The Staff of Life
With his nephews as willing companions and eager listeners, Uncle Paul continued his walks and talks in the pleasant summer afternoons.
"Bread is made of flour," he began, "and flour is wheat reduced to powder under the millstone. What an interesting mechanism that is, the flour-mill, driven by water, by the wind, sometimes by steam! What wearisome effort, what waste of time, if we had not this invention and were forced to do its work of grinding by sheer strength of arm!
"I must tell you that in ancient times, for want of knowing how to grind wheat, people had to content themselves with crushing it between two stones after parching it a little over the fire. The coarse meal thus obtained was cooked in water to a sort of porridge and eaten with no further preparation. Bread was unknown.
"Later the plan was hit upon of kneading the meal with water and of cooking the dough between two hot stones. Thus was obtained a crude sort of biscuit, about as thick as your finger, stodgy and hard, and mixed with charcoal and ashes. It was preferable to the porridge, the insipid paste, of the earlier time, but far inferior to the poorest bread of today. To make a long story short, by trial after trial success was at last attained in the making of bread like ours. It became necessary then, without possessing anything to compare with our mills, to grind wheat in large quantities.
"Flour was obtained by triturating the wheat in a hollowed stone with a pestle. This latter was sometimes light enough to be operated directly by hand; sometimes, to produce quicker results, it was so large and heavy that it had to be turned in its stone mortar with the help of a long bar. Such was the first mill. With appliances of this sort I leave you to imagine how long a time was required for the production of a single handful of flour. For bread enough to feed one person at one meal, wretched slaves were kept toiling from morning till night and from night till morning in turning the pestle."
"What cruel masters they must have had!" exclaimed Emile.
"Yes, the slaves were harnessed to the bar like beasts of burden; and when, weakened with fatigue, they did not go fast enough, a rawhide was applied to their bare shoulders. These unfortunate millers were poor wretches taken in war and afterward sold in the market with the same indifference with which a drover sells his cattle. Such, then, were the hardships that led the way to the modern mill which today, with a few turns of its water-wheel, and to the cheerful accompaniment of its tick-tack, can make flour enough for a whole family.
"But let us leave the mill and turn our attention to the following interesting experiment. Take a handful of flour and with a little water make it into dough. This done, knead the dough with your fingers over a large plate while an assistant moistens continually with water from a pitcher. Keep the dough well in hand and continue kneading it, flattening it out and gathering it together again, turning it over and over under the fine stream of water poured from above.
"Examine carefully the water that passes over the dough and washes it. It falls into the plate as white as milk, showing that it carries with it something from the flour. This something will finally settle at the bottom of the liquid, and we shall find it to be a substance not unlike the starch used for starching linen. In fact, it is starch, or fecula, as chemists call it—neither more nor less. The starch used in the laundry is obtained in considerable quantities by similar means: dough is washed and the whitened water, left undisturbed, deposits a layer of starch which has only to be gathered together and dried.
"So much, then, is made clear: flour contains starch, but it contains something else also. There is a limit beyond which the washed dough yields no more starch; it is useless to knead it, the water falls colorless into the plate. What remains in one's hands after this prolonged washing is a soft, gluey substance, having something of the elastic quality of rubber. Grayish in color, it has a rather pronounced odor. When dried in the sun, it becomes hard and translucent like horn. It is called gluten from its gluelike character, its viscosity.
"Now this substance, so unattractive in appearance, all soft and sticky and getting clogged between the fingers—this gluten, in short—do you know what it is? Don't try to dispute me, for what I am going to tell you is the exact truth. In its composition gluten does not differ from flesh. It is vegetable flesh, capable of becoming animal flesh by the simple process of digestion, without any material loss or gain. Therefore it is gluten, first and foremost, that gives to bread its great nutritive value.
"Of all the cereals wheat contains the most gluten, with rye holding second place. Maize and rice, as well as chestnuts and potatoes, are wholly lacking in this ingredient; and for that reason flour made from them, rich though it be in starch, is not at all the kind of flour for bread. This will explain to you the superiority of wheat over all other farinaceous grains.
