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Breathing life back into Pompeii’s ash-preserved bread

Imagine your life coming to an abrupt, and probably terrifying end as your city is engulfed in smoke and volcanic ash. People try to flee, but many are caught in the disaster, dying from temperatures up to 250º F. Now imagine that nearly 2000 years later, as the last day of your life is being studied and inspected, that people around the world are fixating on what you were planning on eating for dinner that night, and how tasty it may or may not have been, had you lived to eat it.

Frozen in ash

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius and subsequent burial of the Roman city of Pompeii has presented a number of amazing archaeological opportunities. As with fossilized feather impressions from the Mesozoic era, ash has proven to be a very good material to preserve fine details of what life once looked like. We can examine the residents’ clothing, art and even food in a way not generally possible. Part of the snapshot of the city includes over 80 loaves of bread, many ironically left to bake in ovens made of volcanic basalt, now dried and preserved well enough that people today are trying to recreate the recipes from AD 79.

Roman recipes

Bread was likely baked with a variety of grains like rye, spelt flour or khorasan wheat. It obviously lacked modern processed flour, ready-made yeast or gluten additives. While some modern bakers have been adding in sour dough starters, that wasn’t a likely ingredient in Pompeii. A much more likely leavening agent would have been barm—foam from the top of fermented alcoholic beverages, obtained from the breweries conveniently located near some of the 30 bakeries in the city.

Loaves found in the ovens of these bakeries reveal more than just the preferences of Roman palettes. The circular bread bore a number of interesting markings, such as shallow grooves cut across the top, as well as stamped writing. The grooves were likely to allow the bread to rise in the oven more predictably, retaining its general shape. This was important as murals show loaves of bread being stacked for distribution, necessitating some degree of consistency.

Property claims in the crust

The other marks on the top of a loaf were needed to counteract that homogeneous appearance. Most people in Pompeii didn’t have a bread oven in their own homes, and so they would send their own dough (or at least purchased ingredients) to the bakery where it was cooked in communal ovens. To ensure you got your special recipe back, you’d use a metal stamp to mark your loaf with something like “Property of Celer, Slave of Q. Granius Verus.” The mention of slaves in these marks was likely common, as slaves would have been the primary laborers in this sector of the economy, with some nationalities like the Cappadocians being considered superior bakers if available.

So the next time you sit down to eat, take a moment to look at what’s in the fridge, or microwave, or paper wrapper. What would it tell future generations about your life?

Source: Ancient Bread From Pompeii Fascinates, Kitchenboy

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