to the evolution of flatbreads.“Flatbreads probably predate tall breads,” said Peter Reinhart, chef at Johnson & Wales University, and author of numerous bread-making books including the James Beard award-winning “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: 15th Anniversary Edition” (Ten Speed Press, 2016). “They can be baked on a hot stone even if you don’t have an oven.”

“Grilling bread is ancient, dating back 6,000 years to Egypt,” said Priebe, adding, “Italian peasants once crushed wheat over a millstone, mixed the coarse flour with water and salt, and spread the paste on a stone heated over a wood fire.”

“These breads signify an important stage in the unfolding of civilization, as they represent the transformation of ingredients like wheat and other flours, into something totally other via the application of heat (or fire),” said Reinhart. “Dough is changed into bread, which not only makes it digestible and more nutritious than the raw grain, but also much more tasty and delicious.”

On a recent trip to Italy, I discovered a flatbread in the Emilia-Romagna region I had never tried before, called piadina – the focus of Priebe’s cookbook. Italy offers scores of flatbreads, but piadina is by far my favorite, most likely because the dough along the coast near Ravenna contains cornmeal (an addition arriving from Italy’s first cultivation of maize from the New World around 1638 in nearby Lovere, according to Priebe’s research). The dough is most often griddled, almost like a pancake. The result is a supple, scrumptious wrap – like a thinner version of arepa, found in Colombia and Venezuela (try arepas at Arepa Mia, 10 N. Clarendon Ave., Avondale Estates, 404-600-3509).

I found them filled with everything from apples, Parma ham and cheese to eggplant, chicken and arugula.

“Piadina started showing up in Emilia-Romagna around the 2nd Century B.C. as a simple way to turn a slice of Parmesan cheese or a slice of Parma ham into more of a meal,” explained Priebe. “It’s still made there over wood-burning fires called testos, where people working outdoors make them for a quick-grilled sandwich. Italians have a saying:”Ogni donna fa la piadina a modo suo.” It means, “Every woman makes piadina in her own special way.”

It appears every culture does the same. Bite into any flatbread, and you’ll bite off a mouthful of history.

Piadina Dough

Use this basic dough, from “Grilled Pizzas and Piadinas” (DK Publishing, 2008) to create the basis for a multitude of snacks and sandwiches.

Piadine Romagna

Here is the most traditional way to eat piadina. The Italians have eaten them like this in the Emilia-Romagna for centuries.

Lavash Crackers

From Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: 15th Anniversary Edition” (Ten Speed Press, 2016), here’s “a simple formula for making a snappy Armenian-style cracker flatbread, perfect for breadbaskets, company, and kids. Lavash, though usually called Armenian flatbread, also has Iranian roots and is now eaten throughout the Middle East and around the world. It is similar to the many other Middle Eastern and North African flatbreads known by different names, such as mankoush or mannaeesh (Lebanese), barbari (Iranian), khoubiz or khobz (Arabian), aiysh (Egyptian), kesret and mella (Tunisian), pide or pita (Turkish), and pideh (Armenian).

“The main difference between these breads is either how thick or thin the dough is rolled out, or the type of oven in which they are baked (or on which they are baked, as many of these breads are cooked on stones or red-hot pans with a convex surface). Some of the breads form a pocket like a pita bread, and some, like the injera of Ethiopia and Eritrea, are thicker and serve as sponges to soak up spicy sauces.

The key to crisp lavash, which is one of the most popular of these flatbread variations, is to roll out the dough paper-thin. The sheet can be cut into crackers in advance or snapped into shards after baking. The shards make a nice presentation when arranged in baskets.”

Chef’s Notes:

This dough, almost as stiff as bagel dough, is easier to knead by hand than in a machine.

This same dough makes a nice pita bread: Simply roll out 6-ounce pieces of the finished dough into 8-inch-diameter circles (slightly less than 1/4 inch thick), and bake them in a 500-degree oven on a baking stone or on a sheet pan. Bake just until they inflate and form a pocket. Count to 10, then remove the breads from the oven with a peel or a spatula before they brown and crisp. When they cool (and slowly deflate), they can be cut in half and used for pocket sandwiches.

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