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I'm writing a novel set in large part in Ancient Egypt and am incorporating many tasks of everyday living into the narrative. The one I'm stuck on is the making of bread and beer (which were interdependent). I'm looking for information that will allow me to matter-of-fact describe the tasks people took on each day.

Setting:

  • New Kingdom Egypt, approximately 1350 BCE.
  • Eastern Nile Delta area.
  • Weather: Hot and humid. The story takes place in April, so not as hot as it could be. Essentially zero rainfall.

Research:

I've researched the process but most sources are incomplete or don't differentiate well by time period or are focused on palace kitchens. When people replicate the process, they generally do it once and/or take shortcuts.

Ancient Egyptian Bread, by Miguel Esquirol Rios, discusses milling the wheat (emmer aka farro). He was unable to get fine flour but we know from archeological data that the Egyptians did (a commenter says it was in fact done using saddle querns). He turns to yeast and suggests the strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae may have been used for both beer and bread.

Archeological evidence shows that beer was made by first baking "beer bread,” a type of well-leavened, lightly baked bread that did not kill the yeasts, which was then crumbled over a sieve, washed with water in a vat and then left to ferment.

Rios uses store-bought yeast to make a sponge, leaves it for 24 hours, feeds and kneeds it, allows it to rise for an hour, shapes into loaves, allows another hour or rising, then bakes in a modern oven. He ends up with a coarse but tasty bread that isn't very thick.

Ancient Egyptian cuisine, Wikipedia, states:

Egyptian bread was made almost exclusively from emmer wheat, which was more difficult to turn into flour than most other varieties of wheat. The chaff does not come off through threshing, but comes in spikelets that needed to be removed by moistening and pounding with a pestle to avoid crushing the grains inside. It was then dried in the sun, winnowed and sieved and finally milled on a saddle quern, which functioned by moving the grindstone back and forth, rather than with a rotating motion.

The baking techniques varied over time. In the Old Kingdom, heavy pottery molds were filled with dough and then set in the embers to bake. During the Middle Kingdom tall cones were used on square hearths. In the New Kingdom a new type of a large open-topped clay oven, cylindrical in shape, was used, which was encased in thick mud bricks and mortar.

Dough was then slapped on the heated inner wall and peeled off when done, similar to how a tandoor oven is used for flatbreads. Tombs from the New Kingdom show images of bread in many different shapes and sizes. Loaves shaped like human figures, fish, various animals and fans, all of varying dough texture. Flavorings used for bread included coriander seeds and dates, but it is not known if this was ever used by the poor.

They also discuss beer:

It was very cloudy with plenty of solids and highly nutritious, quite reminiscent of gruel... Globular-based vessels with a narrow neck that were used to store fermented beer from pre-dynastic times...[found] with emmer wheat residue that shows signs of gentle heating from below. Though not conclusive evidence of early beer brewing it is an indication that this might have been what they were used for. Archeological evidence shows that beer was made by first baking "beer bread", a type of well-leavened, lightly baked bread that did not kill the yeasts, which was then crumbled over a sieve, washed with water in a vat and then left to ferment. This "beer bread" closely resembles the bouza that is still consumed in Egypt today. There are claims of dates or malts having been used, but the evidence is not concrete.

Microscopy of beer residue points to a different method of brewing where bread was not used as an ingredient. One batch of grain was sprouted, which produced enzymes. The next batch was cooked in water, dispersing the starch and then the two batches were mixed. The enzymes began to consume the starch to produce sugar. The resulting mixture was then sieved to remove chaff, and yeast (and probably lactic acid) was then added to begin a fermentation process that produced alcohol. This method of brewing is still used in parts of non-industrialized Africa. Most beers were made of barley and only a few of emmer wheat, but so far no evidence of flavoring has been found.

This modern recipe for Toast Ale describes the process of brewing beer from leftover bread.

In Archaeological team prepares 4,000-year-old Hittite meals, a team recreates an ancient meal using archeological evidence. Hittites were contemporaries of Ancient Egyptians and they were close enough that they mixed. There are no cooking details but they describe bread made with barley as well as breads of various types, some with additives like cheese and figs.

