2,000 Year Old Bread

A Root Simple reader sent me a link to this video from the British Museum showing a chef recreating a 2,000 thousand year old loaf of bread found in one of the ovens of Pompeii.


Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Bread A Global History by William Rubel. Rubel puts forth a couple of theories about the history of bread. One, that there’s nothing new about white bread. The elites have been eating white bread for a long time. Ironically, healthier whole wheat breads tended to go to poor folks. Also he says that the Pompeian bread would most likely, as this chef proves, look and taste a lot like contemporary “artisinal” sourdoughs. In other words, the bread you buy at a fancy bakery like Tartine in San Francisco hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years.

The British Museum has helpfully provided a recipe should you want to make your own version of this bread.

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  1. Ok so as I watch this video, I notice the dough is super super wet and sticks to his fingers, then there is an edit, and the dough holds together and is not wet and does not stick to his fingers. What did we miss? My dough is always in the wet wet stage and never gets to the dryer hold-together stage unless I keep adding and adding and adding flour.

    • I think he worked a lot of extra flour in while kneading. I don’t knead, but I do a set of stretch and folds every hour during the first fermentation. This helps develop a “gluten skin” on the dough, which makes it somewhat less sticky. If I’m working with a really wet whole wheat dough I actually wet the work surface and my hands rather than use flour. I like this better–it’s less messy and you don’t work in additional flour which can make for a heavier bread.

  2. My ex came to marriage with things his grandmother said always on his tongue. One was: Only poor people eat brown bread. So, he would not eat pumpernickel or other dark breads, no matter they came from a deli or bakery and were very expensive. He wanted his cheap, white Wonder Bread. I guess he was right…lol.

    • That was true in the medieval period. The wealthier people had the finer ground flour which produced whiter, lighter bread, while the poorer people generally ate bread made from flour that wasn’t as fine and they were darker breads, probably from different grains. Sounds like this attitude/viewpoint has persisted to today, at least among some people.

  3. Did he say that it was made out of buckwheat?!!!!!

    I thought there was no gluten in buckwheat so you couldn’t use if for bread. I can understand why the Romans would like to use it, as it produces on soil that is farmed-out and has low nitrogen.

    • He does say buckwheat, which does not have gluten in it. I think he misspoke. The recipe on the British Museum website is half spelt, half whole wheat flour.

    • He says “we’ve got some flour and we’ve got some buckwheat flour.” I run into this all the time where people say “flour” when they are referring to wheat flour, usually white wheat flour, or they say “wheat” when they are referring to whole wheat flour as a sort of short hand. But, after a few misunderstandings and discussions at lunch counters, I think many people don’t understand exactly what are in breads and flours.

    • On top of that there could be an Italian/English language problem here, especially when it comes to defining what the “spelt” the recipe calls for is.

    • I don’t know… Locatelli is a famous (TV) chef in the UK and the restaurant he filmed in is in London. I’d hope he’d know his spelt from his buckwheat by now.
      The British Museum recipe also adds gluten as a separate ingredient which I don’t think Locatelli did (?) I’m not sure why that’s necessary with 50/50 wholemeal and spelt.

      I’ve checked in my book on Roman cookery, which specifically mentions the Pompeii loaves, but it doesn’t specify ingredients, merely saying that different grades of (wheat) flour were produced. I think half buckwheat would work, but I can’t find any reference to it.

      I’ll email the British Museum and ask them!

    • Thanks Hazel! If you get a response please let us know what they say. I’ll see what else I can find on those loaves too.

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