Breads and Other Cultures

The Hungarians have a saying that "bread is older than man".

More than 12,000 years ago, primitive people made flat breads by mixing flour 
and water and placing these "cakes" in the sun to bake.  Later, bread was 
baked on heated rocks or in the hot ashes of a fire.  

It was the Egyptians who are credited with using a "starter" of wild yeast 
from the air that was kept and mixed with other dough and baked to create a 
leavened product.  Legend has it that a slave in a royal Egyptian household 
forgot about some dough he had set aside.  When he returned, it had doubled in 
size.  Trying to hide the mistake, the dough was punched down furiously and 
baked.  The result was a lighter bread than anyone had ever tasted.  

The ancient Greeks had over 50 kinds of bread.  Public bakeries and ovens were 
built by the government for everyone's use and were popular places to visit 
the neighbors.

The Romans continued the idea of the public bakery.  They also required that 
every baker put an identification stamp on the loaves.  In the Roman times, 
grain was ground with millstones and the finest flour was sifted through silk 

The first sourdough in this country is said to have been brought here by 

Like people, breads have regional and national characteristics.  Because of 
the climate, soil and other conditions, different grains grow better in 
certain regions of the world.  The type of flour(s) readily available, the 
shape of the loaf, its seasonings and decoration often denote the bread's 
culture and country, and many times even its baker.

As in other lands, certain breads are more popular in certain regions of the 
U.S.  Just as the huge soft pretzels are sold at intersections in 
Philadelphia, you'll find more runzas in Nebraska, more sourdough in salty-air 
climates like San Francisco, and spoon bread and hush puppies in the South.  
Breads like Johnny Cakes (also called journey cakes) and corn dodgers were 
popular in our history as they could travel with us.

If you look at recipe books from other countries, you may have to adjust to 
metric measurements.  Also, flour is often weighed rather than scooped.  There 
are many articles discussing why American homemakers measure in cups.  
Probably the most convincing story dates back to the covered wagon era when 
scales were impractical.
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Youth may want to try weighing flour to see what this is like.
Generally the weight per cup is as follows:

                All purpose flour = 4.59 ounces
                Bread flour = 4.76 ounces
                Whole wheat flour = 4.51 ounces

Have them transfer amounts into metric, too.
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The United States is a diverse agricultural country.  Wheat, barley, corn, 
rice and many other grains are grown.  How much depends upon the weather, the 
market for grain products and on other factors such as crop rotation and 

The Unites States is also a diverse country in terms of its people.  Most of 
our ancestors were from other countries and may have passed down recipes, 
stories, and food preparation techniques.
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Activity:  Using a map of the U. S. plot where grains are grown and taste some 
breads that are popular in various regions.  
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If you travel to an area of our country or to another country, be sure to find 
a bakery and try something new to you.  In Switzerland or Germany a gilt 
pretzel hanging over a door designates the establishment as a bakery!  
Remember that as you go to new places, items with similar names might taste 
quite different. 

Yet, foods are remarkably similar.  A Russian blini, Norwegian lefse, a French 
crepe, and a Mexican tortilla are all like the American pancake.  Except maybe 
a different flour or preparation technique was used.

In Japan, rice and won tons are popular, but so is bread!  In fact, there may 
be more types of bread in Japan than in the U. S.  Often, it is about 1 1/2 
times the thickness of sliced bread in our country.

You probably won't find standard, rather spongy commercial white bread in most 
other countries.  However, many countries still value white flour as it 
produces a lighter product and is expensive to process.  It is interesting 
that simple basic dark loaves of bread may be considered peasant food in one 
part of the world, while elsewhere, they are found only on sophisticated 
gourmet tables. 

The language of the country or region has a lot to do with our philosophy 
about bread and many other subjects.  In American English, the words "bread" 
and "dough" are slang for money.  A "bread winner" is a person who earns money 
to keep their family going and a "bread basket" often refers to a geographical 
region that has a principle grain supply.  Have you ever thought about our 
expression, "the greatest thing since sliced bread?  

In Arabia, the words for "bread" and "life" are almost the same.  The Russian 
word for hospitality translates into "bread and salt".  In Russia, it is a 
custom and a sign of honor and respect to give a round, freshly baked loaf of 
bread to a guest along with a small wooden bowl of salt during their greeting. 

As you study the language and culture of other countries, you'll find other 
words, phrases and philosophies about bread.

