Out of all ancient cookbooks and recipes collections, Apicius is the most famous one, and possibly the most impactful. It is the only surviving complete cookbook from the Roman Empire. Written sometime between 1st and 4th centuries CE, its authorship is disputed, most scholars considering it not written by a single author. Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who flourished during Tiberius’ reign in the 1st century CE, most probably did not write the book that carries his name. As mentioned by Juvenal in the 2nd century CE, the name Apicius was a term used to describe any foodie since the days of Marcus Gavius Apicius. It is suspected by modern scholars that many recipes in the book were written by slave cooks who used a very crude form of Latin that would not have been used by the elites.
There are two extant manuscripts of Apicius. Both of them have been fully digitized and can be viewed online for free in their full grandeur.
The first manuscript, known as the Fulda Apicius, is kept at the New York Academy of Medicine Library (Apicius. [De re culinaria, Libri I-IX]. s.n., [9th century].). It was written on vellum, by several different scribes in a mix of Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian scripts at the monastery at Fulda, Germany, around 830 CE. The Fulda manuscript is not illuminated, containing only the Latin text of Apicius without any drawings.
The second manuscript, known as the Vatican Apicius, is kept at the Vatican Library (Urb. Lat. 1146) in Rome, Italy. It is an illuminated manuscript, written for someone who was extremely wealthy. The Vatican Apicius was written and illuminated in St. Martin of Tours, France, in the 9th century, under Abbot Vivian (844-851 CE) and it has been proposed that it was written as a gift for the French king, Charles the Bald. The manuscript traveled around before reaching the Vatican Library. It was in Bologna, Italy in 1464, after which it joined the collection of the Montefeltro dukes, in Urbino. In 1658, the Vatican Apicius manuscript was included in the collection of the Vatican Library under the Urbinati Latini manuscript group.
Archaeologists, while working in Jordan at the site called, Shubayqa 1, have discovered unleavened bread crumbs prepared by Natufian hunter gatherers from a wild strain of wheat. This is a unique discovery the bread found predates the earliest known date for agriculture by 3500 years, and the bread was not nutritious, meaning that people consumed more energy eating than what they gained from the bread itself.
One of the fireplaces where the Shubayqa 1 bread was discovered. Shubayqa 1, Jordan. Photo: Alexis Pantos.
In total, 254 crumbs (2.5×4.4×5.7 mm average size) have been found, 100 of them have been analyzed, and only 24 yielded the data for its composition. The contents of crumbs varied. But from the analysis of some crumbs and overall presence of food remains at the site, the following ingredients have been identified. The bread was made from a wild wheat (Triticum, unclear which species) or wild rye (Secale, unclear which species), wild oats (Avena, unclear which species), and wild tubers of Tuberous Bulrush, Bolboschoenus Glaucus. The proportions of each ingredient in the bread were not identified.
Image of a crumb of the Shubayqa 1 bread taken through a scanning electron microscope. Photo: Joe Roe.
One of the features of the bread was pointed out by the researchers, that: “It is possible that the flour used to make the bread-like remains at Shubayqa 1 was meticulously ground and carefully sieved to obtain a consistency similar to modern flours.” This means that a replica of this bread made from ground flour made by modern grinding methods, may actually be some what authentic.
The original complete article and its appendix with raw data have been published in the The Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Note that the article in the Independent has a bunch of mistakes in it, not stated in the original research, such as the bread contained barley and mustard seeds (both not true), and the proportions of each ingredient, which the original research does not make to claim.
Baking flat bread in a vertical oven is a baking method that has been used for millennia across the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The method involves rolling out a flat sheet of dough and then sticking it onto the inside wall of a clay or stone oven in the center of which there is fire.
Terracotta figurine of a woman baking flat bread in a vertical oven from Cyprus. Cypro-Archaic II Period (600-480 BCE). Metropolitan Museum of Art, 74.51.1755.
This method is still used today for baking flat bread in many cultures. The video below shows women in Yerevan, Armenia baking the Caucasus traditional flat bread, Lavash, using this method.
