Our Daily Bread

Predrag Matvejević

Istros Books, £10.99

Glaswegians of a certain age all know that “ye cannae fling pieces oot a 20-storey flat”. The Jeely Piece Song by Adam McNaughtan speaks to bread’s central role in our lives. For if ye cannae fling pieces from your residence, then your residence is not fit for purpose. Children – indeed everyone – must have their bread and butter (or cheese or jeely).

The “skyscraper wean” in the song stops going out to play in the new Castlemilk of the 1960s because he is “wasting away”, as his pieces variously go into orbit and importune low-flying aircraft. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the Castlemilk high-rises, some of which were pulled down as early as 1993, were shorter-lived than the “slum” tenements they’d replaced, which had at least permitted the transfer of bread from maw to weans by the then established means.

This centrality of bread is the theme of Our Daily Bread: A Meditation on the Cultural and Symbolic Significance of Bread Throughout History by the Croatian writer Predrag Matvejević. For Matvejević, bread, which “is older than writing”, defines modern humankind, separating us from prehistory: “The journey from raw to cooked grain was a long one, and the man who made bread was different from his ancestors.”

Bread has been at the heart of human civilisation for more than 8,000 years. It was “part of everyday life” in Ancient Egypt. Archaeological findings show that an architect named Kha placed more than 50 small loaves next to the mummy of his wife Merit. “She is wearing a lapis lazuli necklace,” writes Matvejević. “Everything she could wish for in the afterlife is beside her; first and foremost, a supply of bread.”

Bread plays an important role in most of the great world religions and caused a schism in the Christian church, with Western Christians favouring the unleavened host, while Christian dignitaries in the East saw leaven as a sign of the saviour’s human destiny. The schism divided the Balkans, writes Matvejević, with both sides descending into name-calling.

The Eastern church “called their Catholic brethren azymites, prompting the latter to call them prozymites or even fermentarii, from the Latin for those who ferment. In Rome, the leavened bread made by the Byzantines was disdainfully called panis cavernosus (“cavernous bread”) – ie bread riddled with holes.”

The Eucharist was again the source of division during the Reformation. Protestants, especially Lutherans, rejected “transubstantiation”, replacing it with “consubstantiation”. This dispute was to trundle on for centuries: “Instead of embodying Christian unity, the Eucharist became the cause of its rupture.”

Matvejević traces other world events – and myths – back to bread. The Argonauts were not that interested in the golden fleece; the rich granaries of Colchis and the Crimea were their main target.

The year before the French Revolution, there was a terrible harvest. Bakers were accused of adulterating wheat and speculating on the price of bread. The people of France rose up and demanded pain d’égalité – the “bread of equality”. Their king failed to provide succour and was guillotined, and with him his queen, who, on learning that the people had no bread, is famously alleged to have said: “Let them eat cake.”

It is quite astonishing to learn how class-ridden this basic fare has always been. A whole chapter is devoted to “seven crusts”, an expression used for “hard bread” in many Mediterranean dialects. “Legend has it that it was coined by sailors at sea for long periods of time, who almost broke their teeth trying to eat the hard, stale bread,” writes Matvejević.

In 15th-century Ragusa (Dubrovnik), bread with seven crusts was reserved for prison inmates. The better off ate luk, which were small, round, arc-shaped loaves. In Central Europe, particularly in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the troops ate different bread from the squadron leaders, who ate different bread from the officers.

Matvejević, who taught Slavic literature at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Sapienza University of Rome and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, died in 2017. Our Daily Bread was originally published as Kruh naš in 2009, but this first English translation, which was supported by English PEN, could hardly have landed at a better time.

As anyone who has recently tried to buy bread flour or order a bread-making machine can attest, we all prize bread more since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Indeed, our reaction to the pandemic – stockpiling the ingredients and tools required to create it – seems to confirm Matvejević’s contention that “food security … has always been an issue associated with bread”.

But even before the pandemic, bread had assumed a new – or perhaps more correctly rejuvenated – place in our lives. After decades of munching indifferent shop-bought bread, I purloined a tub of sourdough starter off a friend in October 2019 and have never looked back. Judging by the number of bread-making books and YouTube how-to videos out there, I am not alone.

Why should it be so? In an increasingly uncertain world, we are perhaps searching for a sense of belonging. “The country in which we are born and raised gives us a taste for its bread,” writes Matvejević. “To lose that taste is to lose part of your country and of yourself.”

In Scotland, we have moved on from the plain or pan “breid” in The Jeely Piece Song. There’s a class aspect to that too – the west end of Glasgow now pullulates with artisan bakeries; Easterhouse not so much – though happily initiatives such as High Rise Bakers, which bakes bread and runs bread-making workshops from one of the last tower blocks in the Gorbals, turns that on its head.

Whatever the reason, we are thinking more about bread. Our Daily Bread, here in a fluid translation by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić, helps us both to put this essential fare in context and to enjoy it more. For alongside what is essentially a history of the world in bread sit mouth-watering descriptions of a foodstuff “which engages all our senses”.

Above all, this is a humane book. In the final chapter, Matvejević reveals his reason for writing it: his own hunger during the Second World War and his father’s internment. He penned Our Daily Bread after the global financial crisis. Its final warning has only become more resonant in the intervening decade: “The human race began without bread and it could well end without it.”