Grateful Gorging

Spring 2003

Toki Oshima drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

By Jean Ann Pollard

Loaves of bread hot from the oven become wildly appealing on raw spring days. From hearty Sourdough to sweet smelling Italian Panettone or satisfying Russian Rye, the list is tempting. One suspects it has always been so – ever since the discovery that yeasts make dough rise. But has bread always been safe to eat? The yeast used in bread-making is a fungus. According to Bold, Alexopoulos, and Delevoryas in their book, Morphology of Plants and Fungi, the fungi (including mushrooms) are plantlike organisms without chlorophyll. Of great significance in nature as well as in human affairs, one groups “eats,” if you can call it that, by dissolving and absorbing nonliving organic matter; another group, by living parasitically on and at the expense of other organisms – sometimes other fungi.

Yeasts are members of the fungal group called Ascomycetes, a group both destructive and beneficial. Without Ascomycetes there would be no manufacture of certain vitamin preparations, of drugs such as ergotamine and cortisone, of citric acid, of antibiotics such as penicillin and griseofulvin, of Camembert and Roquefort cheeses; nor would beer and wine ferment, or bread rise. In the case of bread-making, Saccharomyces cerverisia digests sugar, producing alcohol, thus liberating CO2, which causes dough to expand.

But friendly Ascomycetes have some unfriendly cousins. These cause human skin diseases commonly called ringworm, athlete’s foot, and some serious pulmonary infections, such as histoplasmosis. Others cause the majority of plant diseases, including apple scab, stem rot of strawberries, the infamous Dutch Elm Disease and the chestnut blight.

Historically, one fungus in particular has affected grains and the bread made from them – especially rye. Rye, according to Harold McGee in his book, On Food and Cooking, seems to have originated in central Asia. Beginning about 4000 BCE, it “moved slowly westward as a weed contaminating the wheat and barley supplies of nomadic tribes.” Reaching the coast of the Baltic Sea around 2000 BCE, it grew better there in the typically poor soil and cool, moist climate than other cereals, and was domesticated around 400 BCE. Through the last century, he says, it “was the predominant bread grain for the poor of northern Europe, and even today the taste for rye persists, especially in Scandinavia and eastern Europe.”

But poor soil and moist climate also favor the growth of an Ascomycete that ultimately was given the name Claviceps purpurea. This fungus, say Bold, Alexopoulos, and Delevoryas, is a destructive parasite of rye and other grains, infecting the flower parts with its own sclerotia – sclerotia being dark, stony-hard bodies looking like grotesquely deformed kernels. When these so-called ergot bodies “are consumed by cattle grazing in infected fields, the alkaloids in the sclerotia cause abortion in cows and gangrene of the hooves and tails.”

The same alkaloids are deadly to human beings. Reay Tannahill in Food in History gives a colorful description of effects. Eating bread from grain that contains the ergot fungus leads “either to intense abdominal pain, delirium, gangrene and death, or to that acute inflammation of the skin, which in the ninth century, drove sufferers to insanity and gave ergotism its common name of ‘Holy Fire,’” or St. Anthony’s Fire.

James Trager’s Food Chronology lists no fewer than 16 outbreaks of the dread malady in Europe, beginning with the first major recorded one, which occurred in the Rhine Valley of Germany, in A.D. 857. Thousands died. In 943 A.D., 40,000 perished in Limoges, France. In 1089, the inhabitants of a French village ran through the streets in fits of madness.

Not until 1597 did the faculty of medicine at Marbourg, France, conclude that ergotism was caused by eating spurred rye. And the word “ergot” wasn’t introduced until 1683. In addition to localized outbreaks, ergot has caused large historical consequences. In 1722, Peter the Great was marshalling his Cossacks on the Volga Delta at Astrakhan, preparing to attack the Ottoman Empire. His horses ate hay containing infected rye, and his troops ate bread from the grain. Hundreds of horses and men went mad, died, and Peter had to abandon his plans. Ergotism, according to writer Jane Brody, may even have triggered riots among French peasants in 1789, and been a precipitating factor in the French Revolution.

In 1862, the fungus showed up in Finland. In 1926, half the population in some areas of the Soviet Union were affected. England suffered an epidemic in 1927. And as late as August 12, 1951, it broke out in the south of France where, by August 20th, 300 people were affected: the largest epidemic since the Russian outbreak.