In all countries, bread closely coincides with religion, seasonal and national 
events.  In the bible alone, there are approximately 250 references to bread.
Philosophy, religion, and legend also play a definite part in the history of 
bread making. Some breads are named for their region or because of their 
shape.  Calzone is said to mean "pants leg" probably because of its 
resemblance to the billowy trouser legs favored by Neopolitan men in the 18th 
and 19th centuries.

There are also other "famous" breads that have "histories" (some 
conflicting!).  Some notable examples are:  Anadama Bread, Sally Lunn, 
Panettone, Rum Babas, hoe cakes and hush puppies.  There are many, many 

Anadama Bread is said to have gotten its name when a Yankee whose wife Anna 
was so lazy and uncaring left him in the midst of preparing corn meal mush.  
That, with a pitcher of molasses was all she had for supper.  Angrily the 
husband tossed the mush and molasses together, swore at his wife, and baked it 
as bread.  (It was delicious!)

Sally Lunn is a very rich, sponge-like "cake" made in a deep pan.  Sally Lunn 
was said to sell cakes in Bath, England in the 18th century.  The term Sally 
Lunn may also be a corruption of "Soleil et Lunn", French for the "sun and 
moon".  There are many versions of the recipe all claiming authenticity.

Rum Babas were said to have gotten their name when the Polish King Stanislas 
Leszcynski was exiled to Lorraine.  He found the customary kouglhopf too dry 
for his liking and dipped the bread in rum.  So enchanted was he with his 
creation that the king named it after his favorite hero from, A Thousand and 
One Nights, the clever Ali Baba.  Later, his chef refined the sweet bread by 
using brioche dough.  Another source notes that in Russia, "baba" means granny 
and that these rum soaked cakes, made in tapering molds, resemble 
old-fashioned skirts.

Hush puppies were said to quiet dogs that went out on a fishing.  Colonial hoe 
cakes were made from a simple batter that was cooked over the open fire in a 
flat garden hoe and eaten with soup or vegetable stew.

At least three explanations exist for name and origin of panettone, an egg and 
butter rich cylindrical loaf that dates back to the 15th century.  Panett was 
thought to be a bread eaten daily, so this special bread was called panettone. 
Also, pan di tono "rich and fancy" bread was made, even by the poor at 
Christmas.  The third story centers around Tony, a baker, who was given "all 
the ingredients he needed for the ultimate loaf of bread" by a nobleman in 
exchange for the baker's daughter.  The bread was, therefore, called 
pan-di-Tonio or Tony's bread. 

There are people who believe that bread can prevent illness.  At one time it 
was thought to cure whooping cough.  Though not prevalent our country today, 
there are diseases due to the lack of B vitamins:  niacin, thiamin and 
riboflavin and the mineral iron.  This is one reason why all-purpose flour is 

Bread has been offered as a sacrifice to God (and in previous times to the 
gods.  Some religions believe that consecrated bread is God.  In the Middle 
East a hungry man will kiss a piece of bread given him as alms and an 
invocation is murmured before kneading the dough.  In a large number of 
countries, people consider bread to be so precious that it is a sin to waste 

There are also many superstitions about what happens when a crumb drops out of 
your mouth (death comes in a week) or when a loaf is cut at both ends (the 
devil will fly over your house)!

Stories of wars being won or lost and favors being granted by the barter of 
freshly-baked bread are common.  At one time, French soldiers demanded white 
bread to give them courage.  Greek women were said to have tucked a piece of 
bread into their husbands' clothing as he went off to war (or just out to the 

Bakers in local communities celebrated political victories or "saved a 
country" by introducing a specific shape or type of bread.   The 
crescent-shaped croissant originated in Budapest in 1686, when the Turks 
attempted to besiege the city at night through underground passages.  Bakers, 
who worked throughout the night, heard the invaders and raised the alarm in 
time to save their city.  Afterward, they fashioned pastries in the shape of 
the crescent on the Ottoman flag to celebrate the victory.  History records 
that Colomba di Pasqua (shaped like a dove and often now made for Easter) is 
said to have been created by bakers following the appearance of two 
"heaven-sent" doves that appeared after the defeat of Emperor Frederick 
Barbarossa in the 12th century.

Necessity was also the mother of invention.  Pumpernickle, a German baker was 
said to have developed a hearty loaf (out of rye) with very little wheat flour 
during a famine sometime around 1450.  Graham, popularized whole wheat flour 
to increase the nutritional value of bread.  Also, pizza may have gotten its 
start when a Naples cook had left over scraps of bread dough that was rolled 
up and topped with cheese, tomatoes and seasonings before baking.

