Sun. Apr 21st, 2024

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread from 79 AD: A Video Introduction


Ecce panis—try your hand at the kind of loaf that Mel Brooks’ 2000-year-old man might have sunk his teeth into. Literally.

In 1930 a loaf of bread dating to AD 79 (the year Vesuvius claimed two prosperous Roman towns) was excavated from the site of a bakery in Herculaneum.

Eighty-three years later, the British Museum invited London chef Giorgio Locatelli, above, to take a stab at creating an edible facsimile for its Pompeii Live exhibition.

The assignment wasn’t as easy as he’d anticipated, the telegenic chef confesses before whipping up a lovely brown miche that appears far more mouth-watering than the carbonized round found in the Herculaneum oven.

His recipe could be mistaken for modern sourdough, but he also has a go at several details that speak to bread’s role in ancient Roman life:

Its perimeter has a cord baked in to provide for easy transport home. Most Roman homes were without ovens. Those who didn’t buy direct from a bakery took their dough to community ovens, where it was baked for them overnight.

The loaf was scored into eight wedges. This is true of the 80 loaves found in the ovens of the unfortunate baker, Modestus. Locatelli speculates that the wedges could be used as monetary units, but I suspect it’s more a business practice on par with pizza-by-the-slice.

(Nowadays, Roman pizza is sold by weight, but I digress.)

The crust bears a telltale stamp. Locatelli takes the opportunity to brand his with the logo of his Michelin-starred restaurant, Locanda Locatelli. His inspiration is stamped ‘Property of Celer, Slave of Q. Granius Verus.’ To me, this suggests the possibility that the bread was found in a communal oven.

Locatelli also introduces a Flintstonian vision when he alludes to specially-devised labor-saving machines to which Roman bakers yoked “animals,” presumably donkeys…or knowing the Romans and their class system, slaves.

His published recipe is below.  Here is a conversion chart for those unfamiliar with metric measurements.

INGREDIENTS

400g biga acida (sourdough)

12g yeast

18g gluten

24g salt

532g water

405g spelt flour

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.

For an even more artisanal attempt (and extremely detailed instructions) check out the Artisan Pompeii Miche recipe on the Fresh Loaf bread enthusiast community.

True Roman bread for true Romans!

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Related Content:

Explore the Roman Cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, the Oldest Known Cookbook in Existence

Tasting History: A Hit YouTube Series Shows How to Cook the Foods of Ancient Greece & Rome, Medieval Europe, and Other Places & Periods

Cook Real Recipes from Ancient Rome: Ostrich Ragoût, Roast Wild Boar, Nut Tarts & More

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday





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