Rye, the major host of Claviceps purpurea, was introduced into the northeastern part of the United States during colonial times by British and Dutch settlers. It became widely cultivated when other fungi, called “rusts,” decimated wheat. Today it ranks about eighth in comparison with other major cereal crops, and it makes a wonderful bread. Thanks to careful farming practices and agricultural inspectors, we no longer have to fear the fungus that it can carry. In fact, most of us are completely unaware of ergotism’s dreadful history.

Because of low gluten qualities, rye dough makes for very heavy bread. It’s also very nutritious, containing “more protein, phosphorus, iron, potassium, and B vitamins than whole wheat,” according to Jane Brody’s Good Food Book. And whole-grain rye has “twice the protein, three times the calcium and phosphorus, four times the riboflavin, five times the iron and thiamin, six times the niacin, and seven times the potassium as rye from which the bran has been largely removed.”

Another characteristic makes it especially interesting for weight watchers. Rye contains an unusual amount of pentosans – long chains of 5-carbon sugars – which “have a very high water-binding capacity. This means that rye bread retains moisture better than wheat, and tends to swell in the stomach giving the sensation of fullness.” In addition, says Harold McGee, “the pentosans are only very slowly broken down to sugar. They take a long time to digest, which also reduces appetite.” What follows is a recipe for a tasty loaf that’s good for you. With no worries!

Light Pumpernickel Bread
(2 loaves)

Into a small bowl pour:

1-1/2 cups warm water (about 110 degrees F.)

3 tablespoons active dry yeast

1 teaspoon refined white sugar

Let the yeast grow for about 5 minutes or until foaming occurs. Meanwhile, in a small pot heat to lukewarm:

1-1/4 cups milk (either soy or dairy)

Pour the milk into a large bowl and add, stirring well:

1/2 cup unsulphured molasses

2 tablespoons brown sugar

3 tablespoons melted butter

2 tablespoons caraway seeds

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast

2 teaspoons sea salt

1/4 cup dried currants (optional)

Add the foaming yeast mixture to the milk mixture. Stir in:

3 to 3-1/2 cups rye flour


1-1/2 to 2-1/2 cups whole-wheat flour, or enough to make a fairly stiff and sticky dough. (Flours differ, so add slowly)

Using a heavy spatula or spoon, turn the dough out onto a bread board floured with white flour, and knead until it’s quite smooth and elastic.

Place the ball of dough in an oiled bowl and turn it to oil all sides. Then cover the bowl with a tea towel, place it in a warm place, and let the dough rise for about 1/2 to 1 hour, or until it doubles in bulk. When it has doubled, punch it down and turn it out onto your floured bread board again. Knead briefly. Divide the dough in half and shape each portion into a loaf, either long (about 12 inches) or round. Grease a baking sheet and lightly sprinkle it with corn meal. Place the loaves on the sheet side-by-side, cover them with your tea towel, and let them rise again until doubled in bulk, another 1/2 to 1 hour. Once doubled, make 2 or 3 half-inch-deep cuts in the top of each loaf using a sharp knife. Bake them on the middle shelf of a preheated 375-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Turn onto wire racks, brush the tops with butter, and cool.

Bread Making Tips

Before indulging in bread making, note the following:

1) Doughs made with heavy, whole grain flours never become as “smooth and elastic” as white flour doughs, nor do they rise as high. But don’t worry! Just keep going.

2) Flours differ, so amounts in recipes differ as well. Add flour slowly to wet ingredients. You may need less than a recipe suggests, or more. And white flour is best for flouring your bread board: it incorporates easier.

3) Rye flour can be added to any bread recipe. A rule of thumb is l cup rye flour to every 2 to 3 cups of wheat flour.

4) For people with microwaves, melting butter and warming milk is easy. In the section below, which suggests heating milk to lukewarm and then adding other ingredients, I suggest the following: Place the 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, glass measuring cup and melt it for a few seconds in your microwave. Then add the 1-1/4 cups milk and the 1/2 cup unsulphured molasses, and microwave until all are warm. Add the 2 tablespoons brown sugar, the 2 tablespoons caraway seeds, the 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast, the 2 teaspoons sea salt, the optional currants, and continue with the rest of the recipe.

5) And for folks who want a sweeter pumpernickel, add 2 tablespoons of maple syrup to the molasses mixture.

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