Fort Vancouver
Historic Furnishings Report: Bakery
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Until about the middle of the nineteenth century, and for long thereafter in many localities, the art of baking in Europe and in the European colonies had remained essentially unchanged since Roman times. Ovens of clay, stone, or brick were heated by burning wood in the baking chamber. The ashes were then raked out and the dough put in to bake. The single entrance to the oven was closed by a large stone or by a metal door.

Some of the Roman ovens had chimneys to improve the draft and carry off steam, but centuries were to pass before such flues became generally used. As time went by other improvements, such as dampers, were introduced; and such fuels as coal and peat were employed, sometimes to heat the baking chamber from below or from one side. But in England and in Canada, the two regions which must have provided the pattern for the Fort Vancouver bakery, the vast majority of ovens during the early 1840's continued to be heated by a fire in the baking chamber itself. [1]

A perusal of eighteenth and nineteenth century treatises on baking quickly convinces one that there were nearly as many formulas and methods for making bread as there were bakers. This condition was to be expected in an industry which, as one historian has noted, then "remained a craft and was still far from being a science." [2]

The diversity began with one of the very first steps in baking, the preparation of the yeast mixture or brew. Nearly every baker, noted another student of the art, "had secret recipes which he thought superior to those of other bakers." [3] During each succeeding step in the process the same individualism was evident, though in certain operations, such as the actual baking, there was less latitude than in others.

Indeed, in a trade beset by so many variables — the quality of the flour, weather conditions, water content of the fuel, strength of the yeast, and many others — a large degree of flexibility was a necessity. "In the light of these difficulties," states William G. Panschar, "it is a tribute to the skill and patience of the professional baker that he was able to bake as well as he did. The craft tradition remained strong because of these difficulties which only ability and skill could handle. One became a baker literally by growing up in the trade . . . . What, therefore may seem to have been daily trial and error was really the result of constant watchfulness on the part of an experienced craftsman." [4]

One other fact also becomes clear after examining descriptions of the bread-making process during the early 1800's. No quantitative measurements, whether for flour, water, salt, or fuel, have much relevancy unless the size of the oven for which these items were being prepared is also known. There would, for instance, have been no point in preparing all at once the final dough from an entire English sack of flour (280 lbs.) if the oven could bake only a few loaves at a time, since the dough would remain usable only for a certain period.

Although oven design will be considered in a later chapter of this report, it is well to bear in mind at this point that the ordinary commercial baker's oven in England during the period with which we are concerned was a vaulted chamber about 10 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 30 inches high at the top of the arch. [5] The standard United States Army wood-burning brick bake oven in 1864 was 12 feet long, 9 feet 4 inches wide, and 23 inches high. [6] In view of the foundation dimensions and the building practices of the time, each of the two baking chambers at Fort Vancouver probably was between 10-1/2 and 11-1/2 feet long and from 8-1/2 to 9-1/2 feet wide. There seems to be no information available as to the height, but 30 inches probably would be a reasonable estimate. It will be observed that the differences in cubic space between these three oven types were not great. Therefore bread recipes and fuel requirements for one probably could be applied without too much alteration to either of the others.

Heating the oven

The time for firing the oven each day, and the number of times it was fired during each 24 hours, varied according to the routine of the particular bakery. The type and quantity of the product were the primary determining factors, though as has been seen different bakers approached even similar problems in different ways. Often the oven was fired in the evening of the day before the products were to be baked. Another time much favored was about two o'clock in the morning. For English country bakeries five a. m. seems to have been the usual hour. [7]

Often a single firing would suffice for the day's output. Since the oven held a good degree of heat for several hours, a succession of products could be baked without refiring. First came the bread, then rolls and coffee cakes, and last sponge cakes, each requiring a diminishing amount of heat. If two batches of bread were to be baked, however, even in immediate succession, the oven had to be reheated. In large bakeries, and evidently in those producing biscuit and certain other products, the oven was often kept constantly hot during the baking process, which might last through the entire 24 hours. In such cases frequent refirings were necessary. [8]

The firing of a wood-heated furnace was an arduous and frequently unpleasant task. In Britain the fuel most often used was faggots — tied bundles of twigs and branches. They were bulky and unwieldy, and since they went into the oven whole, it was an "awful struggle" to push them through the small oven door (see Figure 2). [9]

loading wood faggots into bake oven
Figure 2. Loading wood faggots into an English country bake oven in accordance with a practice followed at least since Roman times. As late as 1957 a few of the old faggot ovens were still in use. (From Ronald Sheppard and Edward Newton, The Story of Bread [London, 1957], 110.)