Bake Like an Egyptian: Sourdough Bread in Cookbook Archaeology focuses on the creation and use of sourdough.

Egypt has the distinction of being one of the first civilizations for which we have a really well-documented relationship with yeast, used in both bread and beer. Evidence of leavened bread dates back to prehistoric times (to about 4000 BC) on the Nile. And you know how this bread was made? Sourdough method! Yeast was harvested from old leaven or beer makings to make new bread.

The author describes in detail (with pictures!) the process of using sourdough starter to make bread. Dissolve starter in water, add flour (appears to be commercial wheat flour), salt, and water, pinch dough (alternative to traditional kneading), place in container and turn dough every half hour for 3-4 hours. Then put on work surface, flour, fold, shape into ball, rest for 1/2 hour. Shape into final form, set aside to rise (time not given), bake in dutch oven with lid. Her bread looks like a modern round sourdough loaf.

A new look at old bread: ancient Egyptian baking, by Delwen Samuel, addresses breadmaking using archaeological and ethnographic evidence. Most importantly, he debunks the myth that ancient Egyptians could not make decent flour. Most sources assume all the bread was gritty, filled with chaff and ash and even sand. But this came from analysis of bread found in graves. Bread meant to be eaten used fine flour without contaminants.

Individual households used a low-set and large mortar and pestle to de-chaff the emmer wheat. Then ground it on a large grindstone, producing either coarse or fine flour, depending on the number of strokes. The author replicated both those steps but could not manage baking.

I have yet to produce palatable emmer bread. Emmer flour behaves quite differently from bread wheat, requiring much more water to make a workable dough. Each step of mixing, resting, shaping and then baking the dough needs further investigation. The addition of such flavourings as fruits also changes the characteristics of emmer dough. The final stages of Egyptian breadmaking are not necessarily straightforward and are still not fully understood.

He found that some bread had pre-cooked "coarsely cracked cereal grains" added purposely to the dough, for flavor and texture.

Samuel also has a companion article, Archeology of Ancient Egyptian Beer. Unfortunately, the archeological evidence comes from drier parts of Egypt (because that's where they were preserved) and we don’t know if the methods differed in the humid Delta areas, though there is likely large overlap, if there are any differences at all. His focus is on the New Kingdom. Both emmer and barley were used for brewing, usually one or the other. There were many varieties of beer, each with its own name. Dates may be used as flavoring during brewing, but does not appear to be a standard ingredient. There maybe other fruits and spices added but there isn’t direct evidence for it.

The beer grains were likely germinated (soaked in water for an extended period) and malted (dried out after germination). The grains were likely still husked, as the husking process damages the grain embryos. After mashing the malt, sieves were used to remove most of the chaff. It’s unknown if they were removed before fermentation or after (which would produce bitterness similar to hops).

A reasonable estimate might be that barley was sprouted for at least 3-5 days, and probably emmer was sprouted for a few days longer still, because of its much thicker chaff….Malting was a considerable investment in time and would have required adequate space…dedicated malting areas may well be found in larger domestic houses.

Grain [may have been] treated in at least two different ways…some of this malted grain may have been heated while moist…At the same time, a portion of malted grain may have been set aside and dried but not exposed to high temperatures. Such a two-part system would be a good way to brew in the absence of the technical ability to regulate processes closely. Malted but uncooked grain would provide active enzyme capable of breaking down starch granules suspended in water, and gelatinized starch, into simple sugars available for yeast or lactic acid bacteria metabolism. The roasted, malted grains would impart a pleasant flavor, and the gelatinized starch would be easily susceptible to amylase attack. Contrary to traditional views of ancient Egyptian brewing, in this possible sequence, bread plays no role at all.

From the evidence of the residues, it seems very likely that the ancient Egyptians used a variety of techniques to kiln their germinated grain or to process unsprouted grain destined for brewing. Although this greatly complicates the task of untangling the processes that resulted in each individual reside, it would certainly create beers of different character. This might account for many of the named types of ancient Egyptian beer.


