Ancient Egypt generally fills our imaginations with visions of pyramids, hieroglyphics, and towering, all-powerful pharaohs, but we shouldn’t forget the actual people who lived at that place and time. One key to learning about real people is learning what they ate. Thanks to one physicist (who also describes himself as an “amateur gastroegyptologist”), we may be one step closer to knowing what bread tasted like in Egypt more than four millennia ago.
Seamus Blackley and a team consisting of a microbiologist and an Egyptologist were able to extract yeast from 4,500-year-old pottery. Blackley then decided to bake bread with it. In a Twitter thread describing his process, Blackley confessed that he pocketed one such specimen before it could be taken away for further study, which was pulled from the “ceramic pores of ancient pots.” He fed the yeast for several weeks with freshly milled barley and einkorn flour. Once the starter looked ready, he added it to a bowl along with water and olive oil, the only ingredients that would have been used by Egyptian bakers when they originally added the yeast to the pots.
Two weeks ago, with the help of Egyptologist @drserenalove and Microbiologist @rbowman1234, I went to Boston’s MFA and @Harvard’s @peabodymuseum to attempt collecting 4,500 year old yeast from Ancient Egyptian pottery. Today, I baked with some of it… pic.twitter.com/143aKe6M3b
— Seamus Blackley (@SeamusBlackley) August 5, 2019
The dough did indeed ferment, a thrilling development for the scientist turned baker. Blackley found that the aroma of the bread was much “sweeter and more rich” than modern sourdough, while the texture is “light and airy.” Blackley called the baking process “emotional,” though he emphasized that he’s still far from learning exactly how to bake like an Egpytian. Blackley also pointed out that the yeast extracted from the pottery could simply be “modern contaminates,” so he’s trying to withhold the real excitement until further analysis determines if the strains he and his team discovered truly are ancient.
He wouldn’t be the first to utilize an ancient Egyptian yeast strain for a modern experiment. In May 2019, Israeli scientists made beer using six isolated yeasts dating back as far as 5,000 years ago.
If Blackley’s yeast really did originate 4,500 years ago, we may be one step closer to understanding the taste, and the cooking techniques, of ancient Egypt.