By Mark Tully
Sorry, it's not what it sounds like. It's about food -- bread to be specific. Admit it, many is the time you've found yourself sitting around camp with not much to do except chant "any questions?" at the public as they wander past. Well, here is a quick and easy bread recipe that will not only give you something to do, it will provide you with a great conversation starter! This is going to be the easiest loaf of bread you've ever baked. It's going to taste good. And it's going to make people stop to ask what you are up to. You only need three basic ingredients and a small (eight-inch) Dutch oven. I'm not going to attempt documenting this recipe, but the basic principal dates back centuries and the ingredients themselves are all perfectly authentic and easy enough to come by. The only questionable part is that you will need to have self-rising flour (that just means it already has baking soda in it). Here it is:
INSTANT CAMP BREAD
12 Ounces of beer, any variety except non-alcohol (keep the bottle or can hidden)
2 Tablespoons of something really sweet (sugar, honey, fruit juice concentrate, etc.)
3 Cups of self-rising flour
Mix the ingredients together, pour the batter into a lightly greased, pre-heated eight-inch Dutch oven. Heap it with coals -- keep an eye on them and replace or replenish the coals as necessary (you want it to bake at about 400 degrees). Soon, the air will be filled with the scent of fresh-baked bread, people will stop by to ask what you're baking, and after 50 minutes your bread will be done to perfection. The recipe makes one loaf of bread suitable for 2-3 people. If you plan to use a larger Dutch oven and/or want more servings, adjust the ingredients proportionately. This bread tastes great fresh from the oven or cold. It will be a rather dense bread with a texture more like muffins or corn bread -- which is actually more period-correct (see below).
I highly recommend using an Irish stout (like Guinness or Murphy's) for the beer and clover honey as your sweetener -- MMm-mmmm.
Now then, I know some of you are going to pipe up and ask if this is an appropriate recipe for use in camp. Well, it sure beats just sitting there doing nothing, and as I hinted earlier, there is indeed some historical precedent for this type of bread.
Bread is considered to be the oldest prepared food, and beer dates back as far as 4000 B.C.(1) The Celts are rumored to be the first to add beer to their dough for an airier, more digestible loaf, and their practice is said to date from the Iron Age. The first known bread recipe including beer as an ingredient dates from the 17th century and calls for ale to be added to French bread -- a practice still common today in making batards. All forms of soft bread need to have a leavening agent to start the fermentation process. Yeast spores are literally everywhere, and simply placing the dough in a warm place for a time will cause a certain degree of fermentation. To accelerate and augment the process, yeast can be also added directly to the dough mixture. Before there was such a thing as packaged yeast, breweries provided Barm to the local populace as a leavening agent.(2) The barm was created by boiling hops and mixing it with some type of sugar to activate the fermentation process (which is the basic process used for making beer even today). In effect, beer was THE main source for active yeast prior to the 19th century, and is possibly the most authentic leavening agent.(3)
So, the only really questionable ingredient in this recipe is the self-rising flour. Self-rising simply means that the flour already has baking powder mixed with it. In the period, potash, a.k.a. pearlash (a kind of salt made from refined wood ash) was used to aid the rising process. Baking soda is the modern equivalent of potash, and baking powder is essentially baking soda with compound starches added as a souring agent. In other words, baking powder provides the same function as the wood-ash by-products but is easier to come by today. Baking powder was discovered in the late 1700s, but didn't come into widespread use until around the 1830s.(4) Salt-rising breads (using potash or baking soda as its primary leavening agent) typically have longer baking times -- as does our instant camp bread. These breads have a denser texture than modern, store-bought varieties, so even though self-rising flour is not in itself totally correct, it's close and will give you a more authentic, dense-textured loaf.
1) Panati, Charles, The Book of Beginnings, Origins of Everything Under, and Including, the Sun, (Boston, Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1984, ISBN0-395-36099-4), p 116.
2) Jones, Judith and Evan, The Book of Bread, (New York, Harper & Row, 1982, ISBN 0-06-181434-2), p 23
3) Ibid. pp 25-26.