- Pasqualone, Antonella. “Traditional flat breads spread from the Fertile Crescent: productive process and history of baking systems.” Journal of Ethnic Foods 5 (2018). pp. 10-19.
An Attempt at Making Shtei HaLechem (שתי הלחם) – Biblical Sacrificial Two Breads from the Holiday of Shavuot
A few months ago, in May 2017, I wrote about Professor Zohar Amar’s attempt at recreating Shtei Halechem (שתי הלחם) – The Two Breads, commanded in the Bible (Leviticus 23:16-17) to bake in the Jerusalem Temple on the holiday of Shavuot. A couple of months later, in July 2017, I tried doing it myself, but better.
I started by creating a Shtei Halechem recipe calculations spreadsheet which I used to convert the measurements mentioned in the Bible (Leviticus 23:16-17) and the Babylonian Talmud (Menachot (various location)) into modern measurements. I also had to significantly reduce the recipe so that it will only make a single small loaf. The original recipe used a huge amount of flour and made two humongous loaves. I did not want to waste all of the ingredients on something that would probably not work out the first time and was too big to eat. My main goal in this attempt was to produce the flavor, not the exact measurements.
Since neither the Bible, nor the Talmud provide us with a recipe, but rather only with a basic list of some of the ingredients, I had to try to create a few options (3 to be exact), variations on the same recipe, to see which would work and taste the best.
I discovered that the following measurements produced the best tasting bread. This recipe for 1 small loaf is a 1/6 reduction of the original recipe which made 2 large loaves.
The flour that I used was Einkorn, which is an ancient wheat which would have been used in the Land of Israel during the early Biblical period. It was not used during the Roman period, when it was mostly replaced by Durum and may be Emmer if the flour was imported from Egypt. The Bible and Talmud only mention how much flour was used. They don’t say how much water and sourdough starter was used. The Talmud mentions that olive oil was an optional ingredient, which implies to me that even though they did not have to use it they most probably used it, since it improved the texture of the bread. Salt was another questionable ingredient, because the Talmud give conflicting information about if salt was used in this bread or not. On one hand, the Biblical recipe does not call for salt. On the other hand the Bible and Talmud require that all sacrifices in the Temple use salt, which would apply to this bread as well, since it was considered a sacrifice. Of course, they don’t say how much salt was used, so I had to guess based on common sourdough recipes.
Finally, the Talmud is very specific about the shape of the final loaves. They were rectangular with square horns on the corners, to symbolize the shape of the altar. This was achieved by baking the bread in a mold. One this I figured out in my trials that the mold had to be made out of unglazed clay. It produces the best tasting bread. For this attempt I baked the bread in an unglazed clay bread form, but I did not have the square molds for the horns. So my horns kind of fell apart once the dough started to rise. As you can see on the photo they look more like bumps than horns. I am planning on fixing this in the next trial by getting either clay or may be metal square mold forms that I can put on top of the loaf and shape the horns inside of.
The bread tasted good. It had a sour taste like sourdough is supposed to have. Kind of reminded me of Russian bread which I are when I was a kid. The starter I used was from Egypt, which was originally made by a bakery that was located near the Pyramids in Giza. I am still trying to get a starter from Jerusalem near the old city, so I can reproduce the same flavor that the Temple bread had.
Another mistake I made is that I let the bread rise for too long. It was supposed to rise for 8-12 hours, but I had it rise 24 hours, mainly because the timing was interfering with my schedule. This was a big mistake. I missed the most opportune moment of baking when the bread was fluffiest, so it came out denser than it had to be. Also, I should have let the dough rise inside the mold, but instead it rose in a bowl and then I tried shaping it inside the mold and let it rise again. This did not work so well, because the dough developed a crust which did not like being reshaped. Will fix these mistakes next time.
If anyone reading this happens to live in Jerusalem in the vicinity of the Old City and would like to make a sourdough starter for me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.