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 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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cook Real Recipes from Ancient Rome: Ostrich Ragoût, Roast Wild Boar, Nut Tarts & More

Ani­ma­tion Gives You a Glimpse of What Life Was Like for Teenagers in Ancient Rome

Build­ing The Colos­se­um: The Icon of Rome

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

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Comments (17)
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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.

  • Julie Biddle says:

    You can buy Gluten at a super­mar­ket — usu­al­ly called Vital Wheat Gluten. Bob’s Red Mill also sells it.

  • Phill says:

    I make our home bread, but nev­er use yeast, and shan’t believe it was used clas­si­cal­ly, either. I mix nat­ur­al yoghurt into the flours, with bicarb, and it ris­es enough for my taste; com­pact and sat­is­fy­ing, with­out being airy and bloat­ing…

  • suzanne cooke says:

    I made this bread today. An impor­tant thing to know is that this is a BRITISH recipe and there­fore the tem­per­a­ture is 200 degrees CELSIUS. Con­vert to Amer­i­can Fahren­heit — 400 degrees.

    So I did not fig­ure this out until after the bread was (not) bak­ing. Rais­ing the temp saved it some­what. In any event it was tasty and very fill­ing. I’ll try it again soon.

  • Robert says:

    Here in Hawaii the dough can rise in 20–18 hours, and be sour­dough in 18–36 hours. With no yeast added. Whole wheat whole wheat flour, salt, sug­ar and water. Mix dry ingre­di­ents fist, then add water.

  • Robert says:

    Quite my same reac­tion. Ital­ian chef? Well, I worked in a whole grain bak­ery years ago. 26 dif­fer­ent kinds of whole grain breads and rolls. It was very edu­ca­tion­al. Much more dif­fi­cult than work­ing with blend­ed ( for con­sis­ten­cy, and nutri­ent adjust­ed for yeast devel­ope­ment, not human!) white flour.

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