Topic: Egyptian Bread
These articles by Hilary Wilson published in Ancient Egypt Magazine, (like the one on pomegranates) were intended for children but has information interesting to all.
Bread was the most important part of the ancient Egyptian diet. With no rice, maize or potatoes, all introduced into the country thousands of years later, the early Egyptians depended on wheat and barley to provide the carbohydrates they needed for a healthy, energetic lifestyle. Excavations around the Fayum revealed storage pits where the harvested grain was kept. Later, grain was stored in beehive-shaped
silos, or special granaries with bunkers or bins for different types of corn. In the home, wheat and barley were kept in pottery or stone jars, safe from rats and mice. The remains of kitchens and household equipment show that the processes involved in turning grain into bread were time-consuming everyday activities in most homes.
As there were no supermarkets where you could buy a sliced loaf, or even the ingredients to bake your own bread, the making of bread started with the grinding of the grain into flour. To make this easier, sometimes the grain was parched, which means it was rinsed in water to remove some of the surface dust and dirt, and to soften the outer layer, before being spread on a mat to dry. The parched corn was put in a mortar, a large bowl, usually made of stone and set into the floor, where it was pounded with a heavy wooden pole to start breaking up the hard grains. The cracked wheat was then put onto a quern, a sloping stone with a bowl or trough at the lower end for collecting the flour.
The miller, usually a woman, knelt at the higher end and crushed the grain into flour by rubbing another stone over it, up
and down the quern. This must have been a back-breaking job, even when the quern was raised by being set into a brick-built ‘kitchen unit’. It was also such a necessary part of domestic life that many models of women grinding grain have been found. One, in the Leiden Museum in the Netherlands, is a mechanical toy, operated by pulling a string to make the jointed figure move the rubbing stone backwards and forwards over the quern.
The flour produced in this way was definitely wholewheat. It contained lots of partly-crushed grain, some whole grains and a large amount of contamination in the form of sand and grit from the quern. Some of the sand may have been added deliberately to speed up the grinding process. The finest sieves the Egyptians could make were not good enough to remove all this débris, and even the flour of the highest quality, used for what they called ‘white’ bread, was never the smooth, fine stuff that we recognise. As the Egyptians ate large quantities of bread, every day, it is hardly surprising that they wore away their teeth in chewing it.
The commonest type of bread was made with just flour and water. The mixture was kneaded and made into flat pancakes of dough, which were cooked on a shelf over the fire or by being slapped onto the wall of a clay oven. This is similar to naan bread being cooked in a tandoor except that the Egyptians used the outside wall of the oven. The result was something like a pitta bread. People all over the world have been
making bread like this, with whatever flour they have available, for thousands of years – chapattis in India, tortillas in Mexico.
Barley and wheat were not only used to make bread. A small metal cauldron from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, (Egyptian Museum,
Turin), seems to contain a type of porridge. But the second most important product of grain in ancient Egypt was beer. I will return to this subject in another Per Mesut. Bread and beer were usually made in the same area and the fermentation of the beer provided yeast
for making many more types of bread. This yeast was in the form of a liquid barm and, when mixed with the flour and water, it produced bubbles of gas that caused the bread to rise. This is called leavening.
Leavened dough was formed into loaves of many different shapes. Some were cooked directly on the flat shelf of the domed baking oven, like a modern cob or bloomer loaf. Others were made in clay moulds, the ancient equivalent of baking tins, which could be stacked inside the oven
rather like the pottery in a kiln. Bakeries attached to the biggest temples had rows of ovens, each producing hundreds of loaves at a time. Lists of offerings to the gods include loaves by the thousand. Often the moulds had to be broken to get the bread out, but larger moulds could be reused. At Giza, the bakery providing bread for the pyramid builders produced huge loaves in flowerpot-shaped moulds the size of a garden planter. These were big enough to feed ten men for several days, though the bread was probably not very appetising. It would have been burnt on the outside, stodgy in the middle, very heavy and hard to digest, but it was food and the workmen would have been glad of it.
In temple and palace kitchens, cooks made a wide range of baked goods. The Egyptian language included about forty words for different breads, cakes and pastries. Some of these may refer to shape; round, rectangular, oval, triangular and pear-shaped loaves are shown in tomb
offerings. Other names may indicate the method of cooking or added ingredients. Dough was sweetened with dried fruit or honey, flavoured with herbs and spices, or enriched with oil or milk. Fancy shapes were made for special occasions, like the corn sheaf loaf made for the Christian Harvest Festival. Loaves and pastries were handed out as gifts at religious celebrations. As part of their pay, people who worked for the government, including soldiers, might receive tokens, which they exchanged for ready-made loaves. One workman at Deir el-Medina left a
receipt for his purchase of sweet pastries from a temple bakery. Unfortunately, no Egyptian cookery books have survived, so we can only guess at the recipes. I will give you some suggestions about Egyptian-style cooking in the next Per Mesut, so start grinding
that grain now!
ancient egypt magazine on line has articles from past issues if you are interested.
By Hilary Wilson
Hilary Wilson is the author of Egyptian Food and Drink, part of the Shire Egyptology series. published in 1988.