Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 16 - Aerated Bread

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    IT certainly is not pleasant, in biting a thick hunch of bread, to find that you have made a section of a cockroach; nevertheless, however unpleasant, the discovery is instructive. The geologist, from a much meaner fragment of pre-Adamite life, bisected in a. railway cutting, will tell you the exact condition under which the globe existed in some very early stage of its formation, and that much-abused cockroach is equally capable of telling a tale respecting one condition under which the bread which formed its matrix was produced. Everybody knows, or should know, at least, in these days of physical science, what the globe is like at that particular slice which is filled with saurians like the plums in a cake. But how few know anything of that substratum of urban life, the whereabouts of which is discovered to us in frosty weather only by a patch of thaw upon the pavement. That the staff of life somehow or other emerges from these underground caverns we may possibly be cognisant of, but how many of us have ever troubled ourselves to have ocular demonstration of what daily and nightly goes on in these sunless dungeons? The evidence of the cockroach in the bread, like the presence of the saurians in the blue lias [-160-]  indicates, it is true, the presence of a very high temperature in those regions, but we feel satisfied that there is a charming ignorance abroad respecting a manufacture which comes home directly to our breakfast-tables. The arrangement of a metropolitan bakehouse, then, literally described, is pretty much as follows. The oven is in the cellar, under the roadway, the mixing-troughs and kneading boards are in the basement. The heat ranges from 80 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. There is generally a privy under the stairs in some corner of the den, all the impure gases from which are sucked, as a matter of course, towards the furnace-mouth, ventilating the dough in the course of its progress over it. It is scarcely necessary to remark, that a temperature of the nature we have indicated cannot be without effect upon the skin of the workman; nevertheless, the machinery of these establishments consists simply of the baker's hands and arms, and, in some cases, of their feet! With these they knead the dough much as they did at the earliest times of which we have any knowledge. The result, with respect to the bread, we leave to our reader's imagination, but we wish particularly to draw attention to the condition of the workers. According to the report of Dr. Guy, the journeyman baker habitually works in the polluted atmosphere we have described from eighteen to twenty hours a day, and, towards the end of the week, nearly two entire days in succession! Is it to be wondered at that, under these circumstances, the trade of the baker is one of the most unhealthy in the metropolis? Compositors who work in a heated atmosphere, we are told by Dr. Guy, are peculiarly subject to chest diseases of a severe character: they spit [-161-]  blood (a very grave symptom) in the proportion of twelve and a half in a hundred; but journeymen bakers, we are informed by the same authority, spit blood in the proportion of thirty-one in the hundred. Amongst the journeymen of the under-priced bakers, we are further told, that no less than every other man spits blood. We do not wish to pursue this unpleasant subject further than is necessary to insure public attention to the sufferings of a class of workers who have hitherto borne their cross with almost culpable patience. We have said enough, however, to show that society is the ogre we read of in the nursery-tale, and like him may cry.-
     "We grind their bones to make our bread!"
    The Operative Bakers' Society endeavoured, some time since, to obtain a Committee of the House of Commons to inquire into their grievances, but they failed, and nothing seemed left to them but to interest public opinion in their favour. It is probable, however, that their grievances will gradually be redressed in a manner quite unexpected. The iron limbs of machinery are coming to the rescue of the overtasked human muscle; another powerful drudge once thoroughly engaged in our service, not only will the evils complained of by the operative bakers disappear, but other .advantages will flow to the public we have yet to mention.
    Some little time since we witnessed the working of bread-making by machinery, at the steam bakery of Messrs. Peek, Frean, and Co., of Dockhead. It has long been well known in the medical profession, that the ordinary fermented bread is very apt to disagree with dyspeptic persons — a fermentation still going on in the stomach after [-162-]  it is eaten. Impressed with this difficulty as regards ordinary bread, Dr. Dauglish has succeeded in making by machinery a very pure unfermented bread, the constituents of which are simply flour and salt, with the addition of what we shall term soda-water. In the production of this article, which is perhaps familiar to the reader under the term of aerated bread, the hand of the workman never touches the material during the whole process of manufacture. The mixing is performed in a hollow air-tight iron receptacle, by the rapid revolution of iron arms fixed upon a central spindle, very much in the same manner in which mortar is mixed in a pugmill.
