Ancient Bread from Pompeii
Known as the “Lost City”, Pompeii is one of the biggest archaeological sites in the world. Excavations are still ongoing today, with at least a third of the 145 acres yet to be uncovered.
Just a twenty-minute drive from Naples, this ancient Roman city and its tragic tale, is the closest we’re every likely to come with such an important piece of history. The ash that covered everything in the wake of Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption in AD 79, preserved the city perfectly.
Buildings, paintings, pottery, frescos and yes, even the souls of the city’s former inhabitants, by way of “death casts”, which show the exact position some of the volcano’s victims died in.
With such an intriguing history, it’s hardly surprising that one would find impeccably preserved loaves of ancient bread here too. And these loaves, further emphasize the mysteries and tragedies of the Lost City.
Bread Loaves Frozen in Time
Walking through the Lost City of Pompeii evokes a lot of strange feelings. There is something so surreal about exploring an ancient city that is literally frozen in time – initially petrified by the blazing heat of Mt. Vesuvius then curiously conserved by its ashes.
Pompeii was quite obviously taken by complete surprise, the evidence of which is often difficult to confront, especially when considering the death casts.
However, there is also something poetic about the city and its citizens having gone about their daily business, oblivious to the danger towering over them, unaware of their imminent fate. This is probably why these famous loaves have become such an important attraction.
They represent what was once a harmonious, presumably well-humoured and functioning civilization, complete with its own local bakery. They pay tribute to this city’s last minutes – when freshly baked bread awaited hungry townspeople, ready to get them through another seemingly normal day, fed and content.
One of the loaves was found in Herculaneum and clearly copyrighted with a Roman bread stamp. These served to identify the baker and stop the loaves from being taken or possibly sold on by other families and businesses, seeing as sharing community ovens was standard at the time.
According to the stamp, this 2000-year-old loaf was made by “Celer, slave of Quintus Granius Verus.” This adds another layer to the captivating history of Pompeii and its inhabitants.
What kind of life must Celer the slave have led? Was he happy to be relieved of his earthly duties? Was baking his only moment of tranquillity or did he despise it and what it represented – a life in captivity?
More loaves were found in the oven of Terentius Neo’s bakery in 1880. Not only can we put a name to the person responsible for these loaves with their eight, neatly marked wedges, we can also put a face to this baker.
The loaves, along with a fresco portrait of Terentius Neo, can be found at the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The fresco depicts Neo and what is believed to be his wife, as a trendy working-class couple who are clearly equals in their work and relationship.
An Ancient Sourdough Recipe
Bread played an important role in ancient Rome seeing as many people depended on it for nourishment. In fact, prices were regulated and subsidised to ensure everyone could afford it, and at times, bread and grain rations were offered for free.
Prior to bread becoming a main food source, Romans mainly relied on something much simpler: puls. This is comparable to the porridge we know today, only it was much heavier and typically made from barley, emmer and wheat.
Over time, Romans gradually upgraded to bread which increasingly became more elaborate, and, as analysts at the British Museum discovered, was made with leaven.
Leaven, as the Roman author, Gaius Plinius Secundus, explains, “is made out of the flour itself, which is kneaded before salt is added to it and is then boiled down into a kind of porridge and left till it begins to go sour.” In other words, the charcoal loaves of Pompeii and Herculaneum were made up of the Romans’ own version of sourdough.
Another loaf was discovered in the oven of a Herculaneum bakery oven in 1930. Some eighty-three years later, the British Museum asked renowned chef, Giorgio Locatelli, to recreate this ancient recipe as a part of the ‘Pompeii Live from the British Museum’ production.
Following a recipe as authentic and straight-forward as possible, Locatelli also replicated its very specific markings: a line running along the lower part of the bread, along with the eight lines indicating where to cut for even distribution.
He did so by tying a string around the loaf, and suspects that this was done for easy cutting as well as a means to carry the loaf back home. You can recreate this ancient Pompeii recipe by following in Locatelli’s example, provided you have a big enough oven.