Thursday, August 09, 2012

Barley Bread, Bark Bread

In English, until recently, one of the main uses of the word corn was to talk about cereals without specifying them very distinctly. You still see this usage in "Corn Exchange", "cornfield", "cornflower", etc.

Understandably enough, corn sometimes came to mean the grain-crop that it usually designated. In other words, the commonest crop in the area: wheat in south-east Britain, or oats in the north west.

Because of our dwindling agricultural awareness, these older meanings of corn are now definitely secondary, compared to the primary meaning i.e. maize, as evinced by such everyday consumer terms as sweetcorn, popcorn, corn-on-the-cob, etc. And since maize itself is now a pretty common crop in the UK,  words like "cornfield" are becoming too ambiguous to use.

One thing I only became aware of this summer is that in Sweden the word korn often means barley! It obviously confused the hell out of Paul Britten Austin when he translated Vilhelm Moberg's A History of the Swedish People.  To understand the chapter about bread, you need to substitute "barley" for "corn", most of the time. 

In England "barley-bread" is a matter for historians. It was a common enough food in the Middle Ages, but nobody now remembers anyone eating it, so there is no cult of barley bread. It's a different matter in the north of Sweden, where "korn" (i.e. barley) was, and is, a frequent ingredient in hardbreads.

Moberg explains that barley was the original cereal crop in Sweden. Then oats arrived. Oats and barley were the only crops that reliably  ripened grain in the 90-day growing period of the north.  But further south it was possible to grow rye. Crispbread in the north, and fermented ryebread in the south, remain the regional specialities. (Wheat was a latecomer, because of its dependence on heavy soils that took many centuries of cultivation to build up.)

Barley reappears in one of the more alarming local foods of Jämtland, where I was a couple of weeks ago. At any local feast, fete or market you will soon find the local crowd beginning to congregate excitedly around one particular stall, usually designated by a tatty cardboard sign on which appears a single word: KAMS.  Outsiders find it difficult to recognize this as food. A plate of kams consists of thick greyish slabs of what looks like unbaked dough, accompanied by a yellowish cheesy mess. The greyish stuff - the kams proper - are flat dumplings made largely of barley flour, which are cooked in boiling water mixed with whey; the accompaniment, at least when I had it in Pålgård, was two types of "mese", a strong-tasting whey by-product, very salty and a bit sweet (more about whey products here); also a dob of messmör and a bit of butter, which I think you are supposed to spread over the surface of the dumplings so it melts. The traditional accomaniment is a glass of milk. Kams is, or was, a typical subsistence food of Jämtland-Harjedalen-Trøndelag's transhumance dairy culture. It's the kind of thing the girls would live on while minding their herds in the isolated summer pastures. 

 (photo by Lena, from her blog)


When I was 15, my Swedish grandmother gave me, as a birthday present, the first two volumes of Moberg's Min Svenska Historia (1970, 1971), which had been an immediate bestseller in Sweden and was swiftly translated into English (A History of The Swedish People - 1972, 1973).

I knew who Vilhelm Moberg was, of course. His famous novels The Emigrants, Unto a Good Land, and The Last Letter Home were on the family bookshelves, though I never got round to reading them. But I did read the History, more than once. Lately I read it again, and a question that had vaguely bothered me for forty years suddenly came into focus: why hadn't my grandmother ever sent me the subsequent volumes? Once focused, it took only a minute to find out. Five days before that birthday present, Moberg had drowned himself in his local lake. He had suffered from depression for years. So far as I know he never drafted any of the projected two later volumes.

"Like all countrymen," Moberg wrote, "I have grown up eating bread as the most important part of my diet; I am accustomed to it and do not really feel I have had enough to eat unless I have had some bread with my meal." Maybe if Moberg had kept away from wheat (which he admits didn't go down as well with him as rye) he wouldn't have suffered such bad depressions. His generation didn't understand about these things.


Per Anders Rudling has published a useful brief critique of Moberg's History. Its limitations, as history, are indeed fairly obvious. Nevertheless, Moberg's perspective as a radicalized working-class novelist brings some features of the past into stark clarity. 
In our days a local catastrophe to the harvest in one part of the country can be offset by aid from another; but in the Middle Ages, and for centuries to come, any part of the country where the harvest had failed simply starved, abandoned by all the others. The population was sparse, roads were almost non-existent and effective means of transport lacking. To shift any significant quantities of grain from one province to another was simply impossible. Two or three sacks of corn could be loaded onto a crude ox-cart, or a bag of it slung across a horse's back - but what help was that? (Part II, Chapter 3).
The main subject of this chapter is not barley bread, but bark bread.

Harvests failed all too often, winters could be exceptionally severe and prolonged, but even in times of famine there were always trees. So bark bread was a potential fallback (along with husks, straw, reindeer moss and other lichens).  

The part actually used was the cambium, the layer of growth tissue just under the outer bark. It was ground into a flour. The preferred trees were Scots pine (the most widespread), silver birch, aspen, and wych elm. This last was the best of all, both the easiest to prepare and the most nutritious, but it is a local species in Sweden and not found very far north.  

Of course bark bread was only partly edible; cellulose and lignin cannot be digested by humans. But it also contained sugars, a little protein, and plenty of minerals. Mixed, where possible, with other flours, it might keep you alive. The last great famines in Sweden were in the 1860s. Finns were still mixing bark meal with bread flour during World War II.

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At 5:07 am, Blogger Vincent said...

I’m known for liking strong cheese and twice I’ve received alarming gifts from Scandinavia (Norway or Finland) which I found difficult to recognize as food. One was a cheese so odorous I felt ashamed for the postman, for it leaked through the wrapping, and couldn’t be kept in the fridge (while we decided what to do with it) in any combination of sealed tupperware and plastic bags. I felt ashamed for the binmen too, but it had to be swaddled as best we could and left festering for them to collect. There’s a chapter in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat on a similar dilemma. The other occasion was a brown cheese that you would not have recognized as anything edible let alone cheese. It was relatively inert compared with the other one, but as far as I was concerned counted low down the list of famine foods - a topic which interests me strangely, because I went to a traditional English prep school, in which I was once served a slice of cold meat with thin little worms in it, fortunately dead, and advised by a master to eat the good parts, and duly did so.

At 10:25 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

The brown cheese is really delicious! Like a mixture of Caramac, fudge and cheese.

But there's no arguing about this. Swedish foods that I grew up (such as the brown cheese, smoked herring-roe, whey-spread, soured milk) seem the most delicious of all foods. But others that I happened to miss out on, such as kams (a country food unknown in Sundsvall, where my mother grew up) fill me with fear and sometimes loathing. Next summer, I've vowed that I will buy a plate of kams and give it a serious go.


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