Every now and then I get *really* nerdy about something. The last few months, my mind has been on the legendary lost Empire of Atlantis. That's why when the food historian and professional fermenter Julia Skinner reached out to see if I wanted to collaborate on something, I immediately thought of attempting to re-create the kinds of food and drink this ancient civilization might have eaten. Below you'll find a description and link to Julia's Atlantean brew, then more history on this mysterious civilization and my take on a bright blue bread inspired by the tales of this sunken city.
Here's a bit about Julia:
I’m a food historian, and a professional fermenter, and I find more and more that my work sits at the intersection of these spaces. I do this in part through Root, an Atlanta-based food history and fermentation organization I founded in 2018. Root does many cool things, but one of my favorites is the creation of custom fermented foods. I do this for everyone from filmmakers, who use my food on set, to home cooks, who want to recreate the past in their kitchens. Atlantis mead, however, is one of my very favorites that I’ve made, and I’m very proud to share it with you.
If you would like to see more goodies like this, make sure to check out Root’s membership program, which supports my work through a standalone membership and Patreon, and gets you exclusive recipes, discounts on everything offered through Root, from workshops to menus to research projects, and much more.
https://www.patreon.com/rootkitchens Julia will be posting her recipe at this link very soon, if she hasn't already done so!
"Atlantis mead is a lightly alcoholic drink, which emerged from our conversations and from daydreams about the ancient world. It’s perfect for spring: light bodied, herbal, and slightly sweet. And, it’s a drink that tells a story, too: My goal was to create a beverage whose flavor would transport you to Atlantis, and that would heal and refresh whoever drinks it." Sounds pretty wonderful, doesn't it? Be sure to visit Julia's patreon to read more about her creation and try making it for yourself! You can catch up with her in other online places as well:
"Food history is a great way to build connections because there are so many places for people to grab hold: their own personal ancestry, curiosity about traditional preparation methods, or whatever else sparks their interest. I find fermentation fits in well with this, but so many other things do as well (foraging! crafting! etc), which is part of why I see so much of a kindred connection between our crafts." Julia said this to me in her very first email, and within it I saw the same passion I had for exploring food and connections. Once you've brewed up a batch of her Atlantis Mead, bake some historical bread to go with it!
The Lost Bread of Atlantis:
There’s something about a civilization frozen in time through disaster that just seems to capture our attention. Pompeii is perhaps our best-known example, where the entire villages of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other settlements in the Bay of Naples were frozen in time in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius violently and suddenly erupted. Petrified bodies lay in petrified houses, with petrified bread on the tables. There’s a tragic romance to the tale of a happy village caught off-guards by a violent volcanic eruption. Their stories are frozen in time, preserved in the time-capsule of ash created by its environment.
There’s tales of another lost civilization, this time destroyed by a devastating tidal wave, perhaps triggered by an earthquake. But the difference between this and Pompeii is that nobody knows where the lost city of Atlantis is… or indeed, if it ever even existed.
The legend of Atlantis describes a city of dreams, home to a civilization more advanced than any other. The sea god Poseidon was gifted the large island and he carved rings around it to protect his people. Those furrows filled in with water and the people who lived there soon built strong walls around each circular canal, creating concentric rings of alternating sea and land. Their land was fertile and their agriculture was advanced, making Atlantis prosperous and wealthy. Soon, the city was adorned with riches; the walls were decorated with precious metals gleaming in the sun, extravagant bath houses were built with fountains of both hot and cold water, courtyards displayed intricate statues, and at the very center of the city was a gigantic temple to Poseidon, covered entirely in silver and given a roof of precious ivory. This temple was surrounded by a wall of pure gold. Legend also tells of a mystical power source that gave Atlantis technology advanced far beyond its years and gave the people who lived there incredible power.
The very first king of Atlantis was Atlas himself, giving his name both to his city and the Atlantic ocean that surrounded it. His strong rule set a precedent for power, and soon Atlantis had a strong military and was able to begin capturing many areas of the Mediterranean, Europe, and Asia, expanding their empire over continents. The people of Atlantis were advanced beyond their years…but they weren’t without moral fault.
The original story of the lost island of Atlantis was told by the Greek philosopher Plato in his Socratic dialogues Timaeus and Critias. In the story, Plato describes a powerful utopian society destroyed through tragedy because of greed. Here’s an excerpt describing the power of Atlantis:
“…Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent.”
When this maritime nation attacked other nations in an unprovoked war, the gods were displeased with their violence and greed and shook the earth around it in violent earthquakes, causing horrific floods. Atlantis sank into the sea, never to rule again. Plato’s rendition of the downfall of this society is nothing short of horrific:
“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.”
One can almost picture the horrible tragedy of huge tidal waves crashing down on this glorious city, golden statues sparkling below the darkness of the ocean. Like Pompeii, the death of this city was sudden and tragic and seemingly came out of nowhere. It went from a glistening utopia to a sunken wasteland in less than a day.
It’s difficult to know Plato’s intention with this story. Most agree it was written as a myth, a moral lesson about greed and society. But like most myths, there’s a chance it has a basis in reality. Plato’s Atlantis may have been exaggerated, but it’s entirely possible there was once an advanced city on an island in the Atlantic that was suddenly sunk by the movements of the earth’s tectonic plates. Many others have grasped on to the idea of Atlantis, and the myth of this sunken island appears over and over in literature throughout the ages. Treasure hunters scour the ocean beds today hoping to stumble upon the relics of this ancient utopia, or even find the mystical source of its power. Some believe Atlantis was originally in the Mediterranean sea; others think it was part of the Mayan empire in the New World. Dozens of proposed sites have been searched by eager believers, from Antarctica to the Bermuda Triangle. Some believe Atlantis was destroyed in the mythical flood mentioned in The Bible while others believe it fell into the ocean long before the days of Christianity. Plato wrote of Atlantis in 360 BC, describing its downfall of 9000 years earlier, before the Pyramids of Egypt were even built.
