Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reverse Engineering a Roman Bread Recipe

Carbonized loaf of bread, AD 79, Roman, Herculaneum. 
© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei
The 2013 video that appears to the left of this post shows baker Giorgio Locatelli recreating a bread recipe that could have been used to bake the loaf found in the archaeological dig at Herculaneum; a loaf made over 2,000 years ago.  A written version of the recipe may be found here at the British Museum's website, and a picture of the grayish, carbonized loaf from Herculaneum may be found to the right.

Mr. Locatelli believes that the flattish loaf was a sourdough bread.  He believes that its odd shape came from affixing a string around the loaf and making cuts in the surface of the dough mass before baking.   Mr. Locatelli also suggests that the Herculaneum loaf may have been baked with a string tied around the dough so that the finished loaf could be carried by the string; a useful bit of convenience in a place and time in which sellers were not expected to provide buyers with containers for carrying purchases. Interestingly, he does not believe the dough was kneaded much.  Instead, he thinks it was merely mixed thoroughly until it achieved the right consistency and then allowed to rest at room temperature for about an hour before baking.

It makes sense that early leavened loaves would be made from sourdough.  No special equipment is required, and no yeasts need to be isolated for special addition to your flour and water dough.

As for the lack of kneading, About Food suggests that the purpose of kneading is to align gluten strands within the dough into a framework that will make the bread lighter.   A dough that has fermented, however, will have a similar gluten matrix, caused mostly by the fermentation process; it won't need much kneading.  Although one can certainly put a lot of effort into kneading sourdough (and doing so can produce wonderful results, as I learned as a child from my mother's sourdough experiments), it may not be necessary to do so, especially if you are not interested in getting your loaf to rise substantially.

The moral of this story is that anything a person can create, another person can recreate by logical deductions based on specific knowledge of the type of item and the materials and processes typically used to make such items.  That's as true of bread as it is of clothing, hairstyles, machines and computer programs.  It is fascinating to see such recreation techniques applied to food as they have been to other areas of material culture.

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