Giving bread has always been a sign of friendship, particularly when it is for 
a sick or bereaved person.  Yeast and sourdough strains are very valuable and 
their "disappearance" are often the substance of which good mystery stories 
are written.

For most of the world, bread is the staff of life.  Today, bread is probably 
eaten in more places and in greater amounts than any other food.  Both 
leavened and unleavened breads are popular.  Many households consume at least 
a loaf of bread with each meal.  

In ancient Egypt workers were paid at the rate of 10 loaves of bread a day for 
their services.  In Tahiti, bread is delivered daily in the mailbox!  An 
Israeli baker may bring bread to the city in a bicycle basket or in a basket 
carried on top of the head.  In many countries, bread is not sold wrapped in 
plastic or in any other covering.

Certain types of bread become more popular or traditional at certain times of 
the year.  Much of this is due to religious or national holidays.  It is at 
this time, especially, that breads, cakes and pastries may be somewhat 
difficult to distinguish from each other because of the amount of sugar and fat 
and other ingredients used to make them special.

In Muslim countries, bread is baked for the feast of Id al-Fitr, which follows 
Ramadan, a month of fasting.

Challah (pronounced hall-ah) is a traditional Jewish egg and butter rich 
bread.  It means "dough offering" in Hebrew going back from the Temple period 
in 280 BC when a portion of dough from the Sabbath loaf was given to the 
temple priests.  The act of challah is to burn a small part of the dough as an 
offering before the remaining dough is baked.  Challah is served on Friday 
nights for the Sabbath dinner and on holidays.  The Friday night challah is 
generally braided, but Rosh Hashanah's challah is always round and smooth.  On 
Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to dip a piece of Challah in honey to symbolize 
the sweetness of the new year. This bread is broken (not sliced) at the 
beginning of the meal.  Each person breaks off a piece and passes the challah 
around the table.  Bakery challahs are often made of six strands of dough (2 
braids), but symbolic challah has seven strands for each day of the week.

Jewish people eat matzo during the festival of Passover.  The flat bread, made 
without yeast, recalls that their ancestors did not have time to wait for the 
dough to rise when they fled from pharaoh's army. Flat bread also has similar 
significance in many parts of the world today as it is a convenience food that 
can be prepared quickly and a "utensil" to scoop or hold other foods.

There are breads dedicated to saints.  San Antonio Abate is said to be the 
patron saint of bread bakers.  

St. Joseph's Day (March 19) is a feast held to give thanks for a special 
blessing the family received during the past year, whether it is someone's 
recovery from an illness, a visit from a long-lost relative or the birth of a 
child.  Family, friends and even complete strangers are welcome to participate 
in this feast and the bread that is shared is shaped into any number of 
fanciful designs--braids, lilies, crowns, crosses or carpenter's tools.  At 
home, the loaves are either individual size or slightly larger.

December 13 (the shortest day and longest, darkest night according to Sweden's 
old calendar) is widely celebrated in Sweden (Italy and other countries) to 
honor St. Lucy.  She was a 4th century Sicilian who became a Christian and 
devoted her life to serving the poor.  She was eventually tortured and killed 
in an unsuccessful attempt to get her to renounce her faith.  

On this day in Sweden, the oldest daughter in the family dresses in a white 
robe and wearing a lighted crown, treats her mother (parents) to breakfast in 
bed, serving hot coffee and saffron buns (Lussekatter) before dawn.  St. Lucia 
bread may be shaped in many traditional ways, including a crown, a cross, 
simple "S" figures (representing the eyes of St. Lucy) or a wreath.  The 
lighted crown and saffron color dough is also said to symbolize that the sun 
will soon return in this Scandinavian country.

January 6 (Epiphany) Mexican and Spanish families gather to feast on this 
fruit and nut-filled yeast bread and sip on coffee, hot chocolate or limeade.

Julekage (Yule cake) is a sweet yeast Christmas bread served in Norway, 
Denmark and Iceland.  It is very similar to the Italian panettone, but 
features cardamom (instead of panettone's lemon and vanilla) as its chief 
flavor.  It can be shaped in a free-form round, a rectangular sandwich type 
loaf, or as a braid or braided wreath.  Each baker has his or her favorite 
combination of fried fruits, nuts, sugar, icing and shaping method.  
Scandinavians tend to collect julekage recipes.

