Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Video: How to make 2,000 year-old Roman sourdough bread

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From The British Museum:

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 the cinema production ‘Pompeii Live from the British Museum’. In response to the many interesting, thoughtful and sometimes amusing comments we’ve received for this video, we’ve asked Paul Roberts, the curator of our Pompeii exhibition ‘Life and Death in Herculaneum’, to give us the academic background:

It was one of the Romans’ great boasts at table that they could serve white flour bread at fine banquets (at normal tables they might well have eaten poorer grades of wheat or other grains, such as spelt or barley, and even beans, lentils or chestnuts.) You will see that Giorgio scores the loaf: I’ve examined lots of the loaves and I am convinced that they are scored. It’s important to remember that the loaves survived because they were carbonised. They have, in effect, shrunk somewhat from their original form, because of the loss of liquid on exposure to the sudden blast of heat form Vesuvius – conservatively estimated at 400 degrees centigrade. All other foodstuffs – figs, beans, grain etc are noticeably smaller than they ought to be – and there is no reason the same shouldn’t be true of bread. This could explain why the scoring and the stamp seem implausibly clear – in effect they may have contracted to a smaller (and in the case of the stamp, more legible) form. This carbonisation must, I think, be taken into account and means the loaves when complete and fresh from the oven may have looked very different from how we see them now – not just in colour.

Recipe for Roman Sour Dough Bread

(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

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DIRECTIONS

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.

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