Whether this type of fuel was used at Fort Vancouver is not known. Probably it was not, since pine, spruce, or fir wood seems to have been preferred in Canada and the United States. American army specifications called for something called "Baker's Pine," but it was admitted that "Spruce will answer." This wood was split into fine sticks which usually were four feet long. [10]

Military bakers, in the United States at least, evidently were expected to prepare their own wood, since axes, hatchets, and saws were specified items of equipment for every bakery. [11] The Fort Vancouver bakery inventories included axes and saws, so the same situation probably prevailed on the Columbia under the Hudson's Bay Company.

The quantities of wood required were not insignificant. According to United States Army estimates, it took 3/16 of a cord (24 cubic feet of wood) to heat a cold single oven to bread-baking temperature (about 550° to 580°). Once the oven was heated, however, it could be brought back to baking temperature 24 hours later for only about 3/32 of a cord (12 cubic feet). In such case, if two batches were baked one right after the other, about 16 cubic feet would be required for both. But if 12 hours separated the batches, "almost" 3/32 cord would be required for each heating. If the ovens were heated more than twice a day, about 1/32 of a cord would be needed for each heating. [12]

Regardless of whether faggots or sticks were used, it was customary to dry the fuel before lighting it. With faggots, this was ordinarily accomplished by placing several of them in the warm oven overnight or at least for a number of hours. [13] No record has yet been found of wood sticks being treated in this manner, but the arch under the oven, when there was one, was recommended by military manuals as "a convenient space for drying wood." [14]

It took between an hour and nearly two hours to bring the oven to cooking heat. [15] Although the temperatures for various types of breads were sometimes given in degrees in baking manuals, practically no bakers of the time used thermometers. Instead, the baker looked inside the oven. If there was soot on the bricks he knew the temperature was too low. If the bricks glowed and had a white appearance, he knew it was "just right." When a more precise test was needed, many bakers threw a few pinches of flour on the oven hearth. If, after a few seconds, the flour turned a light brown or looked "slightly scorched," the temperature was correct. [16]

There is a certain amount of evidence concerning the practices of the Hudson's Bay Company's bakers on the Columbia in this respect. It is said that Alexander Jondrau, the baker at Fort Colvile, tested his oven by thrusting in a piece of paper. If it turned brown he would put in his bread. [17]

However the oven was tested, when the right temperature had been reached, the ashes were drawn to the front by a long rake or rooker and placed in buckets for disposal outdoors. Then a hoe, much like a garden hoe in shape, was employed to scrape out such ashes and dust as had escaped the rooker. Next a swab, sometimes called a "scuffle," was dampened in a pail of water and "swung round and round" the oven until the bottom or hearth was clean. [18]

The swabbing reduced the oven temperature to about the correct heat for baking, but sometimes it was considered still too hot. The French inhabitants of Upper Canada often tested the temperature at this point by holding one of their hands inside the oven door. Baking could begin when they could keep the hand in until they could count to twenty. [19]

The entire business of firing the oven was a messy operation. Generally a good deal of smoke escaped into the bakery, and the men had to work in a "choking, eye-smarting" atmosphere. The ashes were hot and dusty. "Sometimes," recalled one old English baker, "the whirling 'scuffle' would fetch out a hot coal which would go down inside the man's shirt. Then there were fireworks and language." [20]

Most bakers, when the oven was clean, began to set in the dough to be baked almost at once. [21] But other bakers preferred to shut the door and damper and let the heat spread throughout the oven for about two hours. Not until this "equalization period" was ended did they consider the oven ready for baking. As has been stated, there were many variations in the baking process. [22]

Making bread

To describe the bread-making process as it was conducted during the early nineteenth century is not simple. The many different types of bread which could be produced and the individualistic practices of the bakers have resulted in a bewildering legacy of recipes and descriptions from which it is difficult to sift the common elements. Further, most of the discussions are so technical, so filled with data on the chemical and physical properties of flour, yeast, and other ingredients, that the average reader tends to lose the main process to say nothing of his interest.

