A scientist made bread from scratch, but instead of going to the grocery store for his ingredients, he found his yeast inside 4,500-year-old pots at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Seamus Blackley is the father of the Xbox, a physicist, and a self-proclaimed bread nerd. On Monday, he took to Twitter to document his experience making bread with yeast that had been scraped from the inside of ceramics from ancient Egypt. Since then, the thread has been shared over 25,000 times.
“Usually, you make something and only other nerds appreciate it, but I think this bread is different enough that other people realize it,” Blackley said in a telephone interview. “It’s a little bit surprising.”
Two weeks before the viral Twitter thread, Blackley went to the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. With the help of Egyptologist Serena Love and microbiologist Richard Bowman, Blackley attempted to “capture dormant yeast and bacteria from inside the ceramic pores of ancient pots,” he wrote on Twitter.
The pottery used to get the samples were beer- and bread-making objects from ancient Egypt, Blackley said. After he nurtured the fungi for two weeks, they were ready to bake with.
Blackley tried to only use ingredients that were baked with in ancient Egypt. To finish his recipe, Blackley said, he used barley, ancient wheats called einkorn and kamut, water, and unfiltered olive oil.
In the top of the loaf, Blackley carved the hieroglyphic for bread bun. Blackley can read hieroglyphics and has a deep respect for ancient Egypt.
“We owe [the ancient Egyptians] so much, and we can hear their voices if we read what they wrote,” he said.
The end result was much different than today’s bread, Blackley said. The smell was richer and sweeter, and the bread light and airy. There was even a slight smell of brown sugar and caramel, he said.
“The aroma and flavor are incredible,” he wrote on Twitter. “I’m emotional. It’s really different, and you can easily tell even if you’re not a bread nerd. This is incredibly exciting, and I’m so amazed that it worked.”
This was just a practice round for Blackley. He said the team will continue to grow their sample library and work to separate the old yeast strains from any modern contaminants, as well as adjust their baking tactics to mimic the styles of ancient Egypt.
The transition from being the creative mind behind the Xbox to baking sourdough is a unique one, to say the least. Blackley started his career as a physicist but transitioned to become a video game developer, writing a proposal for the video game console that would become funded by Bill Gates, he said.
After that, Blackley went into video game finance, helping to find funding for video game development. But being a physicist “is like being in the mafia,” Blackley said; it keeps pulling you back in.
Two of Blackley’s passions, breadmaking and Egyptology, aligned perfectly for this project. In April, a friend sent him a sample of a supposed ancient Egyptian yeast strain. Blackley posted about it on Twitter.
Blackley routinely posted about his baking adventures, but said he was lucky if he got 10 likes. However, the post about the ancient yeast blew up.
“It made me feel pretty insecure,” he said. “There’s a pivotal moment when my wife asked me how I knew it was really ancient Egyptian yeast. I was worried I was misleading people.”
In order to be sure what he was using was legitimate, Blackley reached out to two of his followers, scientists who had seen his post and voiced their skepticism. They were Love and Bowman, now his teammates on this project.
Blackley also recently married, and one of his stepchildren is a picky eater. Blackley wanted to create a bread that his stepson would eat and love. In the end, he was successful in impressing both his wife and his stepson.
“It got rave reviews from him,” Blackley said. “Uncharacteristically, my wife had it for both breakfast and lunch yesterday.”