Thursday, September 20, 2012

Baking bread in ancient Egypt

Bread-making held a high place in the housekeeping in ancient Egypt at all periods, bread in different forms being the staple article of food with the people. We know therefore a good deal about it. We may take it for granted that the Egyptians, at any rate in the older periods, had no mills ; we never find one represented in their tombs. On the contrary, in the time of the Middle as well as of the New Empire we find representations of great mortars in which one or two men arc " pounding the corn " with heavy pestles, just in the same way as is done now in many parts of Africa.^ They obtained finer flour however by rubbing the corn between two stones.

The lower larger stone was fixed and sloped towards the front, so that the prepared flour ran into a little hollow in the front of the stone. Under the Old Empire the stone was placed on the ground and the woman who was working it had to kneel before it ; under the Middle Empire a table hollowed out in front took the place of the lower stone, the woman could then stand, and her work was thus rendered much lighter.

 The second thing to be done in the making of bread was the kneading of the dough, which could be done in different ways. Shepherds,  in the fields at night, baking their cakes in the ashes, contented themselves with beating the dough in an earthen bowl and lightly baking their round flat cakes over the coals of the hearth or in the hot ashes only. Little sticks served as forks for these hungry people to take them out of the glowing embers, but before they could eat them they had first to brush off the ashes with a wisp. It was otherwise of course in a gentleman's house.' Here the dough was placed in a basket and kneaded carefully with the hands ; the water was pressed out into a pot placed underneath the basket. The dough was then fashioned by the hand into various shapes similar to those we now use for pastry, and these were baked on the conical stove.^ I purposely say on the stove, for the Egyptians seem to have been satisfied with sticking the cakes on the outside of the stove. 

A picture of the time of the New Empire gives us a tolerable idea of one of these stoves ; it is a blunted cone of Nile mud, open at the top and perhaps three feet high. The fire is burning in the inside, the flames burst out at the top, and the cakes arc stuck on the outside. The same picture shows us also the court-bakery of Ramses III." The dough here is not kneaded by hand—this would be too wearisome a method when dealing with the great quantities required for the royal household—it is trodden with the feet. Two servants are engaged in this hard work ; they tread the dough in a great tub holding on by long sticks to enable them to jump with more strength. Others bring the prepared dough in jars to the table where the baker is working. As court baker he is not content with the usual shapes used for bread, but makes his cakes in all manner of forms. Some are of a spiral shape like
the " snails of our confectioners ; others are coloured dark brown or red, perhaps in imitation of pieces of roast meat. There is also a cake in the shape of a cow lying down. The different cakes are then prepared in various ways—the " snails" and the cow are fried by the royal cook in a great frying pan ; the little cakes are baked on the stove.

Source: Adolf Erman, life in ancient Egypt.


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