I’ve noticed lately that when I do interviews about Pompeii: The Exhibit with the press, the one artifact that comes up over and over again is the loaf of carbonized bread (shown above). It apparently was baking in a oven when the super-heated waves of poisonous gas swept down from Vesuvius and across the homes and business of Pompeii. Carbonized and left buried in the oven for more than 1500 years, it’s a remarkable object from the past, both for its “everyday-ness” and the fact that it even survived the centuries.
Because organic materials like fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats are very rarely-if at all preserved in archaeological sites, most of what we know about what people in Pompeii—and ancient Rome in general—ate comes from texts (including ancient cookbooks!) and wall paintings from the period. There’s a great mural in the exhibit, for instance, that shows men at a marketplace, buying and selling livestock and dates. Another fresco, from the House of the Baker, depicts people buying loaves of bread that closely resemble the one we have on display.
Fresco from the House of the Baker
If you’re inspired to whip up a loaf of Roman bread, try this recipe:
• 2 envelopes fast rising dry yeast
• 2½ cups tepid water
• 1 cup whole wheat flour
• ½ cup rye flour
• unbleached white flour to make up 2 pounds 3 ounces of total flour weight
• 1 teaspoon salt dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
• cornmeal for dusting the baking sheet
Put the tepid water in your electric mixing bowl and dissolve the yeast.
Use a paper lunch sack for weighing out the flour. Put the whole wheat and rye flour in the bag first, and then make up the weight with the white flour. Put 4 cups from the bag into the mixer and whip it for 10 minutes. Add the salted water. If you have a heavy mixing machine such as a KitchenAid, allow the dough hook to do the rest of the work. If not, you need to add the remaining flour by hand. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Put the dough on a plastic counter and cover with an inverted steel bowl. Allow to rise once, punch it down, and allow it to rise a second time. Punch down and form into 2 or 3 loaves. I never use bread pans for this, as they will ruin the crust. Place the loaves on baking sheets that have been dusted with cornmeal and allow the loaves to rise until double in bulk.
Bake in a 450º oven about 24 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the loaf is light to the touch. It should make a hollow sound when you thump your finger on the bottom of the loaf.