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Published April 10th 2020
Recreate the bread excavated from Pompeii
Several carbonised loaves of ancient bread have been excavated from ovens frozen in time after the eruption of Vesuvius (79 AD) in the areas of Pompeii and Herculaneum (see image below). When viewing such perfectly preserved ancient bread, questions arise about its taste and construction - and whether it's possible to even get close to recreating it. If you are at home with children (or suddenly in charge of schooling due to quarantine), this is an excellent activity to introduce children to ancient Rome and the Pompeii disaster, as well as have an enjoyable time baking together.
Carbonised bread excavated at Herculaneum, on display at Pompeii Exhibition, Ashmolean Museum (2019)
The British Museum, with Chef Giorgio Locatelli, attempted to recreate a recipe based on the bread excavated at Herculaneum for the series Pompeii Live. He uses some ingredients available to ancient Romans, such as buckwheat flour; however, his recipe also incorporates modern ingredients, such as commercial instant yeast. The blog Tavola Mediterranea in Baking Bread with the Romans presents a recipe for Panis Quadratus informed by instructions from Pliny the Elder. The following recipe was informed by Cato in De Agri Cultura and experimentation. The food blog Pass the Garum has provided a translation of the section from Cato along with a modern recipe for Cato's Roman Bread. So, there are many variations on this theme of Roman bread. The following is my favourite way to make this 'ancient' recipe.
300g Spelt flour 300g Wholewheat flour 1 tsp Salt 375 ml Water (lukewarm) 100g (or 1/2 cup) sourdough starter (or a packet of instant yeast if you must!)
Combine the flours and salt. Combine the water and starter. Put the dry ingredients onto a flat surface and make a well in the centre. Slowly add the liquid mixture to the well, while mixing into the dry ingredients with your hand. For a visual example of this technique, see the British Museum's Pompeii Live.
Once mixed thoroughly, begin to knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. For about 10-15 minutes. Cover and allow to rise for 1.5 to 2 hours in a bowl oiled with lots of olive oil. Tavola Mediterranea recommends a stretch and fold method every 30 minutes over a 2-hour period. I tried this but found my dough was a bit tough and overworked. On subsequent variations on the recipe, I decided rising alone worked for me after the initial kneading.
I also found that this dough requires a very warm environment (but not so warm it starts to cook the yeast) and responds well to more olive oil than you would normally put in a bowl for rising.
After the dough has risen, place it on a baking sheet. If you want that touch of authenticity, score the top of the bread using the image of the Herculaneum bread as a guide. You may also add a 'baker's stamp' using pine nuts, a weight, or, in my case, cloves.
Cover and allow the dough to rise again for about 1-2 hours.
Spritz the oven with water from a spray bottle or put a pan of water in the oven. Preheat oven to 400 F / 200 C and bake for 40-45 minutes until the crust is brown.
The final product is a (large!) wholesome loaf that is best served with olive oil perhaps with a bit of salt and oregano added. It will keep for several days in an airtight container or it may be frozen.