Setting within my novel:

  • People are "slaves" but in practice more like serfs. They are given basic foodstuffs and do their own cooking in their own "villages."
  • My focus is a single large kitchen within a family compound feeding 55-75 people.
  • The kitchen is large and outdoors with a partial roof. It has work surfaces, a grinding stone, ovens, a cookfire or other form of "stove", cooking/storage containers made of clay or metal, and a variety of basic tools of the era.
  • They have ample food supplies, including emmer wheat and barley, and a well with good quality water.

Daily tasks so far:

I'm open to changing these but this is how I've set things up.

  • Early morning: men help to pound emmer to remove chaff and then grind the day's flour, breakfast is porridge plus leftovers, men (and some women and teens) go off to brickyards and fields, taking a basket of leftover bread and other foods for lunch.
  • Late morning through afternoon: women, children, and others not offsite work in the kitchen to create the evening bread and feed the sourdough starters. Leftover porridge is added to the bread dough. They also do tasks to further beermaking in its various stages (I'm assuming multiple containers, each with enough beer for a couple of days, but each in a different processing stage). A simple bread is made for onsite lunch, along with some of the day's cooking.
  • Evening: Large dinner with fresh bread and various foods and also beer decanted to clay jugs for passing around.

Question:

What are the daily or periodic tasks involved in making bread/beer in this ancient community? I feel reasonably comfortable with creating a plausible description of breadmaking, but I have no idea how to incorporate the beermaking. I just know they are inter-dependent.

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    Someone pointed me to a new source which I added at the end. This has changed my mind about threshing. Now I'll have them remove the chaff themselves, since it's left on for brewing and removed only for breadmaking. – Cyn Aug 3 at 20:48
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    Thanks @AaronBrick, I just put in a hold request for that book at my local library. I'll check it out! I am not optimistic based on your description or the one at Goodreads that it's going to detail the steps people took daily to maintain their starter, cook the bread, etc. And the article is about baking around 600 years earlier than my time period. But I adore food history and will probably love the book, even if it's not helpful to my novel. Thanks for the suggestion. – Cyn Aug 4 at 1:53
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    +1 for outstanding research effort, which unfortunately makes me think that, if you haven't turned up the answer, it'll be a tough job for anyone else. – Lars Bosteen Aug 4 at 11:32
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    @LangLangC Found the article on a non-paywall site atlasobscura.com/foods/tutankhamun-ale-beer-egypt and it's based on Samuel's research (yay!) but there's no recipe. Found a recipe here but it's not comprehensible to someone like me without brewing experience and it uses commercial yeast. homebrewtalk.com/forum/threads/… I'm not sure how to translate it to actual ancient times. Though the big plus is it tells me quantity, 5 gallons. I can work with that. – Cyn Aug 4 at 15:58
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    @Cyn Once it's going it sits on the kitchen counter and gets 'fed' every day or so (adding more flour/water). Now we are only talking about 1-2 loaves a day, starter lasts 'forever' (at least a couple of months or so). – Matt Balent Aug 5 at 18:23
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No ancient recipe has been found, however Dr. Delwen Samuel has chemically analyzed beer residues on ancient pottery. She suggests ancient Egyptians used malted emmer (emmet which had already been sprouted), which they ground and mixed with cool water; this was added to an equal quantity of emmer wheat which was ground and boiled with water. The mixture was sieved and allowed to ferment.

This answer is based on an experiment by Tel Aviv Univesity Egyptology grad students, that did their best to recreate the processes: http://archaeology.tau.ac.il/drink-like-an-egyptian-taste-ancient-egyptian-beer

I recommend visiting the site for further photographic documentation of their processes. Please also note their references for further reading:

  • Samuel, D. Beer. In: Redford, D. B. (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: 171-172.

  • Samuel, D. Rediscovering Ancient Egyptian Beer. Brewer’s Guardian 124/12: 27-31.

  • Geller, J. R. From Prehistory to History: Beer in Ancient Egypt. In: Friedman, R. and Adams, B. (eds.). The Followers of Horus: Studies Dedicated to Michael Allen Hoffman 1944-1990. Oxford: 19-26.

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