It would frankly be impossible to overstate the importance of bread in the cultures of the Four Realms. Bread is viewed by almost everyone as the one of the most important foods, if not the most important—the invaluable foundation on which all eating is based. Earth-human idioms about “the staff of life” would be instantly understood in the Middle Kingdoms, and accepted as our version of a universal truism. No meal eaten in the Kingdoms is truly considered complete unless there’s bread present.

Bread’s role in the spiritual aspects of life in the Realms can also under no circumstances be ignored. Though the Middle Kingdoms lack organized religion—for the very good reason that every sentient being resident there can absolutely be guaranteed to meet the Deity personally at least once in their life, thus routinely negating the need for go-betweens—bread often features in sacramental operations due to the many oral and written traditions that suggest that of all created plant life, the Goddess first made the grains, and Herself made the first bread of them to share with Her Lovers. (As a result of this belief, all the languages of the Kingdoms have honorific-inclusive forms of their generic word for bread.)

The concept of the great value of bread as food, and as a deeply important part of human life, runs very deep in the continent-wide culture and manifests itself in unlikely places. Indeed even in as ancient a work as Héalhra his dreme, the first epic poem written in Arlene after the founding of the Kingdom, in the passage in which the Goddess speaks to Héalhra of his forthcoming embodiment as a demigod, the structure of the stanza containing his sorrowful yet pointed response—”Can Godhead yet be sweeter than work, and bread and wine, and love of the body, and sleep after love?”—makes it plain that the White Lion-to-be considers four of the five barren without the bread that makes them not merely feasible but enjoyable. This is an attitude one might expect of one of the two first corn kings of the Four Realms, but it would also be one widely shared.

It probably bears mentioning here that in the Middle Kingdoms, all kings are “corn kings.” (…Whether or not magic is involved. In Steldin, it’s not; but here, as in many other ways, they’re the notable exception.) Across the board, rulership is perceived as a service occupation—and the single most important job of a ruler is understood to be putting bread in their people’s mouths. The king who is no good at this will not be king for long. At the very least, they’ll be replaced at the earliest opportunity with someone better at the business of handling whatever local royal magics may be involved in making sure that the earth brings forth in a timely manner, and in enough quantity to satisfy the population’s needs. If a ruler is felt or found to be incapable of this, or of acting in bad faith as regards this most basic responsibility, they risk being removed “with extreme prejudice”—i.e., being ritually sacrificed and plowed in.

It’s true that in the era we’re discussing, some fifteen hundred years and more after the first Battle of Bluepeak and the assumption by Earn and Héalhra of their demigodly roles as Lion and Eagle, such robust interventions rarely need to happen any more. In Arlen and Darthen, the royal families have (generally speaking) been well enough trained in the management of the jointly-performed Royal Magics pertaining specifically to the fertility of the land that the problem no longer occurs. When a given ruler more than once proves incapable of performing the Rites associated with the land’s fecundity, or producing the expected result, the political pressure brought on them to abdicate is intense. Normally they leave office voluntarily before they are assisted in doing so.

That said, the mechanisms used to make sure that everyone’s basic food needs are fulfilled extend far further than the exercise of merely personal royal duty. They also involve such strategies as deeply (or sometimes wholly) subsidizing both the distribution of seed corn and its planting; offering generous additional subsidies and incentives to those Houses possessed of good arable land on which grain can be raised; making Throne assistance available if necessary where assistance is required in finding enough labor for harvesting (the Throne treasury being tasked with paying fair wages to hired-in labor); and stockpiling of grain (both edible and seed grains) as a hedge against potential times of famine.*

Just what grain gets planted where is a subject that rural residents take up with the Throne each year. In the Kingdoms’ middle latitudes, and especially in the more southerly areas where (because of more extreme ranges of temperature) the higher-protein “hard wheats” grow better, a common strategy is to sow a non-wheat grain along with the wheat so as to maximize the effectiveness of the labor spent on keeping the arable land relatively weed-free, and to make sure that if one crop fails due to weather problems, the other one has a chance of surviving. The further south you go, the more likely this second grain is to be rye.

This strategy is known in our own world, and in European northern latitudes was commonplace for centuries. In English, the word “maslin”—originally derived from an Old French word for metallic alloys, which in turn comes from an older OF and Old English root for something mixed—came to describe both a co-sown crop of wheat and rye, and the bread made from the two kinds of flours mixed together. Since this mixed flour was cheaper to buy—both because it was a mixture of a more expensive grain and a less-expensive one, and because its wheat component wasn’t aggressively milled and bolted for whiteness—it was routinely used during the medieval period to make sourdough-raised “country loaves” along the lines of the French pain de campagne, as well as bread “trenchers” on top of which other foods could be served and eaten. It persists in common usage and current breadmaking tradition under names like “Yeoman’s loaf” or “English maslin.”

