The History Thread Gets That (Egyptian) Bread

This week’s header uses as its starting point a neat article about recent efforts by amateur culinarians to recreate ancient recipes and cooking styles. The main focus is the recreation of Egyptian bread by Seamus Blackley (creator of the XBox!?!) and archaeologist Serena Love, which is pictured below. This inspired me to write a (very) brief introduction to Egyptian baking.

According to At The Mummies Ball, “bread and beer were at the base of every meal and their combined hieroglyphs were used as a symbol for food.” Egyptians often paid laborers with bread, beer or measures of grain in lieu of currency; bread was also baked for funerals and buried in the deceased’s tomb as provisions for the afterlife. Egyptian bakers primarily used emmer and barley for their recipes, which are coarser than modern forms of wheat. The grains were soaked in water, pounded in mortars and left to dry in the Sun. Any remaining chaff was removed by hand.

Illustration from the tomb of Ramses III (source)

Afterwards, the resulting grain was ground on flat grinding stones called querns. Since these grains lacked gluten, bakers used yeast and lichen to leaven the bread (similar to sourdough), which was then mixed in a bowl. Although cooking methods varied across time and location, one common Old Kingdom technique (employed by our experimenters) involved flower pot-shaped clay molds called bedja, which were stacked upside down over a fire until the bread baked. Loaves were often decorated with carvings or knife marks, with figs, dates, coriander seeds and other ingredients added.

Numerous loaves have survived to the present day, and reside in various museums in Egypt. They are, of course, inedible after millennia moldering in tombs, but at least allow us to see the make and variety of bread. The coarse grain ensured that chaff and unground seeds made their way into the end product, resulting in no end of dental damage to hungry Egyptians. These techniques remain in use in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and other African countries, although inevitably different due to the introduction of modern, more malleable forms of grain.

Blackley’s loaf

There’s no question that bread was the staff of life in Egypt as elsewhere, but how did it taste when fresh out of the bedja? We can only guess; Blackley and Love note that they had no recipes to work from and used secondhand accounts to create a passable facsimile. Still, the result of their experiment seems edible enough, producing loaves “as dense as cake, with a rich, sour aroma and a comforting sweetness akin to brown sugar.” Yum!