Fortunately, for the present purposes it is not necessary to go into the variations and technical details. All that is required is to describe a typical baking routine in sufficient detail to give a picture of the equipment employed and how it was used.

Yet even this seemingly easy task is approached with hesitation. When one formula for the process known as "setting the sponge" (to be explained below) calls for all the flour to be baked to be poured at once into the mixing trough with only liquid being added during the later stages while another recipe directs the baker to put only one-third of the flour in at the start and the remaining two-thirds some three hours later, it is difficult to find a common ground. The time allowed for "setting the sponge" could be as short as four hours or as long as twelve hours. [23] With the dangers of generalization well in mind, therefore, the following picture of the working day in an "average" English country bakery is presented for what it is worth.

Stock yeast. Before the baking process could begin, the baker had to have on hand a basic ingredient known as "stock yeast." In the days before compressed yeast, each baker had to make his own yeast, for which he usually had a personal secret recipe. The starter or "fermentation" for stock yeast was generally made from hops, flour, and malt beaten into a stiff batter and allowed to sit covered for 24 hours. This fermentation was then used as the key ingredient in "stock yeast," also generally made from hop water, flour, and malt allowed to stand for 24 hours.

Once a stock yeast was made, a portion was saved out each day and used for starting the next day's batch in place of the fermentation. Some bakers threw out their old stock yeast entirely once a month, thoroughly cleaned all the utensils used in making it, and began afresh with a new fermentation. Other bakers continued to renew from the old stock yeast for as long as a year. [24]

Ferment yeast. The stock yeast, in turn, was the basic ingredient in what was termed the "ferment yeast." This article was prepared by boiling from five to eight pounds of potatoes for each sack of flour to be baked. When soft the potatoes were either peeled or the skins were "strained out" by forcing the mass through a cullender or sieve. The potatoes were then mashed in the "seasoning tub." While the potatoes were still very hot from about 3/4 pail to six gallons of water, two or three pounds of flour, and from one quart to several quarts of stock yeast were added. The whole was well stirred with the hands into a smooth, thin paste and then left to rest for between four and twelve hours before use depending on the formula favored by the baker. [25]

Setting the sponge. Once the ferment yeast was ready for use the actual bread-making process could begin. Meanwhile the baker had heated a large quantity of water, generally by placing a cauldron or kettle in the oven. He also had emptied the amount of flour to be used into one end of a wooden kneading trough and had shoveled it through a brass wire sieve into the other end. In the process he usually became well powdered with flour dust. [26]

When all was ready, a portion of the flour to be used in baking, from one-third to nearly the entire amount depending on the formula used, was penned up in one end of the trough by a removable partition rather like a sluice gate. Then the ferment yeast, to the extent of up to about seven gallons for each sack of flour to be employed in the final product, was diluted with about two gallons of warm water (70° to 100°, with 84° Fahrenheit preferred) and strained through a "seasoning sieve" into a hole made in the penned up flour. In very hot weather cool water had to be used, since temperature was critical in the dough-making process.

The flour and diluted stock yeast were next thoroughly mixed to form a moderately stiff dough called the "sponge." This process was done by hand and required strength. Often the baker climbed into the trough for the task, and in certain countries the feet were employed. When thoroughly mixed, the dough was covered with sacks or flannel and left to stand and ferment for about three hours. This entire process was known as "setting the sponge."