"Wheat, the only cereal that can give us white bread, that superior bread which nevertheless is not always to your taste unless spread with a little butter, does not grow in all countries. Open your atlas and run over with your finger the countries bordering on the Mediterranean; your travels will embrace the principal regions where wheat flourishes. Farther north it is too cold for the successful culture of the precious cereal; farther south it is too warm.
"But that is not all. In the privileged regions not every district is adapted to this incomparable crop: wheat needs the mild temperature and fertile soil of the plains, not the harsh climate and dry slopes of the mountains. Let us consider France in particular. Its plains produce excellent wheat, but not enough to feed the entire population; therefore in the hilly and cooler regions, where this cereal cannot be raised, recourse is had in the first place to rye, which yields a bread that is compact, brown, and heavy, but on the whole preferable to any other except, of course, wheat. This rye bread is the customary food of the country in the greater number of our departments.
"The raising of rye becomes in its turn impossible in regions too cold and too sterile. There then remains, as a last resort, barley, the hardiest of cereals, which is found in the mountains until we reach the neighborhood of perpetual snow, and can be raised even in the frigid climate of the extreme North.
"You ought to taste the miserable bread made from barley in order to find our bread good—or, I might better say, in order to find it an exquisite dainty even without butter or jam. Barley bread is full of long bristles that stick in the throat; it contains more bran than flour; it is bitter, stodgy, and of a disagreeable odor. Oh, what sorry stuff! And yet many have to be content with it, and are only glad if they can get enough of it.
"In the greater part of the world wheat, widely distributed by commerce, furnishes bread only for the tables of the rich. The rest of the population knows nothing, as a rule, of this article of food, has never so much as seen it, and at most has only heard of it as a rare curiosity. In place of bread the people eat here one thing, there another, according to the country. Asia has rice, Africa millet, America maize. In India and China the people have hardly anything to eat but rice boiled in water with a little salt. Half the entire world has practically the same diet.
"The plant that produces rice has a stalk resembling that of wheat, but instead of ending in an upright ear it bears a cluster of feeble and pendent branches, all loaded with seeds. The leaves are narrow and ribbon-shaped, rough to the touch. This plant is aquatic. In order to flourish, it must send down its roots into the submerged mud and spread its foliage, excepting the tip, in the flood. Marshy shallows, inundated a part of the year, are adapted to its cultivation."
"But what do they do where there are no such marshes?" asked Louis.
"When such marshes are lacking, the ingenious Chinaman floods the lowlands with water from some near-by stream until the ground is all soft and muddy. He then draws off the water through a series of little canals, and works the mud with a light plow drawn by a buffalo, a kind of ox with a long beard hanging from its chin and a mane waving on its back.
"The seed once sown in the furrows and the young plants started, the water from the stream is again made to flood the fields, where it remains until harvest time. Then for the second time it is drawn off, and the reaper, sickle in hand and with the black mud up to his knees, cuts down the rice-laden tops of the stalks.
"Maize, or Indian corn, is the staple food of South America, as rice is that of Asia. Many call it Turkish wheat, a name doubly inappropriate, for in the first place this grain is not indigenous to Turkey, but to America, and in the second place it has nothing in common with the wheat from which bread is made. From America its cultivation has spread to our part of the globe.
"The ear of maize is very large and is composed of full, rounded kernels, yellow and shiny, closely packed in regular rows. Like rice, maize furnishes a fine flour of pleasing appearance but lacking in one essential: it contains no gluten. Hence the utter impossibility of using either rice or maize for making bread, despite the good appearance of the flour made from them.
"Nevertheless maize is a very wholesome article of food, and one of great value in the country, where the appetite is sharpened by open air and hard work. Only it is not in the form of bread that it best yields its nourishment, but rather in that of porridge, or boiled meal and water."