Babylon to Chorleywood in thirty-two pages

Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series has staked out a territory for concise introductions to a bewildering variety of topics, but for brevity they are no match for a series which will be familiar to many (if they are the right age) from museum shops across the British Isles—the Shire Albums. First published in 1962, these staple-bound booklets cover a range of topics in British history and heritage, and I made some notes on H. G. Muller’s Baking and Bakeries by way of research for the novel I am honestly going to start writing really soon, whose narrator’s first profession is baking.

I have a stack of books to work through like this, and it’s going to be a long slog, which is why I elected to start with one that is absolutely tiny—at least I can feel I have one under my belt! In thirty-two pages Muller takes us from ancient West Asia to the ‘latest’ (1980s) developments in British industrial baking. He does so in clear, readable style with plenty of illustrations—although, despite the fact that this is a recent, perfect-bound reprint with an updated bibliography, the monochrome images are not the best reproductions, and the whole thing has the look of the 1980s pamphlet that it originally was. There is a useful, if brief, bibliography, but there are no textual references, so the various points at which he recounts some interesting remark that’s been made in respect of some aspect of his topic are of little use to a real scholar—fortunately I’m not one of those, just someone who needs to make sure that their descriptions of baking in their fantasy world will seem convincing to any reader who happens to know about it.

I need a lot more detailed information than Muller provides, and his later sections on the industrialisation of baking are of little use to me, but he sketches the territory usefully, and much of the detail he does include has already got me thinking about how baking will work in my world, technically and socially. Whether his sketch of the territory is an accurate one I will have to leave to more informed readers to decide (Parent recently spent a year researching bread (focus on the early medieval period), but I don’t know if she has a view on Muller). It is fairly obvious that his idea of the history of bread doesn’t involve many places east of the Fertile Crescent—he mentions India in discussing top-loading clay ovens, known there as tandoors, but his narrative is a European one, and I personally have no reason to exclude the baking (or steaming) traditions of Southeast Asia from my world-building. However, Muller has got the ball rolling for me, and I can recommend his book(let) to anyone who wants to know a bit about baking history—but not too much.

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