Arculata: The bread that survived Pompeii

Preparation Considerations

This is a sourdough bread product. Start by feeding your bread starter the day before you start the dough. If you don’t have a starter, you can create a sponge cake the same day you make the dough by mixing 15g flour (⅛ cup) with 30g water (⅛ cup) and adding 2g (½ tsp) active dry yeast. Stir, let it activate, and set aside until it doubles in size and is ready to use in batter.]


Step 1
Combine the water, honey and sourdough and stir gently.

2nd step
In a large mixing bowl, add the flour to the liquid and mix until it is fluffy and begins to form a cohesive mass.

Step 3
At this point, start sprinkling salt into the dough as you knead and fold the dough. Sprinkle with flour if dough is sticky. After the salt has been gradually added and the dough has become a more cohesive mass, return the dough to the bowl, cover it with a damp kitchen towel and let it rest for 1-2 hours.

Step 4
Once the dough has completely rested, knead, stretch and fold the dough for 10 minutes on a flour dusted surface.

Step 5
Once kneaded, form the dough into a ball, cover it again so that it rises until it doubles in volume. If your kitchen is colder, place the dough in a warm place in the kitchen next to the oven or a light source.

Step 6
Dust a clean work surface with flour and gently pour the batter out of the mixing bowl onto the work surface. The dough should be airy, light and soft. If the dough is still heavy and firm, let it rise longer.

Step 7
Preheat your oven to 220C (425F).

Step 8
Gently flatten and roll out the dough on a floured work surface until it is about 2½ cm (1 inch) thick.

Step 9
Form the dough into a long rectangle by folding the longer edge of the dough towards the center, then the opposite edge over the first piece of dough. Use a scraper or large knife to cut 13 linear strips of dough. Using a scale as you work, try to ensure that each strip of dough weighs close to 85g. If you don’t have a scale or scraper, this process can also be done using the mouth of a cup or a circular cookie cutter about 7 cm (2 ¾ in) in diameter .

Step 10
Take each strip of dough and gently roll it into a tube with the palms of your hands. Use a little flour on your hands if the dough is sticky. Take the ends of the tube and cross them over each other, as if you were tying a knot. Press the seam together and gently form the shape into a ring of equal proportions. If you are using a cup or cutter, simply press a hole in the center of the disc with your finger and expand the hole with your fingers until it is about 3 cm (1 in) in diameter.

Step 11
Place the formed rings in a bowl of flour and dust them lightly with a layer of flour, blot up any excess flour and carefully place them on a baking sheet an inch or more apart.

Optional: You can garnish the rings with sesame seeds, Greek style Koulouria and middle east kaak are, or with Nigella seeds as Turkish imitate are. If so, lightly frost the rings of dough (using the frosting recipe above) after forming the rings and gently swirl them inside a bowl with the seeds so that the top and bottom are covered. Do not dust the circles with flour if you are seasoning them with sesame or nigella seeds.

Step 12
Bake the rings for 20 to 25 minutes or until the bun crusts start to brown.

Tasting and pairing:
To serve, arrange 12 arculata on a tray or on individual plates accompanied by dried figs, prunes and chestnuts. This depicts a meal – or possibly an offering – abandoned by a Pompeian inhabitant in a store in Via degli Augustali during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Finally, place the 13th scroll aside as an offering to Hera or Demeter, to the virgins Vesta or Mary, to the grandmothers of Greece and Italy, or to the bakers and peddlers of yesterday and today.

(Farell Monaco is an award-winning archaeologist, baker and classical writer. She is currently an Honorary Visiting Scholar at the School of Archeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester. She is the 2019 winner of Saveur magazine’s Best Special Interest Food Blog Award and author of the forthcoming book: Panis: The Story of Bread in Ancient Rome.)

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