Book ahead

I have a thing about books. I have lots of them, and I acquire new ones far more quickly than I can read them. Mostly I buy secondhand for reasons of economy. Sometimes, when the target is obscure and out of print, it’s the only option. After years of searching and procrastinating, I have finally ticked another of the titles on the list of Books I Must Own.

Manna front cover

Walter Banfield’s book Manna: A Comprehensive Treatise on Bread Manufacture 1 was first published in 1937. My latest acquisition is the 2nd edition of 1947 and, from the evidence of a very yellowed letter tucked inside the front boards, appears to have been awarded as a prize to a student at Leeds College of Technology in 1953. It’s nice to be reminded of a book’s history.

Banfield, along with John Kirkland and his epic multi-volume The Modern Baker and Confectioner, came to my attention via Elizabeth David’s English Yeast and Bread Cookery. Although long out of print, copies of these works can be found easily enough – at a price. I came across a complete set of The Modern Baker in a bookshop on Charing Cross Road earlier this year that was selling for over £200. Fortunately I was able to acquire Manna for a more modest sum.

These works were written in the earlier part of the 20th century to instruct students of baking and those working in the trade. They were compiled in the period before bread become an object of mass production. In other words, they describe a world in which the local bakery was still commonplace and the business of making bread still very much a hands-on affair. It wasn’t very long after 1947 that baking became fully industrialised, and the need for a textbook along the lines of Banfield’s vanished as making bread became largely a matter of managing machinery.

Sample pages from Manna

The absence in today’s market of a book like Banfield’s is really why I started work on Flour & Water in the first place. That’s not to say that Manna is the ideal resource for the amateur baker. It absolutely isn’t. It contains a great deal that is outdated or simply not relevant to the home baker, and I’m not suggesting that everyone with an interest in making bread should start combing antiquarian booksellers for long-defunct reference works.

Sample page from Manna

Nonetheless, Banfield and Kirkland, among others, are important to me personally. I bought a copy of Elizabeth David’s brilliant book at a point in my attempts at breadmaking where I was ready to give up. It taught me an awful lot, and in it David frequently referenced the work of both Banfield and Kirkland. I decided to consult their books in the British Library. Even then they had to be pre-ordered: the library stores its more arcane titles outside London. But when I eventually got to see them, I was inspired. These books went some way towards explaining how bread actually works.

I’m not saying that there aren’t any contemporary books that seriously examine the science and technique of making bread. A notable example is Daniel Wing and Alan Scott’s The Bread Builders, which should be on any keen baker’s wish list. Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread is another, as is Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters (which also refers to Banfield). Still, it seems like these are isolated examples in a market swamped with bland identikit recipe books by celebrity authors.

On the whole it’s probably fair to say that only the geekiest of bread geeks would get their money’s worth by tracking down esoterica like Manna. But, since I fall into the category of both bread geek and compulsive bibliophile, I’m glad to add it to my collection at last.


  1. The title refers to a passage from the biblical Book of Exodus in which the Israelites receive a mysterious edible substance from heaven, of which Moses says “This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat”; it is also mentioned in the Koran.