How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread from 79 AD: A Video Introduction

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!

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Explore the Roman Cook­book, De Re Coquinar­ia, the Old­est Known Cook­book in Exis­tence

Tast­ing His­to­ry: A Hit YouTube Series Shows How to Cook the Foods of Ancient Greece & Rome, Medieval Europe, and Oth­er Places & Peri­ods

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

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

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