Why 13? The Tale of A Baker's Dozen

fresh homemade loaves
Fascinating. I love to know things like this. I've just been reading (in Bill Bryson's book, At Home*) why a baker's dozen is 13, instead of 12.

Picture the scene: a bakery in medieval Britain, in the year 1200, perhaps. The shop is full of customers because bread is a staple part of the British diet. The baker makes loaves and rolls from wheat flour, probably very similar to our modern bread. He sells a lot of bread and he's doing quite well but, you know what? There's always a way to make a bit of extra money...

The unscrupulous baker might have had a few unsavoury practices. Such trickery might have included mixing some sand in with the flour, soaking stale bread and adding it into the new dough, or selling loaves that were unfairly small for their price.

The sale and production of food were unregulated until 1266, when King Henry III introduced the Assize of Bread and Ale. Under this law, the weight and quality of a loaf of bread were specified, relating the price of bread to the price of wheat.

Bakers found to be breaking the law faced consequences.

For a first offence, the baker could expect to be fined. For further offences, a baker could be placed in a pillory for a few hours where villagers could make their disapproval known by throwing things at him. Repeat offenders were jailed and had their trade taken away from them. So, honesty was the best policy.

Alas, things could still go wrong even with the best of intentions.

Unfortunately, loaves lose weight in cooking. Sometimes they lose more weight than expected. Even if you've carefully measured the ingredients, followed a standard procedure and been as scrupulous as you could, all loaves are not created equal. Some end up weighing more than others. And what if the Bakers Guild discovered a light one?

No one wants to be branded a cheat. It's not good for business. A baker, once marked out as dishonest, would quickly lose customers, whether or not the light loaf was simply an honest mistake.

Unsurprisingly, bakers were keen to protect their good reputations and anxious to ensure that their bread measured up to the rules. So began the practice of adding an extra loaf or roll to every dozen sold, ensuring that the weight was more than required. The extra bread was called 'in-bread' or a 'vantage' loaf and I'm sure this generosity did no harm to customer-relations. The baker's dozen is an idea that persists to this day.

P.S.

If you love a bit of food history, check out The Old Foodie, which I came across when researching this article. It's a charming, interesting blog, promising 'a food history story and a recipe every weekday of the year'. Enjoy!

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6 comments:

  1. Thank you Rachel .. loved the story, and a fascinating bit of history .. keep it up. Tony, down here in NZ.

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    1. Thanks Tony :) I loved writing this one too! I feel more history stories coming on...

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  2. This is scary! Last time I'd made pittas the day before your own recipe came out. Last night I read that very chapter of Bill Bryson's book. Shall I tell you what you're going to write about next week... :-)

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    1. Oh my goodness - yes please! I'd love to know what I'm going to write about next. It's often a mystery to me until the night before, so all predictions gratefully received! How curious!

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  3. A very interesting read Rachel! I remember creating a worksheet many years ago, with images of improper practices from unscrupulous traders. SHMS days!

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    1. Thanks! I'd like to do more articles along these lines :)

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