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Making Bread from a 2,000 Year Old Recipe

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As part of the British Museum’s Pompeii Live film promotion, they posted the following on their website:

In AD 79, a baker put his loaf of bread into the oven. Nearly 2,000 years later it was found during excavations in Herculaneum. The British Museum asked Giorgio Locatelli to recreate the recipe as part of his culinary investigations for Pompeii Live.

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Along with a video of Locatelli recreating the loaf, they even include a more modern recipe so that you can try it yourself. Which is good because the baker never cuts into the loaf or tastes the fruits of his labors.

I’m really intrigued by the indentation along the circumference of the loaf. Locatelli believes a string may have been tied around the loaf as a carrying handle after it was baked. You could buy a trussed up loaf at a street market and carry it home on your wrist like a purse. The baker’s mark in the bread is also a fascinating embellishment. Early product branding.

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

  1. 400g biga acida (sourdough)
  2. 12g yeast
  3. 18g gluten
  4. 24g salt
  5. 532g water
  6. 405g spelt flour
  7. 405g wholemeal flour

Melt the yeast into the water and add it into the biga. Mix and sieve the flours together with the gluten and add to the water mix. Mix for two minutes, add the salt and keep mixing for another three minutes. Make a round shape with it and leave to rest for one hour. Put some string around it to keep its shape during cooking. Make some cuts on top before cooking to help the bread rise in the oven and cook for 30–45 minutes at 200 degrees.

Note: This recipe differs from the one in the video (which I assume is the actual recipe derived from investigating the loaf). In the video, Locatelli uses only buckwheat flour, biga acida, and salt water in his recipe.

25 thoughts on “Making Bread from a 2,000 Year Old Recipe

  1. And how exactly did chef arrive at the recipe for ancient bread using ingredients the ancients didn’t have, like yeast and gluten? I’m not buying this?

  2. @Griz, @disqus_4PgpRhjpu0:disqus – Really?!?!

    What do you all think yeast and glutten are?

    Yeast are a variety of fungi found all throughout nature. It’s spores suround us in the air, it even lives on our skin. Yeasts have been used since before recorded history in the creation of alcohol and bread. No doubt it was discovered the first time somebody left food out that happened to have the right acidity to allow yeast but nothing poisonous or pathenogenic to grow.

    Gluten is a major part of the common grains people have been eating, also since before recorded history. Basically, it’s the stuff that’s left after you grind it into flour and then wash all the starch out.

    Being surprised that the Romans had these things is kind of like being surprised that they had the wheel or fire.

    Not related to this story but I bet you guys think that MSG is some totally ‘artificial’ (whatever artificial means) made by evil corporations to poison us. Wouldn’t you be surprised to learn that one was actually RE-discovered in 1866 having previously been produced in China as early as 5500BC!

    1. I think in the context of the article and my question, yeast and gluten are things this chef bought off the shelf at the local store for his wildly innaccurate “recreation” of this recipe. Romans didn’t have yeast, they had grape must left over from wine making that contained yeast, or they had bread dough from yesterday, the equivalent of the modern day “sourdough.” We all know what gluten is and where it comes from, and what it does, Sparky. My point was, what’s he “recreating” bears no resemblence to how that 2000 year old loaf of bread was actually produced.

    2. But the store-bought yeast is very, very different from sourdough. Store-bought yeast is Saccharomyces cervicea, whereas sourdough generally contains “wild yeasts” from the air, which include bacteria more like what you find in yogurt: members of the lactobaccillis family, for example (and pardon my horrid Latin spelling in the above). The smell is even different.

      And while the biga likely contained flour, buckwheat, which is the primary grain used in the video recipe, is gluten-free. It would rise in a completely different fashion, with a different texture, than a true wheaten bread.

      1. Ok, I didn’t watch the video and didn’t know that the original was primarily buck-wheat. I just trusted that the attempt to re-create the original really was a valid attempt. My reply was to the idea that people didn’t have these things in the past.

  3. I thought gluten was already a primary component of wheat/flour? Interesting to see it listed as its own ingredient in addition to the flour. Also, the term for cutting dough is scoring (I’m surprised he doesn’t say that in the video). In addition to helping the bread rise, many chefs develop a signature score pattern!

    1. That recipe, with the added yeast and gluten, would come out completely inauthentic, particularly if the original recipe indeed is just buckwheat, sourdough, water, and salt. Buckwheat has no gluten, and store-bought yeast is a relatively modern invention that contains significantly different fungi and bacteria than present in sourdough. (And maybe he doesn’t use the word scoring because he’s not a native English speaker or he’s assuming the audience is unfamiliar with the term.)

