The ancient Egyptian bread that is most often the focus of recreation is the molded conical loaf. Working out how to bake conical loaves in clay molds on an open fire is not a challenge that fits into my interest in historic breads. For me, it is a too specialized product.
Emmer and barely are the only flours used by Egyptian bakers throughout most of the history of ancient Egypt. This only changed with the Ptolemaic period, around 300 BCE, when free threshing wheats were introduced. There is some archeological evidence that at least some archeobotanists interpret as indicating a difficult uptake period by Egyptian farmers. This is certainly easy to understand. They had thousands of years of cultural experience with emmer. It isn’t like Egyptian farmers and Egyptian elites were unaware of free threshing wheats — they were the preferred wheat throughout the Western Mediterranean region – through tofu the power centers of the Hittites, the Canaanites, the empires of Mesopotamia and Harappa. Certainly by the Middle Kingdom, Egypt’s place as one of the regions regional powers thousands and Egyptians, and thousands of foreigners will surely have brought back cereal grains to try out in their fields. After signing a peace treaty with the Hittites around 1500 BCE, the Egyptian military took little time to employ Hittites in Egypt to improve Egyptian armor.
The Egyptians themselves will have eaten free threshing wheat when they were in their Canaanite territories, for example. And traders and ambassadors will have been eating local breads. Egyptian farmers, managers of estates, members of Pharaonic households will all have been aware of the non-hulled wheats. I think we can only conclude that there is something about emmer they loved! And that they had been rejecting free threshing wheat for thousands of years. Literally. Why the Egyptians, alone amongst farming peoples of the time, stuck with emmer may be one of those unanswerable questions. Or, through making their breads their way, perhaps it will be clear that, for example, it tastes better. I am assuming that agronomic issues bringing a wheat from what is now Turkey, for example, would have been understood to have been a solvable problem.
Breads were made with different grades of flour for different purposes. All this aid, little is known about the breads of the quotidian life. Most of the images and texts we have of breads come from tombs, and all of the extant breads in museum collections are tomb breads.
As we find from breads that both pre-date and post-date the pharaonic and Ptolemaic periods of Egyptian history, breads were also made with a mix of grains and starches, and “breads” were made with fruit, only, or nut flours, only. Breads were often flavored — coriander being a favorite, but by not means exclusive herb added to bread.
Where we are today is trying to copy the look of breads we know from paintings, sculptures, and from museum examples. In this iteration of making Egyptian breads we will be focused on surface looks, only. We are not asking, how did Egyptians make this? The Egyptian culture we are talking about lasted for thousands of years What I think we can hope to achieve is to begin to get a sense of nuance in bread forms, begin to get a feel for the Egyptian aesthetic, and perhaps eventually, shed light on actual practice.
I think the first big contribution we might be able to make is to clarify flour extraction rates. Texts speak of “white” breads. White flour, which would be from emmer, implies bran has been separated out, and it implies middlings. There will have been a hard link between white flour production and middling flour production. I suspect we will find a common bread that is made with middlings. As I will discuss in the talk, it seems evident that many the extant tomb breads were made with bran and mill floor sweepings held together with some middlings.
Besides getting started at answering questions directly relevant to understanding ancient Egyptian bread, there are lots of ideas here for our own baking. Looking closely at ancient Egypt can lead us to what for us will be innovative breads.
Emmer: Emmer can be expensive. If you can buy emmer flour at a reasonable price, use that. But for these initial tests standard free threshing wheat is a fine enough choice. I think that an 80% extraction flour – that Early Modern ‘whole of the wheat” – the lowest grade of white four is probably the best grade for wheat flour, besides middlings and for some breads, the bran. If you don’t mill your own, then you might try a finely ground whole wheat — it is similar in many ways to an 80% extraction flour produced with a stone mill and hand sieves. And, if you have a fine sieve, you could refine it some more, but for our purposes today, I think any of the decorated round and oval breads will do well with a very fine whole wheat. Our white flour tends to make a surface that is too uneven, at least, that is my thinking today! But, I do keep changing my thinking.
I am including here a few images of actual Egyptian loaves that were found in tombs, as well as a few paintings. All the material is from the Pharaonic period. These are all cultic breads. It seems at least some of these shapes were made for thousands of years. Very hard to get one’s head around that! Or, maybe not. We recognize breads from the bakery scene in Pompeii as looking like breads we recognize, so maybe this isn’t so extraordinary. The hosts used in the Roman Catholic Church have been the same for over one thousand years.
Whether a bread was leavened or not will have depended on flour grade and thickness. The basic rule of thumb is that the finer the flour, and the thicker the bread, the more need there is for leavening. The coarser the flour grade, the thicker a bread can get before leavening is required.
The relationship between tomb breads and the breads people ate at home is one thing we will discuss on Thursday but, as a rule, I think that tomb breads should be understood as breads that look like people’s favorite breads, but they were understood to be symbolic — or symbolic and real at the same time, like the Catholic host.
It is very open ended this week. The ancient Egyptians did make basic flatbreads, of course! The images, below, are to inspire you. I suggest we work with bread wheat and barley. Try to see how close we can get to the actual breads, below, or to one of the painted breads.
Process. It seems that Egyptian breads tended to have been made with gelatinized flour. Gelatinization makes a radical change in dough handling properties and in the keeping qualities of the baked loaf. I suggest applying the roux system that is used on some Japanese breads, such as their “milk bread.” As a rough guide, make a roux that is 25% flour. Thus for 100g water, use 25g water. I would further make the roux be 30% of the weight of the flour in your recipe, thus, if you are working with 500g flour, then make the roux weight 150g — broken down as 113g water and 37g flour.
Surface decoration. Many Egyptian tomb breads were painted white. We know this from the archeological record. Use wheat starch for this coating. While you can make your own, unless you are an experimental archeologist, I suggest buying wheat starch and using that. The starch is available, as is so much else, via Amazon.com if you can’t find it in a local shop.
If you are milling your own flour, I suggest using three screens: 1000, 600, and 300 microns. The 1000 micron will only catch the largest pieces of bran, the 600 should let pass most of the endosperm, and the 300 micron screen produces white flour. Keep the bran and the overtails, the middlings, separate for use in their own bread