How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dating Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

Ecce panis—try your hand at the kind of loaf that Mel Brooks’ 2000-year-old man might have sunk his teeth into. Literally.

In 1930 a loaf of bread dating to AD 79 (the year Vesuvius claimed two prosperous Roman towns) was excavated from the site of a bakery in Herculaneum.

Eighty-three years later, the British Museum invited London chef Giorgio Locatelli, above, to take a stab at creating an edible facsimile for its Pompeii Live exhibition.

The assignment wasn’t as easy as he’d anticipated, the telegenic chef confesses before whipping up a lovely brown miche that appears far more mouth watering than the carbonized round found in the Herculaneum oven.

His recipe could be mistaken for modern sourdough, but he also has a go at several details that speak to bread’s role in ancient Roman life:

Its perimeter has a cord baked in to provide for easy transport home. Most Roman homes were without ovens. Those who didn’t buy direct from a bakery took their dough to community ovens, where it was baked for them overnight.

The loaf was scored into eight wedges. This is true of the 80 loaves found in the ovens of the unfortunate baker, Modestus. Locatelli speculates that the wedges could be used as monetary units, but I suspect it’s more a business practice on par with pizza-by-the-slice.

(Nowadays, Roman pizza is sold by weight, but I digress.)

The crust bears a telltale stamp. Locatelli takes the opportunity to brand his with the logo of his Michelin-starred restaurant, Locanda Locatelli. His inspiration is stamped ‘Property of Celer, Slave of Q. Granius Verus.’ To me, this suggests the possibility that the bread was found in a communal oven.

Locatelli also introduces a Flintstonian vision when he alludes to specially-devised labor saving machines to which Roman bakers yoked “animals,” presumably donkeys…or knowing the Romans and their class system, slaves.

His published recipe (a variation of the one in the video) is below.  Here is a conversion chart for those unfamiliar with metric measurements.


400g biga acida (sourdough)

12g yeast

18g gluten

24g salt

532g water

405g spelt flour

405g wholemeal flour

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.

For an even more artisanal attempt (and extremely detailed instructions) check out the Artisan Pompeii Miche recipe on the Fresh Loaf bread enthusiast community.

True Roman bread for true Romans!

via Metafilter/Make

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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  • thomas miller says:

    Very interesting. Small but important detail is flour was fermented naturally without the introduction of “yeast” as an ingredient until after Louis Pasteur identified and separated it as an ingredient in about 1862.
    Just take out the 12g of yeast as a recipe ingredient to add and let the Biga Acida do the work. Recipe will be a lot more credible.

  • Richard J. Barbalace says:

    Interesting, but I do not understand why the baker chose to cut eight wedges in that odd way. A simpler, easier, and more accurate method is to score in half four times, which is similar to how I slice my round scones.

  • Analida says:

    This is fascinating. I am certainly going to try this recipe at home. I also don’t understand why the chef decided to slice the round the way he did.

  • maria says:

    And should you bake please remember to cover your hair before preparation so it would be a lot more hygienic than LL preparation.

  • Jenna says:

    The 8 slices probably had more to do with the name of the town it was baked in, Herculaneum. 8 was consider the sideways number for infinity and also 8th letter of the Greek alphabet ‘H’.

    There were guilds all through history for bread baking. It was heavily regulated to avoid fraud and disease. Much of the actually redactions are a mystery since it was an apprentice art.

  • michelle says:

    needs more info. s*cked.

  • Tony says:

    Where do you get 18g of gluten from?

  • Hoc says:

    Very unlikely this bears any relationship to first century bread.
    The available ingredients were flour, salt, water, oil. The period recipes for bread have no mention of any other ingredients. Yeast was unknown until identified in the 19th century. Whatever gluten is in the bread wad developed from the flours used.
    There is no mention of “sourdough” or any addition of previous dough in any period descriptions. The most likely form of leavening was the incidental natural yeasts left in the preparatory surfaces.
    If you want truly accurate bread, take flour, water, salt, and a little olive oil. Knead, knead, knead, and knead (preferably on an unwashed cutting board where you’ve been kneading bread for weeks) to create the stretchy gluten. Let it sit and do whatever limited rising it might do from wild yeasts, score, and then bake.

  • Servius says:

    Pliny the Elder:

    “The leaven is made from the flour itself, which is kneaded before the addition of salt. It can be boiled down into a kind of mush, and then left until it turns sour, though in general they do not bother with this simmering process, but rather use some dough leftover from the day before”

  • Walter Sobchak says:

    Servius is correct. In pre-modern times, sourdough was the typical method of leavening bread. Bakers, and houses that made their own bread, would have kept a jar of sourdough in the kitchen. Every day they would use some to leaven the bread, and feed the remainder with flour and water to keep it going.

    Italy, being a wine growing area would have been exclusively a sourdough baking area. in norther Europe where beer was brewed because grapes did not grow, they could take extra yeast from the brewing process and use that as leavening. I believe that was done routinely, long before Pasture explained it.

  • Trill says:

    Most natural food stores have it, just ask. Also (from experience) nutritional yeast is not the same as regular yeast.

  • Robert Crawford says:

    Note: Pliny the Elder was a witness to the eruption, and one of the dead. He took out a number of galleys with light crews to try to rescue people from the beach, but the winds from the shore (volcano) prevented the ships from reaching the beach. He died of a heart attack the following night.

    Also: “Locatelli also introduces a Flintstonian vision when he alludes to specially-devised labor saving machines to which Roman bakers yoked “animals,” presumably donkeys…or knowing the Romans and their class system, slaves.”

    Some of the bakers used mules — their remains were found in a bakery — and some used slaves. The bakery I was in in Pompeii was too small, and the grindstones placed too close, for mules to be used, so it was one that used slaves.

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