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Mmm. There’s nothing quite like the smell of fresh bread. It’s so lovely that supermarkets are well known to pump the scent through their stores to entice us in. But when did baking begin? And did it smell any different? That’s what we’re hoping to find out in the first recipe in our new series, the Archaeologist’s Cookbook!

You might not think bread would survive for long in the archaeological record, but as it turns out, bakers have left more than just a few crumbs of evidence for us to piece together.

It’s not uncommon to find charred bread in mortuary or ritual contexts going right back to the Neolithic. Archaeologists also found burnt loaves in a baker’s oven in Pompeii, and even desiccated bread found in Egyptian tombs that was preserved so well it retained its scent!

By studying these remains, archaeologists can work out what grains people were using, how finely they ground them, whether the loaf had a crust, what shape it was, and and even whether it was leavened or unleavened.

The best thing since sliced bread?

While evidence for the use of flour to make flatbreads goes back 30,000 years, so far, the oldest known bread in Britain is 5,500 years old. Found in a pit in Oxfordshire along with some old applecores and a flint knife, it was initially mistaken for a lump of old charcoal. But under a microscope, archaeologists spotted crushed grains of barley.

Now, that might not be quite enough for us to recreate it in the DigVentures kitchen, but what we do know is that 5,000 years later, barley bread was the loaf of choice for medieval monks.

Prohibited from eating fine white bread, they turned to something they had in abundance, and that was barley flour from the ale they brewed. And who could blame the monks for adding a dash of their own ale to the mix?

We decided to give this ancient loaf from the wonderful The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black a go. As it turns out, the smell was sweet and hoppy, the texture was dense (but somehow succulent) and, washed down with a good glass of ale, it was actually delicious. It’s not quite Britain’s oldest bread, but for a quick and easy taste of the past, you can’t go wrong with this one.

You will need:

500g strong wholemeal flour, 225g barley flour, 25g rice flour, ½ tablespoon salt, 15g fresh yeast, 60ml brown ale, about 425ml of warm water, 2 teaspoons of clear honey

How to make it:

Mix the dry ingredients in a warm bowl. Then blend the yeast to a cream with a little ale, then mix with 350ml of the water and the honey. Stir the mixture into the dry goods and mix to a firm dough, add extra water if needed.

Knead until the dough feels elastic, and shape into a ball. Lift it out of the bowl and lightly oil the inside of the bowl. Return the dough, cover it loosely and leave the bowl in a warm place until the dough doubles in bulk.

Punch it down, and shape it into two equal sized oblong or round loaves. Place in two bread or deep cake tins. Make a cross-cut in the centre of round loaves

Pre-heat the oven to 230 degrees, and cover the dough with a light cloth until well risen. Bake the loaves for 20-35 minutes. They should sound hollow when turned out and tapped from underneath

If you like a slightly sweeter tasting loaf, you can leave the salt out. And for maximum enjoyment, we recommend a glass of dark ale with your freshly risen bread.

Final loaf

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Jamie Skuse

Jamie is a recent(ish) archaeology graduate from the University of Manchester. He loves playing with new gadgets (old and new) and one day wants to have his own archaeo-drone and be known as the flying archaeologist. Twitter: @supertrowel

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