After the "sponge" had finished rising and started to fall it was, according to some formulas, ready for making dough. Other recipes called for the stirring in of more warm water or "liquor" (water mixed with certain ingredients) at this time and letting the "sponge" rise one or more additional times, adding more "liqour" with each stirring. Depending upon the amount of water added for each of these "sponges" in relation to the whole quantity used in the dough, they were called "quarter," "half," or "whole" sponges. [27]

Making dough. When the baker decided the fermentation process had proceeded far enough — failure to stop it after the second or third dropping of the sponge resulted in sour bread — he took the step known as "breaking the sponge," that is he added about six gallons of water in which from 2-1/2 to 3-3/4 pounds of salt had been dissolved. After the water and sponge were well mixed he poured in the remaining portion of the sack of flour.

Then followed another long period of kneading to blend together the fermented and unfermented particles. When the baker could strike the dough with his hand or thrust his hand into the dough and then pull it away without any dough adhering to it, he knew that the kneading had been sufficient.

The dough was then allowed to rest for several hours, sometimes being given a second kneading so that the carbon dioxide gas caused by fermentation would be well distributed throughout the entire mass. During this period the oven was heated and made ready for baking.

Scaling off. When the dough was ready, the baker took it out of the trough with his arms and put it on top of the lid, or on the lid of another trough, or on a table. The dough was then cut with a dough cutter into pieces which were weighed or "scaled off." In England 4 lbs. 15 oz. was allotted for each quartern loaf. After the weight was adjusted, each piece was "worked up" and placed in order on a table until all had been weighed. Usually from 80 to 82-1/2 quartern loaves could be made from one 280 lb. sack of flour. Sometimes the bread was allowed to rest and rise again at this point.

Then each piece of dough was "moulded" — a "peculiar" operation learned only by practice. The mass of bread intended for each loaf was separated into two equal portions. These were then kneaded either long or round, and one was placed in a hollow made in the other, the union being completed "by a turn of the knuckles on the centre of the upper piece." [28] The moulding was performed in the order in which the loaves had been scaled off.

Setting the batch. After each loaf was moulded it was passed to a man stationed at the oven door. He placed it on a long-handled shovel called a quartern peel and introduced it into the hot oven, where by a "dextrous twist" it was deposited on the tile or brick floor. In New England during the 18th century meal was sprinkled on the peel before the loaves were placed on it, but if this practice was followed in England and Canada the present writer has not yet seen mention of the fact. [29] The baker and his assistant continued moulding and delivering until the entire batch was set in, generally in close-packed rows. The oven door was then closed, and the baking began.

The heat of the oven was an important factor in the outcome of the baking process. If the oven was too hot the bread would be scorched on the outside and underbaked in the center.

After from one to three hours, depending on the type of bread and the process used, the bread would be done. The "drawing peel" was inserted under a part of the batch, which was "obliquely elevated," separating three or four loaves from their adhesion to the others. These were withdrawn and placed on a table or shelves. The remainder were then separated and removed in the same manner. It was the practice of some bakers to place the freshly baked loaves with their bottoms upward to prevent them from splitting. They were covered with flannel until wanted for delivery or sale. [30]

Additional tasks. After the loaves were safely set on the shelves the baker's work was not ended. Preparations for the evening's or the next day's routine (depending on the formula followed) had to be made. Potatoes for the next ferment yeast were placed in the oven to boil. When they were cooled the ferment for the next batch was mixed, since under many recipes 24 hours elapsed from the preparation of the ferment yeast to the time when the bread was taken from the oven. Wood had to be carried in to dry, and flour was brought from storage, put in the trough, and sifted. In some bakeries a "long" dough which could ferment up to 12 hours was prepared in the evening to be ready for the final steps of bread making early the next morning. This procedure permitted the baker to get a night's sleep. In other shops the fermentation period was as short as four hours, necessitating more or less continuous operation or supervision. [31]

Medieval bakery
Figure 3. A Medieval bakery. The baking process had changed so little between the Middle Ages and the early 1800's that this picture quite well illustrates the operation of a small commercial bakery during the latter period. One baker kneads dough in a wooden trough, another moulds the loaves, while the third places the bread in the oven. (From Sheppard and Newton, The Story of Bread, 40.)