Scottish Black Bun is a moist loaf of bread that is served during the 
Christmas holidays and, especially for New Year's Eve celebrations.  A portion 
of the dough is mixed with fruits and nuts and the fruited dough is then 
wrapped in the rest of the dough.  During rising and baking, the bread is 
weighted to compress both doughs so that the finished loaf is uniform and 
dense in texture.

In Iceland, lace bread is cut out and fried in melted butter.  Some families 
gather just before Christmas to make them and each person creates it with his 
or her designs, something like the way pumpkins are cut for Halloween.

Fougasse usually forms the central part of the thirteen desserts (symbolizing 
the twelve disciples and Christ) that are served for the Christmas Eve meal in 
Provence.  The meal usually begins with fish and vegetable dishes followed by 
a salad.  Then come the thirteen desserts accompanied by a dessert wine.

Christopsomo is a Greek bread decorated with an early form of the Christian 
cross with ends that split and curl into circles.  Sometimes initials, birth 
dates and ages are added to celebrate all occasions.  It is a rich, round loaf 
scented with wine soaked figs, anise and orange.  It sometimes contains 
mastiihi, a dried pine resin available in the Middle East.  It is served with 
honey on Christmas eve.  Families leave pieces of bread on the table believing 
that Christ will come and eat them during the night.

Crescia is a savory egg bread very much a part of Easter celebrations in 
Italy.  The dough is speckled with coarsely ground black pepper and flavored 
with shards of aged Parmesan cheese. 

Scots still eat large round Beltane bannocks on May Day but no longer roll them 
down hillsides as did the early Celts to celebrate spring.

On Good Friday, fruited and frosted hot crossed buns are traditional in many 

Kulich from Russia is baked in tall, slender loaves.  When the dough rises 
above the top, it resembles the dome on Orthodox churches.  The icing on top 
represents the melting snow.    Sometimes the initials XV for "Christ is 
Risen" are shaped on top of the loaf with tiny strips or dough or colored 
sprinkles are added to the icing.  It is also traditional for a rose to be 
placed across the icing.  The bread is so delicate that bakers are said to put 
pillows around the pan so that it won't fall.  It is forbidden to walk through 
a Russian kitchen with heavy boots until the Kulich loaves are safely out of 
the oven. 
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Activity:  For young people who would like to make tall slender loaves out of 
coffee cans, molds, or specially made pans, a few tips might aid them more 
than the "pillows or boots" story.

1.  Fill the pan a little more than half full, rising just to the edge  
    of the rim--no more.  The oven spring during the first 8-10 minutes 
    or so of baking will raise it higher.

2.  Make sure the rack in the oven is low enough that the top of the 
    bread will not touch the top of the oven or the boiler.

3.  Grease the pans well before shaping and raising.

4.  Let bread cool on its side 5 minutes before removing from the pan.

5.  The bread is also cut on its side.  Save and replace the top
    of the loaf to keep the remaining part from drying out.
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Hutzelbrot is a Bavarian Christmas bread packed with dried fruits and nuts.  
It is sold in the traditional Advent markets held in town squares throughout 
southern Germany.

German stollen is formed in an oval and folded in half after being filled with 
almonds, candied cherries, currants, citron, chopped onions, lemon and orange 
peel and a cinnamon mixture that is sometimes laced with schnapps or brandy.  
Some say that the stollen shape represents the Christ child in swaddling 

Bara Brith is a Welsh speckled bread made for special occasions, such as 
Easter, Christmas and the Harvest festival.  It is one of the more than 20 
Welsh loaves differing in shape and kind.

Moravian love feast bread is traditionally made in the shape of sweet rolls 
and served after church services on Christmas eve.  This wonderfully sweet 
bread tastes of orange and spices.


Bread throughout the world is often used to celebrate the milestones in life.  
For example, in much of Europe it is a custom to place bread briefly in a new 
born's mouth to ensure the baby's health and happiness.  Bread tucked into a 
bride's shoe was said to help her and her husband have children.  

It is a part of Irish tradition on All Hallow's Eve to bake a wedding ring in 
the Barm Brack (literally "yeast bread") dough.  The finder is to become 
engaged before the year is out.  (Barm Brack is a spicy, round bread dotted 
with currants and was originally baked in a cast-iron pot suspended over a 
fire.  Barm brack is a close cousin to Bara Brith, but is sweeter and more 

The Greeks celebrate engagements, weddings, and births with a ring called 
Koulores.  Their wedding breads are as beautiful and as intricate as any 
wedding cake.  In the northern part of Greece, this bread is decorated with 
wildflowers.  On Crete, it is decorated with small figures and symbols made of 

Bread is served at weddings in southern Mexico to signify the joining of two 
people as a couple.  Sardinian wedding breads are delicate, resembling 
valentines more than a loaf of bread.