While it’s true that this is normally a sourdough-raised bread—more upmarket wheat-and-rye breads like manchet would be raised with brewing yeast—situationally speaking, I have to admit that at the moment I’ve had enough of sourdough breads to last me a lifetime. This version of maslin, therefore, is raised with ordinary granular quick yeast. (I may at a later date add a sourdough-leavened version. But today is not that day, and for the time being, I pray you hold me excused.)

So. The recipe:

  • 200g (approximately 1.5 cups) white bread flour
  • 200g (approximately 1.5 cups) rye flour
  • 200g (approximately 1.5 cups) whole wheat (wholemeal) flour of the grind of your choice. (If you’re in the UK or Europe and can source “strong wholemeal” flour, this works well.)
  • 10g / approximately 1 scant tablespoon salt
  • 10 g / one packet or one tablespoon dry yeast
  • 350ml / approximately 1.5 cups / 13 fluid ounces lukewarm water

Measure out your flours. In the case of the wholemeal flour, especially if it’s coarse-ground, sift it over a bowl to remove as much as possible of the large bran content. Discard this (or if you prefer, save it to put in/on something else) and add to the sifted whole wheat / wholemeal flour an amount of white bread flour that is more or less equivalent to the amount of bran you took out.

In a large bowl, mix all these flours well with the salt and dry yeast.

The next step is determined by whether or not you have a mixer with a dough hook. If you do, put the dry mixture in the mixer’s bowl, add the water, and knead first on a low speed for about three minutes, and then at a higher one for six.

If hand kneading, add the water to the bowl, mix until everything more or less comes together, and knead for five to ten minutes, or until the dough becomes (a) first sticky, and (b) then less so.

Whichever method you’ve used: when finished with your kneading, cover the dough with a dishtowel or cotton cloth, place in a warm spot, and allow to rise/prove for an hour. Note how high it’s risen for your next step.

Normally this loaf is meant to do its second rise in a banneton or raising basket. If you have one of these, fine; if not, prepare a bowl that’s about twice the size of your risen dough by lining it with a cotton cloth or clean dishtowel, and flour this with either rye flour or wholemeal, as you prefer.

Take your risen dough and knead it gently by hand for five minutes or so. (There’s no need to be overly enthusiastic about knocking all the bubbles out of it; any rye loaf can routinely use a little help in the second stage of its rising.) Form into a round (or if working with a long banneton, a length corresponding to the length of the basket), roll well in rye flour or wholemeal, and place in the banneton or cloth-lined bowl. Cover with another dishtowel or cloth, put it somewhere warm again, and leave for another 45 minutes to an hour. You’re looking for it to double in volume before you bake it.

On going into the banneton

On going into the banneton

Risen and ready to bake

Risen and ready to bake

…When it’s nearly risen enough, preheat your oven to 250C / 475F (or 500F if your oven’s capable of going that high). When the oven is ready, gently turn the risen dough out onto a baking sheet or bakestone (if you’ve got one). (The simplest way to do this is usually to put the baking sheet or stone on top of the rising bowl or basket, carefully turn the whole business upside down, and remove the banneton or bowl. This prevents jostling the risen dough too much.)

With a very sharp knife or baker’s lame / razor, slash the loaf in a crosshatch pattern (for round loaves) or diagonally (for long ones). Don’t slash too many times or too deeply, as this will cause the loaf to spread, and possibly even collapse. Put the loaf into the oven immediately (and gently) after slashing.

Bake at 250C for twenty minutes. Then lower the oven temperature to 220C / 450F for another twenty.

Remove to a rack to cool completely. If the loaf is too crusty for your liking, once it’s completely cooled, put it in a plastic bag and leave it there overnight.

This bread is terrific with meats and cheese, as well as pickled or smoked fish (as shown below), and beer. (We shot ours with an “Around The Clock” collectors’-edition stout from the Porterhouse Brew Co./Dingle Distillery operation, old friends of the household.)

…It also toasts wonderfully.

Variations: if you prefer, you can use spelt flours rather than standard wheat ones. Also: this recipe works pretty well when barley flour is substituted for the rye.

Enjoy!

Maslin bread and butter

*This principle also operates closer to home. In both Arlen and Darthen the kitchens associated with the royal palaces have a long-understood responsibility to feed all hungry people who come to them, at the very least with “bread and meat [the word used here in its archaic, generic sense] and drink”… and here again, the most important part of the requirement is mentioned first. Independent traders—bakers or other foodmongers—will also often fulfill this requirement on the Throne’s behalf and can, if they desire, file a yearly compensation claim for their expenditures. In practice, not many do. Across the Four Realms, feeding the hungry is seen as what a Jewish person of our world would describe as a mitzvah—a good deed done because it’s a Right Thing To Do and will please the Goddess—and a fulfillment of the understanding that kindness to strangers is kindness to Her. (And sometimes it is, in its most concrete sense, as She has a well-documented liking for walking the world in disguise to see how Her creation is getting on.)

A baking of maslin bread