How the times change. Today, this rye could be an expensive artisan loaf in a high end bakery. In dark ages Europe, it was food for peasants.
This is a true Middle Ages commoner’s bread, as there is no wheat flour involved. It’s almost all rye, but cut with a little barley and oats which were the only grains many serfs across Medieval northwest Europe would have had on hand. It makes a dense, chewy bread, whose texture still manages to be pleasant, that’s healthy for a carbohydrate, and packed with tangy rye flavor. It’s also very easy to make, with no kneading required, just many hours of waiting time.
Though be careful where you get your rye from. You don’t want to contract St. Anthony’s Fire like poor old Waigulf from the other side of the manor. Ate a bad loaf and was dead soon afterward, ‘e was.
Before rice came to dominate Persian cuisine around the Middle Ages, all those classic Persian soups, stews, and kebabs were paired with bread, the ancient Iranian’s favorite mode of carb delivery by far.
It might even be mine! This technique is not too different from my MODERN ASH BREAD recipe, but this dough has a little less moisture, some vibrant toppings, and is of course shaped differently in that classic Persian flatbread grooved shape. It’s like pitas and breadsticks had a baby, and covered it in pungent spices.
So without much more fluff, here’s the recipe.
400g AP Flour 100g whole wheat flour 2 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast (or one packet) 1 3/4 cup warm water 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 tablespoon salt Middle Eastern spices of your choice (pictured: sumac, mustard seeds, sesame seeds)
2 teaspoons AP flour 1/3 cup water 1/2 teaspoon honey 1/2 teaspoon olive oil
For the spices, tradition calls for a zatar spice blend, which above all must contain sesame seeds and citrusy sumac, but after that is basically a choose your own adventure. Thyme, oregeno, cumin, and coriander are good choices, but I just went with some mustard seeds, lightly (lightly!) pounded with the sesame and sumac.
To start, activate the yeast by sprinkling it on top of the warm water. When foamy, stir in salt, olive oil, and then a third of the flour. Stir until combined, then stir in another third, and finally the last third, until what’s called a shaggy dough has formed. That just refers to a dough whose water has collected and started to combine with all the flour in the bowl, but is still very loose, unformed and… well, shaggy!
Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes until smooth and springy. You know the drill. Lightly oil a bowl and let the dough proof, or rise. Many recipes for Persian flatbread are relatively quick, and call for just one hour of leavening time. I like to push it a little further for flavor and texture, a minimum of 4 hours, covered in a warmish place.
Whether for just one hour or four, after you’ve proofed the dough, turn it back out onto the floured surface and divide in two. Shape each half into a rough log, a little less than a foot in diameter. Cover lightly with plastic right on the same surface, and let rise one more hour.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven AS HOT AS YOU CAN GET IT. Traditionally, this bread should be baked in a blazing hot wood oven, almost like pizza. But you can still make it at home by cranking the oven.
Also meanwhile, make your glaze. A glaze?? For bread?? (you might say). This is an ancient technique to generate a little steam and also accelerate the heat transfer in the oven, giving the bread a beautiful, crispy sheen. It’s worth the little bit of trouble!
To make it, simply stir all the ingredients together in a small pot over medium heat, moving and scraping constantly until the mixture thickens into a loose paste. Should only take 2 minutes. When ready, take off the heat and set aside.
After the two not-yet-flatbreads have finished their final rise, dust two baking sheets with semolina flour or cornmeal. Then, lightly press and stretch the logs of dough into long rectangles, about an inch thick. Use your fingers to make 3 grooves longways down the flatbread.
Now brush the dough with the glaze all over and have a great time sprinkling that delicious spice mixture all over the surface. Gently transfer to semolina coated baking sheets by hand, and bake for 18-20 minutes, until golden brown.
Let cool, and slice into desired sizes. It’s also kind of fun to just leave it whole.
You can pair this with just about anything, but it really should be some kind of Persian stew or meat skewer. Here it is with some Ghormeh Sabzi , a fragrant herb and goat stew.
Baklava is another one of those Mediterranean foods that every country touching the sea claims to have invented in some form or another. While the sweet nut and filo pastry in its exact form is a more modern creation, the basic ingredients go back much further, to the ancient days of those same lands.
I thought it would be fun to make a more “primitive”baklava, forgoing all the fussing around with store-bought filo, using nuts indigenous to the ancient near east, and just honey for sweetening. Sugar doesn’t amount to more than a rare luxury good for many thousands of years.
The Egyptians were known to bake their breads into all kinds of shapes, from triangles to the more elaborate. We’re gonna keep it simple today, and use a clean Terracotta flower pot to bake bread.
