Somewhere, there’s a picture of Anne, my first wife and mother of my two kids. She’s kneeling next to a large basket of sesame-encrusted ring breads. I took the picture in Athens in 1980, our first trip abroad together.
They were like thin bagels, golden, warm and smelling delicious. I remember feeling the heat on my face as I knelt over them to look and smell.
It was our first morning in Athens, and we were out for a stroll looking for a place to eat. No one was attending the basket, sitting by itself a sidewalk next to a shop. The bread was like a mirage! It set our salivary glands into overdrive, our stomachs into a tumult. It contained everything we desired at that moment. Hot sesame bread!
An act of Greek generosity
Just after I took the picture of Anne and the basket, a man hurried over and shooed us away. I asked if I could buy some of his bread. I held out a handful of drachma. He grudgingly said yes and took the whole handful of coins. He smiled and gave us four of the ring breads.
He gave us one extra, an act of Greek generosity, though I have little doubt he got the better part of the transaction. I asked what the bread was called. I can’t recall his answer, though I vividly remember that beautiful bread’s taste and texture.
The answer: Koulouri
Through the mists of time, I came across an article this week that may contain the bread seller’s answer. The bread we ate that day was called Koulouri!
The article, Arculata: The Bread that Survived Pompeii, from the BBC World’s Table website, traced the history of ring bread initially found in the early excavations of Pompeii and back to Ancient Greece.
Pompeii was obliterated after the catastrophic explosion of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE 1.
Ash and volcanic debris covered the town, 1,800 people perished, and their homes, buildings and infrastructure incinerated. But excavations over the past 160 years have gradually uncovered buried treasures, including clues as to how people spent their last moments, where they were, and what they were doing.
Of particular note, archaeologists found a bakery wood-fired oven containing 81 charred loaves of bread called panis quadratus, round loaves of pre-segmented bread. The fleeing bakers had no time to deal with the bakery’s bread, grain and flour before fleeing the rain of fire.
While the carbonized loaves remained intact, archaeologists found wall paintings of bakers selling bread. Others showed small ring-shaped rolls carried on sticks, tied together with twine, or piled high in baskets. Archaeologists called the bakery, Bakery Modestus, which also held a small, perfectly preserved ring-shaped loaf of bread on a plate accompanied by a handful of chestnuts, dried figs and prunes.
Farrell Monaco, an archaeologist and author of the BBC World’s Table article, traces the appearance of various types of bread around Pompeii, Herculaneum 2 and surrounding areas.
What were Pompeii’s bread rings called? What was their original purpose? And are there still relatives of this bread around the Mediterranean today?
Monaco says the ring loaves are about three inches in diameter and likely made of durum or ordinary wheat-based bread flour. Naturally, there was a functional reason for their shape: they would have been easy to consume, transportable and aesthetically pleasing.
But other bread ring finds suggest people saw symbolic purpose in them as votive offerings to religious deities. Depictions of the loaves were found on 4,000-year-old Minoan terracotta offering bowls. In Greece, the breads were associated with worshiping Hera, the Greek goddess of women, marriage, family and childbirth. In Greek colonies in southern Italy, there is evidence that ring breads were used as sacrificial offerings to Demeter, the ancient Greek goddess of the harvest.
Offerings to the gods
The Roman culture around the time of Pompeii also used small “cakes” as offerings to please their gods and ask for favours. The cakes were made of wheat or barley with fresh cheese or honey and comparable to a modern biscuit or sweet bread.
The use of ring breads carried on after the collapse of the Roman Empire into early Christianity. A fresco found in the catacombs of one ancient Christian church portrays the “Loaves and Fishes,” as recorded in the New Testament (Matthew 14:13-21), with two fish and a basket containing five ring breads. — the exact number of fish and loaves of bread that Jesus multiplied in the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” community meal is often interpreted as foreshadowing the Eucharist.
Sacred to the profane
But along the way, the role of ring breads changed from the sacred to the profane. Post-Renaissance, they became little more than cheap snacks sold to people on the streets.
They were known as Arculata, from the singular form, arculum, “a crown-like headpiece worn when carrying sacred vessels at public sacrifices.”
To the Greeks, arculata may be known as kollyra, believed to be the etymological root of the modern Greek bread koulouri.
It’s probably not surprising that those who escaped the Vesuvius catastrophe were able to spread their knowledge and customs — including ring bread recipes — to new cities, countries, and continents around the world.
Were the arculata from Pompeii’s Bakery Modestus the forerunners of the Koulouri that my ex-wife Anne and I found on the streets of Athens in 1980?
Farrell Monaco, the author of the BBC World’s Table article, offers a chance for readers to taste arculata for themselves. Monaco recreated a detailed recipe based on her study of the breads and leavened with sourdough, no less, including instructions for shaping and suggestions for coating the loaves.
For a Greek take on arculata, she advises sprinkling sesame seeds on them before putting them in the oven.
Lastly, here are her tasting and pairing suggestions:
To serve, place 12 arculata on a platter or on single-serving plates alongside some dried figs, prunes and chestnuts. This represents a meal – or perhaps an offering – abandoned by one Pompeian resident at a shop on the Via degli Augustali during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Lastly, place the 13th roll aside as an offering to Hera or Demeter, the virgins Vesta or Mary, the grandmothers of Greece and Italy, or the bakers and street hawkers of past and present.
I’m all in for Koulouri!