Something wonderful and unexpected happened yesterday. After a long day of tromping around historical archaeology sites in St. Mary’s City with the family, I arrived home to find a long-expected, but immediately unanticipated e-mail from a fellow food lover in England. Cid is a purveyor of fine foods and an expert breadmaker. Some time ago, I asked her to help me solve a historical food puzzle that has been vexing me for some time. Namely, did the Mesopotamians enjoy leavened as well as unleavened bread?
Because we are lacking explicit evidence for the use of yeast to leaven bread in Mesopotamia and many other ancient cultures, modern cooks reconstructing the cuisines of these cultures have assumed that all of the bread in these cultures was flat and dense like hardtack. An unfortunate assumption.
What Cid has beautifully demonstrated is that spelt, which is not too dissimilar to the emmer wheat used by Mesopotamians, makes a great big loaf of sourdough bread using a starter based only on wild yeast from the environment.
For those of you new to the “starter” concept, it is simply that a grain providing a carbohydrate source is mixed with water and allowed to attract microorganisms from the environment. As the microorganisms consume the food given them by the flour (carbohydrate and sugar) they reproduce and must be “fed” with the addition of new flour (and sometimes water). Sometimes an additional sugar source is added by soaking macerated fruit in the water to be mixed with the flour to start the starter culture more rapidly. This process continues until a stable community of yeast and bacteria is established in the liquid or semi-solid “starter”. This starter is added to flour, water and other ingredients, kneaded, folded, proofed and baked and sourdough bread results.
The importance of Cid’s demonstration is that even if the ancients didin’t explicitly know and write about yeast as an ingredient, they might have known how to use the wild type organism. Cid’s talents as a baker show that wild-yeast leavened breads were possible in the ancient world. She writes:
“For the past few weeks I’ve been feeding a spelt ferment starter with organic spelt flour every day. Next to my other ‘white’ ferments the spelt had a different smell and didn’t bubble up as quickly.
It’s not clear whether the ancient bakers used a ‘poolish’ method for their bread, which is basically an amount of starter ferment mixed with water and flour left to further ferment over night before adding more flour the next day. It seemed like a reasonable idea so that’s what I did. It bubbled well enough to make me believe it would produce a good loaf. So at breakfast the following day I mixed in enough spelt flour and two teaspoons of salt and about a tablespoon of olive oil.
The feel of the dough was very different to the normal sourdoughs I make on a weekly basis. Despite kneading and resting, the dough never felt elastic and rose only slightly. You see, the gluten in modern wheat flour produces stretchy dough that rises well and if ‘folded’ at regular intervals rather than kneaded, will give the crumb its familiar large holes and crackling crust.
As I got the dough properly formed up into a loaf, I fired up my oven to 240°C with baking stone in place.
As you can see the baked loaf is rather flat and dark looking. It’s consistency is much more like a scone than modern day brown bread and it has a sour tang. The texture is too heavy for my taste and the ferment too sour. A portion of this type of bread would be very filling and full of natural fibre.
A lighter texture could possibly have been achieved by mixing the spelt with other grains known to Mesopotamians, such as rye, oats or the numerous wild grasses they incorporated into their diets. Sieving the milled grain would have given a whiter, presumably lighter weight end result as well.”
Wonderful work, Cid! Your demonstration is not only proof of concept that these ancients could have enjoyed leavened wild-yeast sourdough breads, but it is also significant for understanding ancient beermaking and winemaking as well. Many of the people and companies who have tried to reconstruct these recipes have been left wondering how to ferment the grain and malt mixtures that have been described on the ancient tablets. Your wild yeast spelt starter gives them an excellent way to introduce yeast into the alcohol mixture. The ancients may not have known what yeast was, but I’m betting they knew how to cultivate and use it for bread and alcohol production. (To beer makers out there – lets talk about that aromatic “wort” a bit – I may have some ideas on that score as well.)
Another thing that is important to the flavor of bread, beer and wine is that wild yeast starters are complex cultures of local yeasts not the uniform commercial cultures of Sacccharomyces cerviseae one can buy in the market. Additionally, these starters all have complex communities of local bacteria in them. The difference between species and community diversity in commercial versus wild starters affects proofing time, texture and flavor of the products made.
If any of you start experimenting with spelt (or farro which is emmer wheat used by the Mesopotamians), I suggest you consider flavoring your loaves with spices to balance the strong flavor of the spelt or farro. Some spices that are authentic to Mesopotamian bread can be found in the Ninda-gal recipe (JCS Vol. 29, No. 3) are onion seeds, sumac and saffron. You could also troll some of the Mesopotamian recipes on Silk Road Gourmet for some other spice combinations as well. (Words by Laura Kelley and Cid, and Photographs of Wild Yeast Spelt Starter, Unbaked Sourdough and Leavened Spelt Loaf by Cid).