There exists a slight amount of evidence as to Hudson's, Bay Company practices in these additional tasks, although not at Fort Vancouver. One of the last bakers at Lower Fort Garry was Peter Spence, and three of his children years later told an interviewer of their life at the post during the 1860's. A son remembered carrying as many as 16 sacks of flour in one day from the store (warehouse) to the bakery. Since he could not have been much more than 12 years old at that time, the sacks at Fort Garry must have been considerably lighter than the standard English 280-pound bag! [32]

Making biscuit

The manufacture of hard bread, also known as ship bread, sea biscuit, pilot bread, and, later, hard-tack, was in many respects a simpler operation than the baking of bread, since no leaven (fermented dough or yeast) was involved under the most commonly used recipes. In essence, the sea biscuit was a mixture of flour and water baked crisp in an oven. Some formulas provided for the addition of a little salt, which improved flavor but increased the likelihood of moisture absorption.

As made in colonial America, biscuit was a "large, round, dry, crisp wafer." [33] Another writer described it as "a large, round, clumsy, crisp affair." [34] The ideal sea biscuit was light yellow in color. When struck it gave a "clear almost ringing sound." Although it would "readily and thoroughly soften in the mouth," it was supposed to float and hold its shape if immersed in water. [35] Above all, it was designed to last and provide nourishment for many months or even years if properly stored.

A second type of biscuit came to be made in America at an undetermined date but well before the 1840's. It was known as a cold water cracker. It was unleavened and much like the usual ship biscuit but smaller in size, more compact in texture, and of greater hardness. [36] Perhaps it corresponded to the "White Biscuit" which, as we have seen, was produced in England by the early 1840's.

The process of making unleavened biscuit was an ancient one, since this type of bread is mentioned in Biblical records, and traces have been found in the Neolithic lake dwellings of Switzerland, although when the familiar pilot bread in its present form began to be made is not known. At any rate, the laborious method of forming each biscuit separately by hand and placing it individually in the oven appears to have undergone little change over the centuries. Not until about 1833 was some degree of mechanization introduced into the business. By about 1840 hand operated mixers, rolling machines to thin out the dough, and a stamp which would cut the dough into a number of biscuits at once had considerably speeded the process, as did oven racks which permitted several tiers of crackers to be baked at once. [37] By 1851 steam and horse power were being employed to drive fairly sophisticated and in some cases almost automated machinery. The industrial age had come to the biscuit industry. [38]

One result of the mechanization was a change in the shape of the biscuit. By 1851 the long-familiar round pilot bread provided for the Royal Navy had been replaced by a hexagonal biscuit. This shape could be stamped out from sheets of dough with less waste than the old one. Hexagonal crackers also could be packed more compactly. [39] No picture of the old British round sea biscuit has yet been found by the present writer, but a clear photograph of one of the original hexagonal biscuits from the 1850's will be found in Plate I. By the 1890's the hard-tack made for the United States Army came in two shapes, round and square. [40]

An examination of the inventories and requisitions for Fort Vancouver has thus far produced no evidence that any of the new mechanical inventions had been acquired for the bakery by 1845-1846. It can be assumed, therefore, that the time-honored process of making biscuit by hand was still in use on the banks of the Columbia during this period.

Available descriptions of the biscuit-making process before the introduction of machinery are both scarce and spare, at least as far as the present writer has been able to pursue the subject. However, except for the mechanical devices involved, the procedures followed after the 1840's do not appear to have been materially different from those used in the days of hand work. In the following account the steps in the process and the quantities of the ingredients involved are derived from instructions for preparing United States Army hardtack in the 1890's. The descriptions of the procedures in each step, however, are based upon several isolated and very brief accounts of the pre-machine process.

Mixing. A barrel of flour (196 pounds) was placed in the mixing trough. Then eight or nine gallons of water (depending on how much the flour would absorb) were added gradually, being thoroughly mixed with the flour. This mixing continued until the dough was entirely "clear," evidently of lumps, but bakers were warned against too much kneading lest the biscuits not be as light, flaky, and brittle as they should be.