Did I mention today’s recipe is no knead? No, you don’t need to knead if you have a lot of time to spare. 24 hours in fact. This bread “rises” for a whole day, developing gluten content and a great, sour flavor in a heavily fermented dough.
With a recipe like this, you can understand why the rise of fermented bread goes hand in hand with large scale breweries. To make this loaf, you’re basically making a beer mash, and then baking it instead of brewing it. Beer and bread go hand and hand, and nobody knew that better than the Ancient Egyptians.
When times were tough in the ancient world, those dependent on their primitive farms might have come up short on their preferred grains for bread and would have been forced to add other flours to the mix. For the vast swath of commoners across ancient Mesopotamia, from modern Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Mediterranean coast, this hearty multi-grain bread was actually healthier, though nobody knew it at the time.
This bread is made from grains that could be found all over the middle east in 5000 BC. The cultivated wheat and barley, with lentils and chickpeas from the garden, and spelt and rye foraged in the wilderness around the village.
The second episode of our History of Food concerns the greatest turning point in human history since the taming of fire. The New Stone Age, when farming was invented and our species forever changed. What were our lives like, what were we eating, and how those two questions are interconnected.
Theme music by the incredible Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. This rendition of the Hurian Hymn, the oldest known piece of sheet music, and the whole album “An Ancient Lyre” and much more is available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.
-1 pint heavy cream -1/2 teaspoon salt -Quart sized sealable jar
Pour cream into jar, not more than halfway full, and seal. Shake vigorously for 10-15 minutes (or whip in a stand mixer) until the fat separates and butter is former. Remove butter, pressing out excess buttermilk and rinsing with ice water. Fold in salt, form into shape, and serve immediately (or later if you can stand the wait)
Next week, Episode 2 of the Anthrochef podcast, Gardeners of the Neolithic, will be released. To learn more about the first villagers and settlers who planted the seeds of modern civilization, you will have to tune in on October 9.
But what I can tell you for now is that this is the era where we see the birth of domestic farm animals, and the beginning of human’s love affair with dairy. Lactose tolerance is one of very few ways we are NOT identical to ancient humans. Like most animals, humans used to drink breast milk as babies, then lost the ability to digest dairy as they get older.
But as people began putting pens around wild goats and cattle, and the first herding societies took off around 10,000 years ago, that all began to change. Genes mutated, human evolution continued, and soon enough, many Neolithic people could drink milk into adulthood, and things would never be the same.
Soon enough, we will be taking on fermented milk (yogurt) and cheese, but today we’re going to keep things more basic, with a simple recipe for milk-fat, aka butter!
Butter is just the solid fat of milk separated out. It was very useful to ancient people because it could be stored long term, a great way to extend the life of very perishable milk. All you need to make it is a jar with a lid, ten minutes, and some muscles.
Sometimes eating authentically is not eating deliciously. At least not to our spoiled modern palates.
While still using modern milled flours, this recipe attempts to recreate something like ancient foragers in the Near East might have eaten. The Natufians were the first society we know of to switch from foraging to intense cultivation, and it changed the world forever. They were still dependent on hunting and gathering, but also began guarding and storing plots of wheat and barley, and it changed them dramatically.
This was the beginning of civilization as we know it today… it’s also unleavened and not exactly palatable…
But to the Natufians it was everything. Their new permanent villages had giant querns and grinding stones just for milling and shaping this hard to process cereal crop, and ritual houses for the necessary magic to make it work. Here’s a recipe that might be something like what they threw in the ashes of their fires.
FAIR WARNING: This bread is dense and chewy!! Good for croutons or toast but… not much else.
300g all purpose flour (about 2.5 cups) 200g whole wheat flour (about 1.5 cups)
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp dry active yeast 1 tbsp. honey
3 tbsp. olive oil
350ml warm beer or water (scant 1.5 cups)
This recipe takes the ancient cooking technique, and gives to it modern ingredients, making a stretchier dough with a lighter texture that’s more enjoyable to modern palates. All the smoky flavor of the ashes without the unleavened chewiness of the more authentic recipe. This is a great flatbread recipe even for a regular oven, but nothing tastes quite like the ash.
Activate the yeast in the water. After five minutes, whisk in the honey, olive oil, and salt. Add to flour and stir until a rough dough forms.
Just what it sounds like. Today I made bread in the ashes of the fire.
This has become known as kind of an Australian food. But that’s because European colonists copied the Aboriginal peoples who had been doing it for thousands of years.
Many modern people with nomadic traditions, such as the Berbers of North Africa, still cook bread this way, but the roots go deep back into prehistory. Evidence for this practice can be found in ancient cultures all over the world from the Americas, to aboriginal Australia, and most famously in the middle east.