      1. As for the scoring, I figured that was probably the reason. And cool, I didn’t know buckwheat is gluten free!

  4. I don’t know. I feel like this would have been baked upside down in a mold of some sort like modern bundt pan. That “line” could be the top of the mold and then the wider “base” could be where the bread expanded up and over.

    1. idk, the sides don’t seem flat enough for the top to have been encased in a pan. Unless the pan had curved/concave walls

    2. My thinking exactly. It seems abundantly clear that the method this baker demonstrates is NOT how the original bread was baked. Those obviously are not score marks, otherwise the crust would have cracked open and bulged outwards at those score marks, just like it did in the modern bread that baker was holding at the end. Instead, the lines in the ancient bread are perfect indentations, and there is no sign of a crust to be see anywhere.

      So yes, I agree that it looks like this bread was baked in a shallow clay pan, and what we’re seeing is simply the imprint of the curved bottom of that pan, complete with built-in subdivisions and a seal.

      From the video, it seems clear that this baker hasn’t even had a chance to examine the ancient bread in person. Otherwise, it should be fairly easy to tell whether that line along the circumference was from a string. And the baker would obviously want to have a look at the underside of that bread as well.

      Seriously, British Museum – is this the best you can do?

        1. Ok, as no pan was found, and several of us agree that it is fairly obvious from texture and shape that it was flipped over before baking and that those sections were formed not cut.

          What about a shaped raising mold? Something like a Couronne Bordelaise ?

  5. “Note: This recipe differs from the one in the video (which I assume is the actual recipe derived from investigating the loaf. In the video, Locatelli uses only buckwheat flour, biga acida, and salt water in his recipe.”

    Did this get added later or am I just stupid. Those three ingredients would be perfectly authentic.

  6. I love all of the conversation and speculation around this post. I am
    going to reach out to the British Museum and see if we can post some
    sort of follow up that gets more serious about the actual archeology and
    science behind this discovery and attempts to answer some of the
    questions that have been raised, here and on the YT video post. Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments.

    1. here ís the way you can fíll-up your bank account with addítional funds every week, check for more informatìon ìn my profile

  7. I don’t think that the mystery loaf has been adequately explained. What does the other side of the loaf look like? The string was a notion of the modern baker. We need corroborating evidence for that. The groove could result from stacking two balls of dough and pressing slightly. Why? The resulting wedge would split neatly to make a sandwich. ( I seriously doubt that the Earl of Sandwich was the first person to think of this convenient way to manage food.) The smooth surface of the top of the loaf suggests that it was formed by baking in a mold. The baker’s stamp might have been impressed into the dough before placing in the mold. But again, corroboration is lacking. Romans bought a lot of street food. It is reasonable to imagine someone at the baker’s stall buying a wedge of this loaf, splitting it open to apply a good splash of fermented fish sauce and going on his way, eating lunch as he walked.
    FYI – Gluten forms sheets in wheat dough when it is kneaded; these catch the gases exuded by the yeast to form the bubbles that give wheat bread its distinctive texture.

    1. Late to the party, but I totally agree about the stacking of two balls of dough. I was doing some searching on how bread stamps work because I didn’t believe the stamps would’ve been left on the loaf during baking – look at the enormous depth of the indentation the modern baker created, as opposed to the original loaf! (Plus, because it’s Pompeii, we ought to still have anything that went into the oven with the bread.) I went to look for information about communion bread in the Greek Orthodox church, because they still use bread stamps for it, and check out the pictures of a “Byzantine” style loaf here: http://www.prosphora.org/page1.html . Given the conservative tendencies of the Orthodox church, I don’t think it’s out of the question to see that as a continuation of Roman practice.

      As for the scoring, the pictures of the original loaf seem to have a finger-sized indentation in the center as well. I’ve not worked with buckwheat, so I’m not sure how that would affect the oven spring. But possibly that central hole would give it room to expand rather than cracking. I tried the proportions of the ‘modern’ recipe just now (minus the commercial yeast, because really), and the dough was too wet to keep the two balls of dough distinct, but the final product tasted delicious. I tested out stamping it prior to putting it in the oven by using a plastic cookie cutter, and that worked just fine (see pic). The light scoring I tried with the back of a knife didn’t cause the top crust of the loaf to break in the oven, but it also didn’t create any of the lovely contours we can see in the ancient loaf, so that needs additional experimentation.

  8. Many old recipes are converted for our modern taste. It is highly likely the changes are to produce something we will find edible.
    Also, should we keep in mind just how much we have changed our food? (Carrots were not always orange.) some of the changes might account for as well. For our purposes we will try the video recipe first then the one the museum provided. I am eager to hear the follow up

  9. Surely if you were going to write the recipe according to the actual ingredients then that’s what you should do not add and change it completely !!! I would be much more interested in the actual recipe that The British Museum has worked out according to the actual loaf !!!

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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