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Bread – A Staple Since Ancient Times

Ancient Bread MakingThere are not many diets that do not include bread in some form or another, and let’s be honest, we love it! It’s a staple in kitchens all over the world, just look at all the fuss that was created during the pandemic. Flour became scarce, and consequently bread shelves were frequently empty. When flour was available, people were stuck indoors much of the time, and many turned their hands to baking bread. They particularly loved making sourdough, with lots of people learning a new skill.

Bread making has been going on for thousands of years, as the carbonised loaves excavated in Pompeii, Italy show us. This crusty remnant dates back to around the time Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD.

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Panis Quadratus [or the ancient Roman bread] appears in written records and fresco paintings, presenting a few mysteries it has to be said. It is round, with shaped sections, probably in order that it could be broken into portions. This may have been due to a lack of knives among the general population. Each of the loaves appeared to have had a band wrapped around the outside. It’s possible that this practice could have been to help the dough keep its shape. It could also have been an aid for sellers to carry the bread around on a long pole.

Historians disagree on the composition of the loaf, some think it is made from spelt, a form of grain related to wheat, barley and rye. Others believe that common wheat was actually used. In addition to wheat, the bread may also have contained parsley, poppy seeds, fennel or Roman Coriander [Git]. The Romans had a sophisticated style of bread-making and loved to use adventurous flavour combinations. Pompeii’s ruins yielded little in the way of food evidence, so these loaves, found in an oven by Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1862, are a rarity.

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Going back in time even further to 1155 BC, sees the depiction of a baking scene on the tomb of Ramses III located in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt. It shows Egyptians pressing grapes with their feet, then taking the grape juice into a bakery. Here dough is formed into various shapes, most commonly a spiral shaped bread, looking almost like a Cumberland sausage. According to the drawings, the formed dough was then placed into a large pot of boiling liquid using two long sticks. It was then put into a vertical oven (known in Arabic today as Tanoor) and baking commenced. Boiling the dough prior to baking gave the finished loaf a crusty, protective outer surface and allowed it to stay fresh for longer.

There is no indication of what then happened to the bread after leaving the bakery on trays. There is also no clue to the Egyptian name for this bread, if the bread was for regular consumption, or for some kind of religious ritual. The sarcophagus chamber of the tomb has been badly damaged due to repeated flooding from 1890 to 1910. Dust and debris have also contributed to the demise of the drawings. The images were however preserved in book form.

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Unfortunately, the drawings on the Ramses III tomb did not come with any writing to suggest the actual bread recipe. However it is thought to be similar to a modern bagel recipe, where dough is boiled prior to baking. Kaak is a type of bread sold in and around the Middle East and further afield, similar in shape to a bagel but larger.

Sour grape juice or wine may have been added to the dough by the Egyptians to make it rise. Sour grape juice can act as a leavening agent similar to yeast. To counter the bitter taste, date syrup or barley malt could have been used. These days Kaak is baked without being boiled first as with the Egyptian and Medieval versions.


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