Throughout history, bread has been a vital
staple of life. Archaeological evidence suggests that pre-neolithic cultures baked a very simple
flat bread on hot stones and sourdough breads have been made for millennia. First century Romans observed the Celts of
Gall skimming the foam off of beer to create a lighter kind of bread. By the 13th century,
bread became highly regulated. As an early form of wage and price controls. Unscrupulous
bakers who cut corners to increase profits faced potentially heavy punishment. Such regulation
was common throughout Europe and early documents show that at least an attempt was made for
doing the same thing in 18th century colonial America. Over the coming weeks we’re going to focus
on 18th century breads. We’re going to begin our journey with one of the simplest forms,
the ship’s bisket. This bisket is known by many names. Most of
the time it was called just bisket, sometimes it was called hard bisket or brown bisket,
sea bisket and ship’s bread. Now many today might want to call it hard tack, but hard
tack is really a 19th century term that was popularized during the American civil war.
These 18th century biskets, they’re not like today’s buttery flaky version that we serve
along with sausage gravy for breakfast. These biskets were not made to be enjoyed, they
were made out of necessity. So ship’s captains faced a continual challenge of having enough
food on board to feed a large crew for a long journey. Food spoilage was really his greatest
concern. Fresh bread rapidly became moldy on long trips and so did stored flour which
would go rancid and bug ridden, so hard bisket is really born out of necessity. It’s a means
of food preservation. If it was prepared properly and stored properly it would last for a year
or more. In addition to preservation, the bisket form also helped in portability and
in dividing the rations when it came time. Soldiers and sailors typically got one pound
of bread a day and the biskets were usually made in about a four ounce form so when it
came time to distribute them, each sailor or soldier would get four biskets.
Biskets from London were considered to be the highest quality. The most resistant to
mold and to insects. They were really the standard by which all the other bisket makers
aspired to, but not all biskets were the same quality.
In a book called “The Adventures of Roderick Random” from 1748 we read this little section
here: “Every bisket like a piece of clockwork moved of it’s own internal impulse, occasioned
by myriads of insects that dwelled within it.” There are other accounts of sailors opening
up barrels marked sea biskets and only to find them filled to overflowing with roaches.
The sea biskets having long since disappeared. Biskets were not only used by sailors but
also soldiers and travelers. Travelers of just about any sort. Traders many times used
them to bargain with the Indians and they were also thought to have medicinal properties.
They used them in treating edema and indigestion and gout.
Just as biskets had different names and different uses, they were also made in different ways.
The term bisket has its origins in the word twice baked. Many 18th century recipes call
for bread rolls to be baked, sliced into slices and then baked again. These are also known
as rusks. Ben Franklin in his memoir also called this type of bisket the true original
bisket, much superior to the unleavened variety, but it’s this unleavened variety that we’re
going to do today. We’ve preheated our oven and allowed it to
cool to a medium low heat. If you’re doing this in a home oven, about 300-350 degrees.
Our ingredients for these biskets are very simple. We’ve got some whole wheat flour.
You’re definitely going to need some salt, and then we need enough water to make a very
stiff dough. So let’s get these mixed up. I’m going to
probably work with about two pounds of flour here, enough to make eight 4 ounce biskets.
We’re going to just guess our amount of salt and get that mixed in, and now let’s pour
in that water until we get a good stiff dough. I’ve got this larger loaf kneaded here, now
it’s time to break this up into the individual approximately four ounce portions for each
bisket and then I’ll form those up individually. Each one of these I’m going to knead just
a little bit more and get it into its patty or final bisket shape. These biskets are ready
to go on the baking tray here. We’re going to arrange them, they’re not going to rise
so we can put them right next to each other. You want to make sure they’re the final proper
thickness, about a half an inch, maybe a little thinner, and we need to prick them so that
they don’t puff up too much. Okay, these are ready for the oven. We’re
going to put these in and they’re going to bake for 2-3 hours at that low temperature.
You want to watch them to make sure they don’t burn. It’s been 3 hours. These should have baked
long enough. Many times in the time period, these would be baked and then pulled out.
They’d let them cool and then they’d bake them again the next day, probably at a lower
temperature to drive out any excess moisture and for very long term storage, they might
bake these three or four times. Let’s take a look. Hard biskets could be eaten just as they are,
but it was never thought of as an enjoyable event. Many times they were soaked in wine,
brandy, or sac to soften them up a little. Cooks would also take the biskets and they
would grind them up or powder them by putting them in a bag and beating them with a hammer
then take the crumbs left over and use them like flour. This crunched up bisket
tastes a lot like raisin bran without the raisins. While this isn’t the most flavorful recipe
that we’ve done so far, it’s certainly a very significant food source for people in the
18th century. All the things you’ve seen here today, all
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