For as long as I have known him, my friend William Rubel has been studying bread. As a member of the Culinary Historians of Northern California, I was privileged to taste a slice from a loaf of manchet that William baked. It was spectacular. Of course, it isn't fair to simply say that he baked it. He acquired historic wheat seeds from a seed bank, had a farmer grow the wheat, ground it, and then separated out only the finest white portion (as is required for manchet) by hand using a series of progressively finer bolting cloths.
For the past several years he has been working on his magnum opus - expected to be the definitive work on the leavened breads of Europe. About two years ago, Andy Smith asked William to write "a little book" about bread for the Edible Series he was editing for Reaktion Books. Having spent so much time studying bread in great detail, writing a small, 150 page book should have been a snap.
I'm sure many people in this circumstance would have "phoned it in" (so to speak.) But not William. Instead he took this as an opportunity to refine his entire way of thinking about bread. For years he had been focused on the minutia of European leavened breads - suddenly he was being asked to step back and take a look at bread in a very broad context.
Bread isn't just a food, he realized, it is a product. Moreover, it has been a staple food for most of the peoples of the world for most of the history mankind. With a few exceptions (e.g. manioc), it is the most highly manipulated staple food in the world. How curious, William realized, that the most important staple food product in the world is not a crop - it is a product, and as a product it is a pure reflection of culture. In the end, William spent two years writing a "little book" about bread - but it is a very big little book!
Bread: A Global History, by William Rubel is available from all the usual sources, including Amazon.com. You can also listen to an excellent interview with him about the subject on The Heritage Radio Network. Well worth reading and listening.