On the Roundhay Bakehouse farmers market stall you'll see the Pompeii Miche, a loaf so big we sell it by the wedge. It's an artisinal reinvention of a carbonised loaf recovered from the ashes of Pompeii almost two thousand years after the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
And it is delicious. Made using the flours of three different ancient grains grown in the Roman Empire and then sprinkled with seeds popular at the time, it keeps beautifully. Slice it thin and serve with cured meat, cheese, jam or spread. It makes great toast too. But then that's no surprise, just look at the volcanically toasted miche dug from Vesuvius' ashes.
The Tale of the Not Quite 2,000 Year Old Loaf
When the Pompeii Live exhibition was staged at the British Museum in London in 2013, one of the exhibits was a carbonised loaf of bread found in a Pompeii bakery oven. Placed there in 79AD, it received a slightly longer and higher temperature bake than the baker intended. Unfortunately, he or she no longer cared.
Apart from surviving the eruption - scores of loaves have been found in the bakery ovens of Pompeii and Herculaneum - the loaf is notable for three unusual things. There’s the bread stamp which reads: Property of Celer, Slave of Q. Granius Verus.’ A cord is tied around it. And it’s divided into eight wedges.
To find out more, the museum's curators asked chef Giorgio Locatelli to re-create the bread. You can watch him and his kitchen staff doing just that on the video below.
It’s fascinating viewing but, watching it, my reaction was that this is an excellent restaurant loaf, one made using modern techniques (yeast, gluten powder etc.) Why not have a go at making a true artisinal replica instead?
So I did. Here it is. It’s a whopper. A true miche: a giant artisan boule.
The Pompeii Miche weighs in at 1.7kg, that's almost 4lb.
After several unsuccessful experiments, the cord was woven from flax twine.
It has a beautiful crumb - relatively uniform, but not dense nor honey-combed with giant holes.
Out went the modern flour, yeast, and gluten additive. In came a sourdough starter, ancient flour varieties, and artisinal techniques that ensure a well-risen dough.
For the flour blend I used Kamut Khorosan, rye, and spelt; all ancient grains used widely in the Roman world. No-one knows exactly when the first sourdough yeast starters were used in bread-making, but the Egyptians had been using them already for more than one thousand years and were, at the time of Vesuvius' eruption, part of the Roman empire. It seems reasonable to assume that the method had spread beyond the Near East, so I used a rye sourdough starter in my version.
Many ancient-world bakers would have noted the benefit of giving hydrated flour a rest, so autolysis was in. The same applied to double-hydration. Long ferments add to the taste and texture so I made use of them too. And a banneton helped it keep its shape.
The three-flour blend makes a delicious, nutty-textured bread. I used as a starting-point the wholemeal miche recipe from the Dutch kitchen door bakery, The Weekend Bakers. I then sprinkled the loaf with anise, poppy, and sesame seeds because it’s known they were used by Roman bakers and because I like their taste.
The Stamp, The Cord, and the Wedges
Bread stamps were used widely in the Roman world. In this case, it identifies the loaf as belonging to a domestic slave, Celer. Roman bakers, in addition to baking their own bread, often provided communal ovens into which, for a small fee, locals loaded their own loaves to bake. It's a practice that only died out recently in France, and still exists in some cities in North Africa. Using a stamp saved confusion and disputes when the bread was removed.
Okay, why the twine? First, as you can see from the bread selfie below, it helps you carry a whopping 1.7kg miche.
Then, perhaps more importantly, there’s the division of the loaves into wedges, most unusual in modern large boules because such deep cuts would relax the dough, leaving you with a loaf the dimensions of a dustbin lid. But, if you tie the cord around the loaf first, the miche does not pancake. It keeps its shape.
I baked my first Pompeii miche using a cord made from garden twine. To make it, I wove three strands together, repeated that twice more, then braided the three-ply cord into one strong 9-ply cord. It worked well but left hairs embedded in the crust. Not so good. I tracked down some 20lb hemp cord which comes lightly waxed with corn and potato starch. Problem solved.
Why the wedges? No-one seems sure, but the simplest explanation is that the loaves could be sold or served by the slice, just as some miches are sold in France today. Some loaves are divided into eight, some into six. I do six.
Anyway, I hope you get a chance to try the miche. Remember, you don''t have to buy an entire loaf to do so. You could also try baking one yourself. Here's the full recipe.
Martin the baker.
More about baking in Pompeii
More than thirty bakeries have been excavated from the ashes of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Over half of them were large enough to have their own donkey or slave-powered flour mills, and had communal ovens. (Carole Raddato, Creative Commons)
Flour mills for grinding grain (catullus) from a pistrinum (bakery) in Pompeii. Ironically, rock quarried from volcanic tufa was used both for the millstones and the floors of bakers' wood-fired ovens. (Carole Raddato, Creative Commons)
Detail from a Pompeii fresco showing a loaf of bread and two figs, Naples National Archaeological Museum. (Carole Raddato, Creative Commons)
This fresco is probably a portrait of a Pompeii baker, Terentius Neo, and his wife. He holds a scroll, showing he was literate. She holds a wax tablet, showing she was also numerate. They look like a pleasant but tired couple, but then, of course, they would; they're bakers. (Public domain)
Eighty charred loaves were recovered the ovens of Modestus the Baker. On average, their (ultra) dry weight is 580g, they have a diameter of about 20-25cm, & each is divided into six or eight wedges. Most are not bread stamped or bound with cord. (Beatrice, Creative Commons)