    In ordinary bread, the vesicular texture is given by the addition of yeast, which causes a fermentation in the dough mass, resulting in the production of carbonic acid gas, which fills the tenacious substance with air-bubbles, and thus lightens it. In the new process, however, the carbonic acid gas is supplied direct to the flour in conjunction with the water, and the lightening process is thus performed without any decomposition whatever. The aerated water is pumped into the mixing receptacle at a very high pressure, and when the kneading is finished a process which is completed in as many minutes as it formerly took hours a valve is opened in the bottom of the mixer, and the dough is forced out by the elasticity of its contained carbonic acid gas. A boy in attendance receives it as it flows, and cuts off, with marvellous exactness, just enough to fill a small 2 lb. 4 oz. tin. It is as much as he can do to keep time with the stream of dough as it issues from the machine, and cut off sufficient portions to fill up the little army of tins that are supplied to his hand. The loaves, [-163-] now ready for baking, are placed upon what is termed a traversing oven, the platform of which is composed of an endless chain working upon two rollers. By this contrivance the dough is taken in at one end, and after travelling, and baking meanwhile, for the space of one hour, is ejected at the other extremity as bread.
    The lightness and purity of the aerated bread will, without doubt, command for it, ere long, universal demand. The rejection of the process of fermentation, whilst it does away with a certain cause of indigestion, is also valuable, inasmuch as it renders a certain kind of adulteration, to which all town-made bread is obnoxious, unnecessary. Londoners are particularly partial to very white bread. Now this quality can only be obtained by the admixture of alum with the flour, in order to overcome the partial discoloration which takes place during the fermenting process even in pure flour; damaged flour, which bakers use in the poorer districts, in consequence of its dark appearance even before fermentation, requires a much more liberal allowance of the bleaching alum. Dr. Hassall, in his work on the Adulteration of Food, devotes a Special chapter to the falsification of bread in the metropolis. Out of twenty-four loaves, purchased indiscriminately from bakers residing in different parts of London, he found every one adulterated with alum, the degree of adulteration corresponding with the poverty of the neighbourhood in which it had been bought. Thus it is clear that the ordinary bread is contaminated with a pernicious drug. The quantity thus taken at one time is small, it is true, but its repetition from day to day cannot fail to exercise a considerable influence upon the digestive organs, espe-[-164-]cially in young children. The aerated machine-made bread does not require the addition of alum to whiten it, the energy of the kneading apparatus transferring even the darkest spurred flour into perfectly white loaves. The poor journeyman baker, no less than the public, will be the gainer by the application of .machinery to the operation of mixing, inasmuch as it will at once lift a very clumsy handicraft, carried on by small masters, with insufficient means, into a manufacture of the first class, necessitating the employment of large capital. The steam-bakery of Messrs. Peek, Frean, & Co., for instance, where we saw Dr. Dauglish's bread machinery at work, contained workshops as spacious as those of a cotton-mill, contrasting most favourably with the miserable, fetid dens in which our metropolitan bread is at present made. The air is pure, the temperature moderate, and the time occupied in the manufacture of the loaf so short (an hour and a half), that the operatives are entirely exempt from the fearful amount of illness and mortality which exists among those employed by low-priced bakers. The introduction of steam machinery into the trade is, in fact, as great a boon to the poor mechanic, as the invention of the sewing machine is to the tailor and sempstress. Iron limbs worked by steam muscles, it is clear, will ere long lift the working man above the mere drudgery of his task in most handicrafts, and prepare the way more than any other circumstance, for their ultimate elevation in our social system.