How Did Settlers Make Bread?

Sourdough bread

(Photo credit: Wesual Click | Unsplash)

One of the questions that bugged me from an early point in the development of The Haweaters had to do with baking and specifically how those early European settlers to Manitoulin Island made leavened products like breads, cakes, and cookies when they had limited access to conventional leaveners such as yeast, baking powder or baking soda.

The simple answer is they relied on fermentation to craft what we would now know as sourdough breads. Unlike yeast breads that could be cranked out in a matter of hours, fermented breads, in their simplest form, would be created over several days during which the dough was left out in the kitchen to "sour" by capturing the yeasts and bacteria that are naturally present in the air. However, better results were achieved by first fermenting just about any fermentable substance that came a settler's way before mixing it into the flour. Fruit was popular in ferments as were hops. On Manitoulin Island, hawthorn berries (or hawberries, as they are locally known) often did the trick. There are even stories of settlers scraping the inner bark from ironwood trees for use in their ferments. However they did it, beginning with a ferment meant that breads started one day could be baked the next as long as the kitchen remained relatively warm for the duration. The colder the kitchen, the longer it would take the dough to sour.

Non-bread baked goods such as cakes and cookies would also be made more or less the same way, but they often had rising times of shorter duration. Still it's no wonder baking was often done in large batches once a week. By the time all that fermenting was accomplished and the baked goods had been leavened to the point where they were ready to be baked, it would be time to start the whole process all over again. Granted a great deal of that baking time would have been spent doing other chores while the bread slowly soured, but it was still an arduous process that must surely have felt like an endless grind.

And for those of you who are wondering, baking bread in a wood stove isn't as tricky as it may at first seem to us modern bakers who can't imagine doing without our temperature controls and moveable racks. Wood stoves were (and are) very good at maintaining a regulated temperature and sourdough bread actually benefits from high heat. To this day, it's not uncommon for sourdough breads to be slung into ovens heated to 500F or higher. Those high temperatures allow the air pockets in the dough to expand, giving the loaves the oomph they need to rise to their fullest.

Based on the real-life 1877 killings of two members of one family by two members of another, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain the prosperity they know they deserve in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.