What does bread from 4,500-year-old Egyptian yeast taste like? Rich, with 'overtones of brown sugar'
Video game designer teams up with archaeologist and microbiologist to extract yeast from ancient Egyptian pots
Seamus Blackley got a chance this week to combine two of his greatest passions — ancient Egypt and baking.
The Pasadena, Calif., video game designer — best known for his role in developing Microsoft's gaming console, the Xbox — has baked a loaf of sourdough bread using 4,500-year-old yeast extracted from ancient Egyptian pottery.
"This was crazy because I had collected this stuff, you know, with syringes and masks and sterile techniques in museum basements from old pots," Blackley told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.
"That the aroma and the texture of the bread was incredible was surprising to me."
'This is really old stuff'
Baking like the ancient Egyptians is no easy feat.
To make it happen, Blackley had to team up with a microbiologist, an Egyptologist and two museums — and he's still not convinced he got it totally right.
The whole thing started last spring, when he baked a loaf of sourdough with yeast he'd fed with freshly milled barley and einkorn, grains the ancient Egyptians used when baking.
But the final product, while delicious, just wasn't authentic enough to the bread he was trying to recreate.
To do this right, he would need ancient, unadulterated yeast.
"The leavening that was used in the ancient world existed before modern wheat, before modern yeast, before any of the things that we really consider to be bread," he said. "This is really old stuff."
To get ancient Egyptian yeast, he turned to ancient Egyptian pottery.
Extracting yeast from museum pottery
"Yeast is incredible as an animal. It can survive in space and in a vacuum. You can freeze it. You can do all sorts of abuse to it and it will still bounce back. It can hibernate for thousands of years," Blackley said.
"The fact that the ancient Egyptians and a lot of other ancient peoples used really porous, natural clay pottery to do their baking and their brewing, we thought it was likely that vessels that have been used for doing that would have some of these yeast and bacteria, the symbiotic sort of mixture of starter culture, kind of pounded into the pores."
To get the yeast out of the pots, he turned to University of Queensland archeologist Serena Love and University of Iowa microbiologist Richard Bowman.
With Love's help, he was able to convince the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard's Peabody Museum to lend them some ancient clay pots for their experiment.
"I had to submit all sorts of documentation, detail our methods and show that it's a non-destructive analysis," Love told the New York Times. "Once they could see that we weren't harming the vessels, they gave us permission."
Bowman then used his expertise to extract the yeast.
"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," Bowman told the London Times.
Most of the yeast was shipped off to the University of Iowa for study, but Blackley was able to take home a sample to experiment with.
The baking process
With the hardest part over, Blackley was able to focus on what he does best — baking.
Using sterile lab techniques to keep the sample pure, he fed the yeast with ancient grains to make a sourdough starter.
The first thing he noticed when he took the freshly baked loaf out of his oven was the incredible smell.
"It was such a comforting and amazing and rich and sweet smell. I try to describe it. I say, oh, you know, it had overtones of caramel and brown sugar — which it did. But, really, it was emotional," he said. "I mean, I was surprised that it worked at all."
Blackley described the taste of the bread as "different." Asked if it was good different or bad different, he enthusiastically replied: "Great different!"
"It was richer," he said. "It had overtones of brown sugar. It was really interesting and cool."
His wife, he said, can vouch for him. She has already eaten most of the bread. But he's saved a piece to be sent back to the lab for further study.
Still not 100% authentic
Still, after all his work, Blackley isn't convinced the final product captures the truly authentic ancient Egyptian experience.
First of all, he said, the yeast samples back at the lab are undergoing DNA sampling to determine just how pure they are.
"We really need to do more work to be sure that we have isolated just the ancient stuff," he said. "The spread that I baked over the weekend was a mix of contaminants and, we hope, some ancient stuff."
What's more, he said, ancient Egyptians didn't bake in modern ovens.
"They baked in a different way using the actual vessels themselves, the bread molds themselves, as sort of a little mini oven," he said.
"So the loaf that you see on Twitter was baked in a Roman way. And the idea was, oh my gosh, this yeast seems to be working. Let's try it out. Let's do something that we're good at that we understand to experiment with the dough and see what it's like, see what the flavour is like — but it needs to go further to really be Egyptian baking."
He plans to keep working with Love and Bowman to create the perfect, authentic loaf.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Seamus Blackley produced by Jeanne Armstrong.