A scientist, an Egyptologist, and a video game designer are teaming up to unveil the culinary secrets of ancient Egypt by extracting traces of 4,500-year-old yeast from ancient pottery and using it to bake bread. And the results look surprisingly appetizing.
Seamus Blackley, who created the Xbox, has already made his first loaf of bread using what he believes to be the ancient micro-organisms. “The crumb is light and airy,” he wrote on Twitter. “The aroma and flavor are incredible. I’m emotional.”
Blackley began baking sourdough bread a few years ago, and was intrigued to learn that it is the world’s oldest form of bread making. A self-described Egyptology hobbyist, Blackley is now hoping to replicate ancient Egyptian baking techniques with the very yeast cultures that would have been used five millennia ago.
To do it, he teamed up with University of Iowa biologist Richard Bowman and University of Queensland Egyptologist Serena Love, who took samples from objects in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, that would have been used to make bread and beer in ancient times.
Bowman believes he can capture dormant yeast particles that are hibernating in the porous clay surfaces and bring them back to life using a non-invasive sampling technique. “You pump a fluid in carefully with a syringe and some sterile cotton in contact with the ceramics. It soaks in and you vacuum it back out,” he told the London Times.
Bowman and Blackley plan to take additional samples over the next year to build up a library that will allow them to distinguish between ancient microorganisms and modern contaminants. Blackley sent the first batch of samples to Bowman for testing, but couldn’t resist saving one for himself. The lab still “needs to isolate and characterize the samples before we know for sure this is real,” he said, but the successful experiment bodes well for the project’s long-term prospects.
To make his dough, Blackley used water and unfiltered olive oil with freshly milled organic barley, Einkorn, and Kamut—ancient grains that would have been available to the bakers of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. “Modern wheat was invented long after these organisms went to sleep,” he said. “The idea is to make a dough with identical ingredients to what the yeast ate 4,500 years ago.”
“This is incredibly exciting. I’m so amazed that it worked,” Blackley added. “It’s such a magical thing, to think we can share food in a rather genuine way with our distant ancestors.”
The project follows the example of a similar experiment conducted by Israel’s Antiquities Authority and three Israeli universities that used ancient yeast to create a wheat beer with six-percent alcohol content. “Aside from the gimmick of drinking beer from the time of King Pharaoh, this research is extremely important to the field of experimental archaeology,” Ronen Hazan, a biologist on the project, told the BBC. “By the way, the beer isn’t bad.”
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