Eve J. Alfille Gallery and Studio

History Well-Done

bakery-frescoeHave you ever left something in the oven for a little too long? Maybe you and your toaster don’t always exactly agree on what “well done” entails. If you were a homeowner in Pompeii of 79 A.D., an oven accidentally left on would certainly be the least of your problems…but the results produced are surprisingly familiar!

Almost 2,000 years following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which left the vacation-town of Pompeii buried beneath a mass of volcanic detritus, an extremely burned, charred, and blackened, yet perfectly preserved loaf of bread was discovered. Against all odds, it had “survived” right where it had been carefully laid inside a Pompeiian oven by a doomed baker centuries before. Frozen in time as a completely cooked-through lump of carbon, the intricate details of the bread dough have been preserved for the amazement and inspection of future generations of glutenphiles. Modern visitors to Pompeii can see the intricate knots of dough, which still display such details as indentations running round the circumference of each loaf– these have been hypothesized by modern bakers to mark the location of a string tied round the bread before baking in order to make it easier to carry home.

RA-breadstamp-2810c-300x192A bread stamp also marks the surface of each bread loaf, commonly marking both who baked it, as well as to which hungry citizen it was assigned. At this point in history, a baker was a very prestigious and peculiar position: unlike most trades, they were freemen and recognized as Roman citizens, and had to be government-recognized members of a bakers’ guild in order to produce and sell their trade. The upside of being a recognized Collegium baker was that it meant you were a baker for life, but on the other side of the same token, were also forbidden for unknown reasons from fraternizing with “comedians and gladiators,” and were not permitted to attend the amphitheater.

A carbonized loaf from the excavated town of Pompeii.
“You’re Toast!” blackened sterling silver earrings by Eve Alfillé. Photo Credit: Matt Arden.

An entire 81 loaves of this kind were discovered in a bakery of the neighboring town Herculaneum, which was also decimated by the volcanic blast. Roman bread such as this was created en masse using animal-powered machinery for kneading the yeasty, delicious bread, out of what would likely have been buckwheat flour. Only the lucky got to enjoy this bread however, as leaven was only for the upper classes, and the lower classes would likely have made do with a pita-like-bread of the unleavened sort: an unfortunate visual embodiment of where they stood on the totem pole.

“Ancient Grain” earrings by Eve Alfillé. Photo Credit: Matt Arden.

Fortunately, you do not need to be an upper-class Roman citizen to enjoy these bread loaves today. You can either go to Pompeii, as Eve did, and witness these bread formations for yourself. You can follow the recipe, recreated by pastry chef Giorgio Locatelli, and attempt to create your very own (pre-volcano) Pompeiian bread to enjoy…or, you can carry the memory of Pompeii around with you throughout the day by taking home a pair of captivating Pompeii-inspired earrings crafted by Eve Alfillé upon her return from the destroyed city of yesteryear. Regardless of whether your bread is made of sterling silver, blond gold, or a block of pure carbon, you will never have to worry about it getting moldy again!