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Breads across different cultures  

Bread is a staple food; a basic that is cheap and affordable and forms the basis of – or is an accompaniment to – many dishes from around the world. The French baguette, Mexican tortilla and the Italian pizza, are all famous, world-renowned, bread-based dishes.

When we think of Mexico, we might think of bread in the form of a tortilla but it is also true to say that many of the locals will regularly eat rolls of bread as well. The ‘Bolillo Roll’ and the ‘Pan Dulce’ (usually eaten for breakfast) are common forms of bread eaten by the population, but there are perhaps as many as a thousand different types.

The Peruvian cuisine is extraordinarily diverse and includes a vast array of bread-based dished made from, and with a variety of other foods. In the Andes, for example, there are breads made with potatoes, whilst there are other types of breads, such as Bizochos, that are eaten with chocolate. The addition of vegetables such as pumpkin or butternut squash into the dough mix is another Peruvian delicacy. The dough can be moulded and worked into a doughnut shape and eaten with a dip.

The Spanish have a long history of bread-making, so much so that they have a region dedicated to the industry. This area is known as, ‘Land of Bread (Tierra del Pan)’ in Zamora.

The Middle East and South Asia produce their breads using whole-wheat flour. The bread is baked in an iron griddle known as a ‘Tava’ and come in a variety of forms such as the ‘Roti’ and the ‘Naan’. These types of unleavened flat breads, particularly the naan bread, may be popular in western countries too but for those in Middle Eastern countries these breads are a dietary mainstay. Puris, parathas and makki di rotis are other forms of Middle Eastern breads. Whilst the makki di roti simply uses a different form of flour (maize-based rather than white), there are other breads that involve an entirely different method of cooking, such as the puri. The puri involves frying in a pan rather than traditional baking.

The Philippines may enjoy pandesal for breakfast. The pandesal – or ‘salt bread’ – is a rounded, salt-based bread.

In Germany there are up to 500 different kinds of bread, whilst there are over a thousand types of pastries. It is the Germans, therefore, that lay claim to having the greatest collection of breads in the world. It follows then, that it is also the Germans, above all other nations, who consume the most bread.

The breads of prehistoric Scandinavia were made using any of four different types of grain: barley, rye, wheat and oats. Whilst rye was most common during the Iron Age – and so is the oldest type of grain – it was still the most common type of grain at the turn of the 20th century.

Bread-baking was introduced to the Nordic countries by Scandinavian soldiers that had mastered the art of baking while working on the continent. The greatest influence to Nordic bread-baking has been the Germans but both Russian and Slavic influence can be seen in parts of Finland.

At the end of the 1800’s, the Danes would produce their bread in the morning. Morgenbrod was baked using wheat and largely consumed by the upper classes. Morgenbrod is moulded into different shapes and sizes and sold in most bakeries, although popular preference has turned to wheat bread, rather than breads using rye.

The sourdough breads of Russia and Finland have a rougher composition and can be stored for lengthy periods. The Finish bake their bread in a doughnut shape with a concentric hole allowing for easy storage. Finish bread is baked using all four main grains, which can be ground down to produce varying grades, and it is the type of flour that determines how light or dark the bread will be. Whilst rye bread is most common, wheat bread is still baked and sold but tends to be in the form of a basic loaf. Bagel-like breads called Vesirinkeli, are most common, but the use of potatoes in bread has grown in popularity.

It was the lack in plentiful supply of grain that shaped Icelandic bread-baking the most. Dulse would be used in some parts of Iceland to make the grain go further. It was in the 1700’s that rye bread became popular and now rye breads are the most commonly eaten breads in the country, although western breads are available too. It is the flatbreads and the leaf breads though, that have had the greatest longevity.

Although flatbreads are still hugely popular in Norway, bakeries must compete with an influx of western breads that have reached the market in recent years. Generally most Norwegians do not report eating these foreign breads on a regular basis though.

Before the industrialisation of Swedish bakeries, bread was most produced in the home. It was not until the late 1800s that soft bread could be bought from bakeries. As transportation improved, regional differences in bread-baking decreases, and bread production became more standardised. Bread has become a more regular component of the Swedish diet in recent years, particularly wholegrain and wheat breads.

The traditional bread of Britain is the ‘stottie cake’, which is a thick, and rounded loaf most common in the northeastern regions of the country. ‘Plain bread’ loaves are thinner than the stottie cake and are most commonly eaten in Scotland. The bread is firm in texture and has reduced in popularity in recent years as other breads eaten around the UK have become more popular.

Irish mythology dictates that the end slice of the loaf is the best part. Soda bread was created to make the most of the supply of soft wheat in the country and is different to most other breads in that it uses baking soda and churned milk in place of yeast.

French bread is typically thick-crusted, and sold unwrapped. As such, the bread has a shorter shelf life and so bakers must bake the bread more often throughout the day. Pan bread is less commonly used, and would only be used at breakfast for toast, for instance.

The many varieties of Italian breads can be attributed to the great regional variations resulting from Italy’s political history. Bread rolls are common in the northern regions of the country, whilst large batches are more common in the south. Italian bread is made with olive oil and butter to make the bread soft. Focaccia is a popular bread consumed in France as well as Italy and can be made with a number of toppings, seasonings, and fillings.

American breads can come in the form of quick breads and cornbreads. Southern cornbread will differ to the cornbreads of the north; the South will bake their breads with white cornmeal and will tend to avoid sweeteners, whereas the North tend to opt for yellow cornmeal, adding a sugar compound such as honey or maple syrup. Spoon bread is another southern favourite made with milk and eggs, so called because it is traditionally served with a spoon. In the West, however, the sourdough biscuit is the traditional bread of the region. Wheat breads are popular across the states too, and are eaten as an accompaniment to an evening meal in much the same way as it is eaten in the UK.

The large variety of cornbreads eaten in the US can be attributed to the plentiful supply of cornmeal up until the last century, as opposed to any other flour. White bread is considered the national favourite as this is consumed with the most regularity, although regions where there are large communities of a particular ethnic group will see a tendency towards the breads that are traditional to their heritage.

Bread is of course a religious symbol and in some traditionally Christian societies the sign of the cross is made with the knife over the surface of the bread before it is cut in to. Because of its religious importance as a symbol, there are some who would consider discarding, or wasting the bread a sin.

Challah is the traditional bread of the Jews and has a hard crust with a soft centre. The dough is plaited before baking and is sometimes sweetened with raisins or honey to taste. Unleavened bread is perhaps more typically associated with the Jewish community, however, as it is this bread that is eaten during Passover. The ingredients of the bread itself is a source of debate for some Jewish people as there are conflicting opinions as to whether dairy products are allowed in the bread. For some, the bread should not contain dairy so as to keep the bread ‘pareve’, although for others dairy is permitted as long as it is clearly distinguished.

Moroccan bread is usually a round bread used in most meals to soak up the watery food. Rghifa is a common Moroccan bread and is made up of several layers of other bread.

Traditional Chinese bread is made by steaming, or in some cases frying the wheat flour dough. This type of bread is called ‘Mantou’ and can be eaten in place of rice. While the consistency may be the same as the white sandwich bread of Western countries, in does not have the same crust as it is fried rather than baked. There are variations of mantou, such as ‘baozi’, which contain meat or vegetable fillings.

Aside from the countless varieties of breads that exist across the globe, there are equally countless ‘cheese breads’ too. These exist in countries as diverse as Brazil and Russia.