Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ancient Egyptian Beer, Bread, and other Ancient Foods

Kneading dough for a beer starter: 2100-2000 C. BCE
In the ancient Middle East, including Egypt, people discovered how to ferment dough made from grain, and thus to brew beer and bake bread. By the time this wooden statue was carved, brewing and baking were old news, probably several thousand years old already.

According to The Food Timeline:
"No one has yet managed to date the origins of beer with any precision, and it is probably an impossible task. Indeed, there are scholars who have theorized that a taste for ale prompted the beginning of agriculture, in which case humans have been brewing for some 10,000 years...Most archaeological evidence, however, suggests that fermentation was being used in one manner or another by around 4000 to 3500 B.C. Some of this evidence--from an ancient Mesopotamian trading outpost called Godin Tepe in present-day Iran--indicates that barley was being fermented at that location around 3500 B.C....We know that not much later the Sumerians were...making beer...At approximately the same time, people of the ancient Nubian culture to the south of Egypt were also fermenting a crude, ale-like beverage known as bousa."--Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple & Conee R. Ornelas [Cambridge University Press:Cambridge] 2000, Volume One (p. 620)
Closeup of kneading trough. Both beer and bread were made in similar ways.
Egyptian depictions of food processing are very intriguing, and I found this statuette in the Israel Museum extremely interesting. Also of interest:

A man bearing provisions for an offering. Egypt 2600-2500 BCE.
This limestone relief from a tomb bears an inscription with a magic formula.
It looks as if he has grain and small birds and animals for the offering.
Another bearer of offerings, with flour and a duck.
Painted wooden figurine, Egypt 2100-2000 BCE.

In Ancient Israel

My favorite ancient figurine: a woman holding a butter churn on her head.
Chacolithic era from the sanctuary of Gilat in the Negev in Israel.
Dated 5500 to 6500 years ago.  
How milk was churned in these vessels: they were hung up and shaken
back-and-forth, as shown. The figurine above, and others in the sanctuary,
also used churns for an unknown symbolic meaning in grave goods.
I like to try to imagine the lives of the people who lived in this long-ago time, visualizing their possessions based on the wonderful collections of the museum. At this time, farmers and herdsmen seemed to be developing processes for making butter and cheese from the milk of their animals. The museum's documentation about the Copper Age or Chacolithic Period 6500-5500 years ago explains: 
"The population of the Land [Israel] grew dramatically in this period, largely thanks to increased food production. People lived in planned villages built near water sources, dwelling in houses, caves, and subterranean rooms. Everyday objects exhibited little variety, especially in comparison to the richly decorated ritual items produced with sophisticated techniques.
"The climate of the Negev was considerably wetter then, making floodwater farming possible, and systems of channels and dams were constructed to ensure optimal utilization of rainfall for irrigation. Agriculture and animal husbandry formed the basis of the economy. For the first time, animals were exploited not only for their meat and hides, but also for their milk and wool."


Jens Zorn said...

Thanks for this post. I have always wondered how we came to grind flour, mix with something like yeast, and then bake it into bread. How would one know to do this? Are there simple intermediate steps?

Mae Travels said...

Hi Jens,
I don't know the complete story of beer & bread, but the start was definitely trial and error. The Near Easterners 3500 years ago (as well as some modern bakers) didn't "mix with something like yeast" because yeast is wild and in the air. A mixture of flour and water (say, that you were using for something like pancakes) that stood in a kitchen would just start fermenting. And maybe become something like beer, which may have preceded bread historically. You might smell then taste it and find it good, start eating/drinking it, and eventually use it to make your bread dough rise. Baking and brewing were done in the same facilities for much of human history. One brewery downtown today has a partnership with Zingerman's.

Or maybe there's another more complicated explanation and this one is like "A Dissertation on Roast Pig" where they burned down the house whenever they wanted bbq.

Most important fact: there's yeast in the air and dough will eventually pick it up even now -- moreso if you often bake bread in your kitchen. But if you want bread faster you'll get more consistent results with modern yeast.