Museum stories
Making 2,000-year-old Roman bread

In AD 79, a baker put a loaf of bread into the oven, just like any other day in the town of Herculaneum. Nearly 2,000 years later it was discovered carbonised, still inside the oven, during excavations at the archaeological site in 1930.

As part of our 2013 Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition, we challenged chef Giorgio Locatelli to make a recreation of that loaf in his London kitchen. Follow the process in the video above.

If you’re keen to do some historical baking too, here’s the recipe. This makes quite a large loaf that was baked in a professional kitchen, so you may find halving the ingredients makes for easier baking at home.

Ingredients
  • 600g biga acida (sourdough)
  • 4 tsp sugar
  • 4 tsp salt
  • c. 500ml water
  • 500g spelt or buckwheat flour
  • 500g wholemeal or plain flour
Method
  • Mix the wholemeal and spelt flours together, and pour this on to your work surface. Create a large depression in the centre.
  • Dissolve the salt and sugar into the water. Mix the sourdough into the flour bit by bit, pouring it into the well you’ve just created. Once the sourdough is roughly mixed, begin to pour the water into the well slowly, mixing gently with your hands. Mix until all the water is gone, and any excess flour is incorporated into the dough. You will end up with a rough ball.
  • Start kneading the dough gently, folding it back on itself so it can ‘take in’ some air. Knead for a few minutes until you can form it into a smooth ball.
  • Flatten the ball slightly as in the video, and transfer it to an oiled baking tray. Cover it, and leave it to rise for 1.5–2 hours in a warm room. While you’re waiting, perhaps investigate some other ancient recipes to enjoy your bread with!
  • The next two steps are optional, but if you’re going for historical accuracy here, they’re a must. Cut a piece of string long enough to go round your risen dough, with a bit left over to tie a knot. Wrap the string around the sides of the dough, pull it tight so it makes a lip around the side, and tie a knot to secure it.
  • Now, take a knife to score the top into eight equal segments. Real loaves from the Roman period were often stamped too. If you want, now’s the time to add your own stamp. It could be your initials or whatever you want, but bear in mind that your stamp must be oven-proof, and will need to be weighed down during baking with something heavy (like baking beans wrapped in foil).
  • Bake for 30–45 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius (around 400 degrees Fahrenheit). Keep an eye on your loaf so it doesn’t come out looking carbonised like the one from Herculaneum!
  • Let it cool and enjoy your Roman bread!

We’d love to see your efforts if you try the recipe – tag us on Twitter and Instagram @britishmuseum.

Take a trip back to our 2013 Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition in our broadcast from inside the show. Join presenters Bettany Hughes and Peter Snow for a feature-length tour of the exhibition – watch on YouTube here.

If you’re looking for some historically inspired kitchenware and homeware, our online shop has it covered. Browse the range here.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum was sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
The exhibition was a collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

With thanks to Giorgio Locatelli.