German Kuhelhopf molds are highly decorated and an elaborate mold was once an 
essential part of a woman's trousseau.  On the wedding day, the bride would be 
given the family kugelhopf recipe by her mother.  

In Ukraine, bread is an integral part of the wedding ceremonies.  Seven 
bridesmaids grind flour from wheat grown in seven different fields and the 
resulting flour is sifted together and made into bread dough.  The good luck 
loaf is ornamented with rosettes, doves and cupid hearts and formed by the 
bridesmaids themselves.

At funerals in Wales, a loaf of bread represents the sins of the dead person.  
Eating the bread frees the spirit and keeps it from haunting people.  

In early Egyptian times, a prayer for the deceased began with a wish of 1,000 
loaves of bread for his or her spirit.  Bread was placed in tombs to provide 
energy for the long journey to the afterlife.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art 
in New York City has a loaf of bread found in an Egyptian tomb thought to be 
over 3,500 years old!

Pan de los Muertos (literally "bread of the dead") is baked to commemorate the 
departed members of one's family on All Souls Day, November 2.  Mexican bakers 
fashion the bread into any number of shapes--a doll, cross, flower, or plain 
loaf--and may write the name of the deceased on the top with sugar icing or 

Vilipuri twist is from Karelia and named after the city the Russian people 
left when their Finish compatriots took them in.  The bread is based on an 
ancient calendar sign--a circle with a dot in the center, that represented the 
solstice.  To anchor the dot, the circle was divided into four quadrants 
representing the four seasons and holding the dot in place.

There are Italian breads with toppings that represented the four seasons, too.

                            NATIONAL SYMBOLS

The traditional bread of Ireland is soda bread which is quickly made from 
self-rising flour and buttermilk and cooked on top of the stove in a heavy 
cast-iron skillet.

Swedish limpa is a round loaf spiced with cumin, fennel and orange.

Pupusas are El Salvador's national dish.  They are white cornmeal griddle 
cakes, which are flavored with cheese and topped with chili-pickled cabbage 
and carrots.

Iceland has a type of branch bread, a crisp unleavened bread made without 
yeast and designed to keep.  It is rolled as thin as a flower petal.  It is 
good served with soups, cheeses, pates, and dips.  It is also said to be 
excellent to feed teething babies when the topping is made without salt.

Kaiser and brotchen rolls are German staples.  Kaiser rolls are large with a 
five sided pinwheel design on the top.  Brotchen are smaller and oval shaped 
and sprinkled with coarse salt and caraway seeds.

There are any number of British breads recognizable by their shape and design: 
bloomer, coburg, rumpy, cottage loafs; baps (rolls) devonshire splits (buns 
eaten with clotted cream and jam), scones, English muffins, and crumpets.

Focaccia changes style and character in each village throughout Italy.  The 
word focaccia is derived from "focus" and is similar to pizza though it has 
"poke marks" into it all over its surface.

In Austria, all braided breads are called striesel, in the Czech Rebublic and 
Slovakia, they are houska and in Yugoslavia, potica.
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Discussion:  Ask youth to tell something about the heritage of their family.  
If the youth don't know, ask them to talk with family members about this and 
to return with a recipe that is 1) handed down through at least one generation 
or 2) one that the family has enjoyed for a long time.

Invite people who's heritage is from another country or part of the U.S.  Ask 
them about their country and taste and their bread products.

Ask young people to bring a story, a recipe for a bread, or a practice from 
another land.

Encourage the youth to try recipes from other places and to learn to enjoy new 
tastes and experiences.
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This lesson was developed to describe some types of breads of which there are 
hundreds, if not thousands, in the world.  Even when there is no holiday, a 
special bread can make it a very festive day where ever you go!

        Bread:  The staff of life and the bond of friendship
          To break it is to share.  To make it is to care.
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This lesson plan was developed by Jan F. Scholl and 4-H Leaders and Members in 
Pennsylvania as a part of a grant from National 4-H Council and the 
Fleischmann's Yeast Company.  No part of this document may be reprinted in any 
form without previous permission.
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Contact for questions

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Updated 3/31/10