Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

wafer and waffle both derive from the Flemish/Dutch wafel and wafer, which gave too the French gaufre. They stem from the Christian host offered at the Eucharist. In a learned investigation, the Dutch historian Janny de Moor (1994) explains how the early Catholic Church adopted unleavened bread as its standard (while the Orthodox remained wedded to risen loaves) and its missionaries wandered the heathen wastes of Europe armed with wafer irons to do their own baking. A raw mixture is sandwiched between two pieces of metal whose heat cooks it. The iron has an incised pattern which increases its surface area and improves the transfer of heat to the mixture, and also gives it a decorative form. Such an iron, dating from the 6th or 7th century, has indeed been found in Carthage. It was not until the 13th century that laymen were permitted to produce these breads and it was probably to differentiate the secular from sacramental that waffles were developed: they are invariably leavened, thus quite distinct from the unleavened host. The patterns and decorations, not to speak of related customs and rituals, of secular wafers display nonetheless their ecclesiastical beginnings. These were enthusiastically adopted by Germans and inhabitants of the Low Countries. Modern versions are on display in Pagrach-Chandra (2002). Secular wafers, again as a mark of distinction, were often rolled while still warm and malleable into oublies (the Americans call these ‘crullers’, after the Middle Dutch); a guild of oblayeurs was founded in Paris in 1270. Wafers are often celebration biscuits, baked for festivals. They were also often stuffed, for example with cheese or, most famously, with treacle as in the Gouda stroopwafels. Beyond their homelands, the universal use of wafers today is as accompaniment or sandwich to ice cream.