Issue 2: old school

Our favourite times science and passion have combined to bring archaic recipes back to life.

Ancient Origin Baking

Making sourdough during the pandemic has become a bit of a cliche. But there’s one baker whose culinary efforts are worthy of special mention.

Seamus Blackley is a physicist, “bread nerd” and Egyptology hobbyist. For 12 months he has been attempting to produce a loaf of bread using ancient Egyptian ingredients and methods.

On 30 March 2020 he did just that; with a little help from his friends, archaeologist Dr Serena Love, and microbiologist Richard Bowman.

Love used her contacts to get access to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Yale University’s Peabody Museum. Among their collections, she helped identify vessels from the Old Kingdom (c 4,500 years ago) that had the best chance of containing viable ancient yeast microbes.

Meanwhile, Bowman came up with a non-invasive technique to flush out the microbes, without damaging the priceless artifacts.

The samples were sent to a lab to separate the various organisms harvested from the vessels. It determined which ones were modern (and likely a contaminant) and which ones were most likely to be from ancient Egypt.

Blackley used the isolated ancient Egyptian organisms to create his sourdough starter.

Then – using a recipe deciphered from hieroglyphs, flour he’d milled himself from ancient emmer wheat, and a handmade clay baking vessel (modelled after the ancient Egyptian conical pot called a ‘bedja’) – he successfully baked a loaf of ancient origin bread in a pit of embers in his backyard, just as the ancient Egyptians would have cooked it.

Reverse Engineered Absinthe

Sometime in the 1990s, research scientist Ted Breaux got to thinking about absinthe.

Specifically, the claim that thujone, a chemical compound found in grande wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) – one of absinthe's three key ingredients – had mind-altering effects.

Despite thujone being responsible for the spirit’s criminalisation in the 1910s, there had never been a credible scientific investigation into it.

So, Breaux decided to see for himself. He acquired some pre-ban bottles of vintage absinthe and used a mass-spectrometer to analyse the ingredients. He searched for anything that was poisonous or would have drug-like effects.

The result: on average, the thujone concentration found in the pre-ban samples of absinthe was 25.4 mg/L. At that level it is impossible to ingest enough to affect the central nervous system before the drinker would become too intoxicated from the alcohol. The conclusion: absinthe had been the victim of negative propaganda.

But Breaux realised – with all his scientific data, and all the published and unpublished information he’d collected about pre-ban absinthe distillers and their products, he had everything he needed to accurately recreate authentic absinthe. So, he did.

As absinthe was still illegal in the United States, Breaux travelled to France, where a 1988 European Union directive had essentially decriminalised the spirit, discreetly lifting its ban. He found an old distillery that still had all its original equipment and began operating there as Jade Liqueurs in 2004.

An authentic absinthe must contain three specific ingredients – "the holy trinity", as Breaux puts it:

  • grande wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)

  • green anise (Pimpinella anisum)

  • sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Breaux carries out every step of the absinthe-making process by hand, to exacting, historically accurate standards. His base spirit is derived only from specific grape varietals and terroir. He uses only botanicals of the correct original variety, regional origin, and essential oil characteristics. He personally cultivates two of the most critical, and historically significant, grande wormwood plants on site.

In March 2007, Breaux even managed to help get absinthe legalised in the US (in the process of also discovering the French Ministry of Health had quietly reinstated France’s ban on absinthe, being fined thousands of Euros and threatened with jail, and eventually getting the French law changed back in 2009!).

“This was never my career plan... (but) I feel like I have a responsibility to disseminate good information and make sure the wrongs of the past aren't repeated. I think the world of spirits and cocktails is a much better place with absinthe in it,” Breaux says.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to hit reply to share your thoughts or feedback.

Til next time,

Amy @ Born Free Press

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