Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Some Thoughts on Trenchers

Seems we can't swing a dead direwolf without running into a reference to trenchers.  My husband was pleased with this, as it meant, in his mind, lots of delicious bread bowls drenched in soppy goodness.

Not true, unfortunately.  The "trencher", from the French "tranchier" (to cut) was less a bread and more a form of tableware.  Eventually replaced by wood, stone, or metal plates, the trencher was a square slab of stale bread.  By most historical accounts, the best trencher was half a foot wide and four inches tall.

Rarely did people eat their own trencher.  The bread was stale and made of particularly coarse flour to ensure it was tough enough for it's intended purpose.  Most bakers had distinct recepies for table bread and trencher bread.  In fact, the term "trencherman" was often used to describe a person who ate or drank to excess.  The trenchers were more often either tossed to the more prized hounds (a trencher fed pack) or gathered up as alms for the poor.  OMNOMNOM! Leftovers!

For those interested in the history governemnt regulation of private industry, one of the first laws to regulate the production and sale of food was the Assize of Bread and Ale, enacted by Henry III in 1267. The law tied the price of bread to the price of wheat to limit a baker's ability to inflate the price of bread. Similarly, the price of ale was tied to the price of wheat, barley and oats. Beer and ale was regulated by gustatores cervisiae, or ale-conners, appointed “to examine and assay the beer and ale, and to take care that they were good and wholesome, and sold at proper prices according to the assize.“

The Assize of Bread and Ale remained in effect until the mid 19th century.  A shame, because that sounds like a pretty awesome job.

Trenchers made perhaps their first literary appearance in Virgil's Aeneid.  In book 3, Aeneas recounts to Dido that the Chief of the Harpies made a prophesy in which he would arrive in Italy but...

Never shall you build your promised city
Until the injury you did us by this slaughter
Has brought you to a hunger so cruel
That you gnaw your very tables.
The prophecy is fulfilled in book 7, when the Trojans eat their trenchers. Aeneas states:

I now can tell you, my father Anchises
Revealed these secrets to me for he said:
"When you have sailed, son, to an unknown shore
And, short of food, are driven to eat your tables,
Then, weary though you are, hope you are home

After much thought, I have decided to deviate from coarse stale bread and go with the more modern "bread bowl" for several reasons, the most compelling of which is that I have been unable to find a local shelter willing to take stale bread with leftover food bits on it.  More to follow.


  1. Thanks for the history lesson! Very interesting. As I was quite like you're husband, you've crushed my dreams of awesome yummy bread, but I'll use what I have to soak up my tears instead.

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