Breaking or rolling. After mixing, the dough was ready for immediate use. It was broken up into pieces which were weighed and shaped into sheets the size of the finished biscuit. The ideal thickness of the dough at this stage was 3/8 inch. Such a piece of dough would "spring" during or after baking to a thickness of about 1/2 inch and would produce a biscuit which would be "not too hard to masticate" but still transport well.

Stamping. Each piece of dough was then stamped in pairs by a biscuit stamp which impressed it with any necessary markings and at the same time punched a number of holes through each cracker. These perforations prevented puffing during baking.

Baking. It required two men to charge the oven. One picked up the individual stamped pieces of dough and, in some bakeries at least, tossed them with "unerring accuracy" for several feet to the peel held by the second baker. It is reported that in New England this peel was a "long-handled, sheet-iron shovel" instead of the wooden peel favored in Europe and Canada. Each biscuit was transferred individually by the peel to a place on the oven floor, which often was of tile.

The temperature for baking biscuits was lower than that for bread. About 450° was considered suitable. The time of baking was only about 25 minutes (though this figure was for mechanized reel ovens). One 196-pound barrel of flour produced about 180 pounds of hard bread.

Drying. In some bakeries, particularly in England, it was customary to transfer the biscuits, after they had been withdrawn one by one from the oven, to a warm room or other place over the ovens where they could be dried out for two or three days. Hard bread so treated tended to resist mold better than biscuit packed immediately after baking. [41]

Packing. At the Hudson's Bay Company's Lower Fort Garry, on Red River in the present Manitoba, the biscuit, after it was cold, was placed in bags and carried to one of the stores or warehouses, where it was "put up in cargoes for shipping." [42] As has been seen, at Fort Vancouver the biscuit was packed in barrels and charged for by the hundredweight. Whether the final packing was conducted at the bakery or at one of the stores in not apparent.

The packing operation at commercial bakeries of the period was conducted by hand. To prevent breakage during transport it was important that the biscuits be closely packed. During the 1840's the hard bread for the United States Army was ordinarily put up in barrels, but when tropical conditions were encountered during the Mexican War there were many complaints that the biscuit was unfit for use due to faulty containers and insects. Quartermasters in the field urged that all containers be perfectly tight, well-coopered barrels with painted heads which, if possible, had been used previously for holding spirits. [43] In England the casks were sometimes lined with tin. Other packers favored fumigating the barrels with sulphur after they had been filled in order to discourage insects. [44]

French sea biscuit

It is highly probable that the biscuit-making method employed at Fort Vancouver was very similar to the British and American process described above. Yet, the bakers on the Columbia were French Canadians, and it is possible that they employed a technique reportedly in use in France at least as early as 1802 and probably for decades or even centuries before that. This process differed from the Anglo-Saxon method chiefly in the addition of leaven (fermented dough) to the ingredients.

The French method of baking "sea-biscuits" was described in an 1802 encyclopaedia as follows:

In the preparation of biscuit, a proportion of ten pounds of leaven (rather more stale than that commonly used for bread), is diluted in warm water, with one hundred pounds of flour, which is kneaded; but the water should be added by small portions, to prevent the necessity of adding more flour: when the dough can no longer be worked by the hand, it is pressed with the feet till it is perfectly smooth, glutinous and compact.

The kneading being finished, the dough is worked up in parts: at first it is formed into rolls, which again pass through the hands of the baker; this is called rubbing. When the weight of each piece is determined, it is made round, flattened with a rolling pin, and then placed on a table or board exposed to the fresh air, in order to prevent too quick fermentation.

Care is taken that the oven be less heated for the baking of biscuit than bread; and as soon as the last cake is formed, that which has been made first, is pierced with several holes, with the point of an iron, which at once flattens it, and gives vent to evaporation: it is then placed in the oven. The biscuits are kept there about two hours, and when drawn out, they are packed with great caution in boxes, lest they should break. Each box commonly contains either a half, or a whole quintal; and, when filled, is placed in a close, warm room, with which the heat of the oven has a communication. The biscuit here parts with its superabundant moisture, and undergoes what is called a sweating. [45]

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Last Updated: 28-Nov-2005