Libum, Simple Loaves, and Sourdough!

Making bread during today’s lab really brought to life everything we have been learning about grain in class over the past few days. Our group was tasked with making Libum, a sort of cheese-loaf of bread from Cato’s writings. As Jake explained to us at the beginning of the lab, Libum were used in ancient religious rituals and stacked on top of altars; they are effectively small bread cakes which contain feta cheese in the flour mixture. The result, though we weren’t able to recreate this during our lab, is a cheesy bread that was often eaten with honey. Notably, the flour also contains a single egg. This is, then, an enriched bread product, which we expected to not rise very much during the baking process.

Stirring the egg into the libum batter

As you may have noticed, I’m writing in the conditional tense as I explain Libum as a final product. Unfortunately, we were unable to successfully bake our libum because we did not correctly manage the temperature of the iron dutch oven we were using. Last week, in our lab making placenta (Spira, to be exact), we brutally burned the bottom of the cake and mostly failed to bake the outside of the Spira. We were somewhat scarred from that experience last week, and came into the lab this week with dreams of not burning the bottom of our libum while creating an effective crust. To try and reach these dreams, we preheated the oven for 10 minutes, kept it over and covered with hot coals for 20 minutes, then removed it from over the coals and left it baking for another 20 minutes. With this amount of cooking and our chosen temperature control, the bottom of our Libum had partially cooked and the rest of the dough was essentially raw. We had to give up on baking the libum fully because we had plans to make two more loaves of bread during our time on the island, and there were not enough ovens to accommodate baking multiple loaves at a time.

We found more success baking a simple bread loaf, although the final product was quite distant from what I would call think of as bread. Because our loaf had no artificial leavening in it and was not using a sourdough starter, it rose only about an inch or two and remained incredibly dense despite our efforts to knead it thoroughly. We kept the load over the coals for much longer and used more coals on top of the oven after we had removed it from on top of the heat, which resulted in a much more uniform bake.

Our finished simple loaf, featuring a star design (courtesy of Amalia)

Finally, we baked a sourdough loaf which Morgan brought from Bread People. She had used the exact same amount of flour, salt, and water as we did, but her loaves were almost double the size of our simple bread loaf. This was a great example and demonstration of the extent to which a sourdough starter improves the size, texture, and flavor of otherwise unleavened bread. Simply adding the starter caused our loaf to develop a crust, bake more evenly, and expand.

Actually taking the time to make bread without a sourdough starter and with a starter was exactly the hands-on application of our course material which I needed. Before the lab, I had been having a hard time understanding exactly how or why the starter contributes to the process of baking bread. I knew it did, but now I have been faced with two undeniable examples of its importance and effectiveness in producing a product which I can recognize as bread.

I have also been thinking about the endless possibilities for enriched breads, even in the ancient world. When I think now of enriched breads I tend to land upon a wide variety of items that feel quite processed and distant from the ancient world, but of course they were making flour with eggs, cheese, and other products! It is a shame we were unable to properly bake our libum, because I was looking forward to taste testing the cheese-bread concoction. I was cautiously optimistic and disappointed when we were unable to arrive at edible results. Jake did make the good point that, in a true experimental archaeology experiment, we would be able to do five rounds of baking and discover through testing how exactly we should be baking the libum. While it was disappointing to not successfully bake libum, I learned a valuable lesson about experimental archaeology: it is experimental. When we have to fill in the blanks about details for a recipe, or apply modern methods to ancient prescriptions, we are bound to fail (a lot). I hope I one day get to bake and eat my own libum, but until then I will be content with sourdough.

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