In any case, Atlantis represents a utopia, a nearly-perfect civilization living in riches and progressing in technology. And though Atlantis supposedly existed thousands of years before the fall of Pompeii, one cannot help but compare the two ancient cities, lost to sudden tragedy.
Pompeii is largely considered to be the most important archaeological site on earth because the caustic ash that rained down on it preserved so much of the city in carbonized clarity. The bakeries of Pompeii are particularly notable. Bread was a huge part of Roman society - a critical commodity consumed by nearly all citizens. Bakers at the time took huge pride in their products; enough so that they had ceramic stamps custom-designed to mark each loaf to prevent counterfeit. And since bread was such a huge part of commerce, the bread bakers themselves were powerful people, often running for office or taking part in local politics. It was during this time that leavened breads were first discovered (after centuries of flatbreads and other unleavened breads.)
In fact, some of the most fascinating artifacts from this horrific natural disaster are the carbonized loaves of bread stamped with their baker’s insignia. There’s something visceral about those dozens of preserved loaves. You can almost imagine their fresh just-baked scent, the crack of their crusts, the daily routines of the bakers who kneaded the doughs and stoked the fires of those ancient bakeries. These breads are known as “Panis Quadratus”, or “quartered bread,” as four lines (making 8 sections) were cut or pressed into the tops before baking. I like to believe that the people of Atlantis dined on similar loaves of bread. It’s only natural to think that an advanced society thousands of years ahead of their time would have discovered leavened bread, and that it would have fed the large population gathered on the mysterious island. Others may dream of the golden walls and silver statues and mysterious power source (perhaps a crystal?), but to me the real riches are in engaging with the everyday life of a lost people, whether from Pompeii or Atlantis. And you can bet that, wherever and whenever Atlantis was, they had bread.
This loaf is based on historical re-creations of the breads discovered at Pompeii, but with an Atlantis twist: this flavorful sourdough bread is further enhanced with the addition of seaweed, then dyed a gorgeous deep ocean blue with butterfly pea powder. It is served with a rich dipping sauce, an homage to Atlantis’s Roman roots and compiled of riches from that time: high-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar plus a sprinkle of homemade seaweed salt. Enjoy the simple act of dipping fine bread into flavorful sauce and relish the thousands of years of history and myth that have gone into this single loaf of bread.
One last note: sourdough starters are a little piece of edible archaeology themselves, as starters are often passed down through the generations as a sort of edible heirloom. This balance of bacteria and yeast can continue to grow and reproduce as it’s fed a simple diet of water and flour on a somewhat regular basis. I decided to go full history-nerd and purchase the “Giza” starter from Sourdoughs International, a business dedicated to finding and preserving historic sourdough starters from all over the world! Here is what they say about this particular starter: “The bakery where this culture was found dated straight back to antiquity and was in the shadow of the pyramids. This is probably the culture that made man’s first leavened bread and is the one we used to recreate that first bread for the National Geographic Society.”
Atlantis Bread Recipe:
This bread is bright blue, with a mild sourdough taste accented by dried herbs. This recipe makes quite a big loaf - big enough for a party!
2 c. sourdough starter
2 c. boiling water
⅓ c. butterfly pea powder
2 tsp. Salt
3 ½ c. spelt flour
3 ½ . unbleached all-purpose flour
2 Tbs. seaweed flakes (I used wakame)
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp. Dried oregano
Extra flour, if needed
White rice flour, for dusting
*1 1/2 Tbs. yeast - optional, see note below
1 shallow 8” cake pan
Baking or gardening twine
A thin dowel
- In a large bowl, pour the boiling water over the butterfly pea flower powder. Stir, and let sit until the water has cooled to a tepid or room temperature.
- Meanwhile, whisk the flours, salt, and seaweed flakes together in a large bowl.
- Add the starter to the butterfly pea water and mix well. Add the flour a cup at a time until the dough is too stiff to mix. Knead in the remaining flour mixture until the dough is firm but workable.
- Knead until the dough is smooth and satiny, or about 10 minutes by hand.
- Place the dough into a lightly-greased large bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. Leave it at room temperature overnight to proof. The dough should roughly double in size.
- Punch the dough down and form it into a ball (this can be done by pulling small amounts from the outside edge inward. Once a ball shape has been formed, dust the bottom of the 8” baking pan with some rice flour and place the ball in it, pressing down gently to flatten into a disk. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let the loaf rise until its about doubled and “mushroomed’ a bit over the lip of the pan.
- Place a baking stone in the middle rack in your oven and a smaller pan below it and off to the side, and preheat your oven to 400F. (Note: give it longer than needed to make sure the baking stone is heated through.)
- Place a piece of parchment paper on a small pizza peel and dust it with flour.
- Flip the pan over and hold it slightly above the work surface until it falls out onto the table. Dust it with white rice flour. Use your small dowel (or chopstick, pencil, etc.) to make 4 even impressions in the top, creating 8 equal wedges. Poke the middle with your finger to impress it down a bit.
- Tie a bit of baking twine around the “hemisphere” of the bread, which will help restrict its spreading in the oven.
- Add your signature baking stamp now, if desired!
- Gently slide the bread onto the baking stone and bake for 45 minutes. If you'd like a more crusty bread, pour 1 c. boiling water into the smaller pan to create steam.
- Remove the loaf from the oven and let stand to cool for at least one hour before removing the cord or slicing it.
- Serve with a dipping oil of 2 parts olive oil to 1 part balsamic vinegar, with a hefty sprinkle of a flavorful salt.
*If your sourdough starter isn’t extremely active, it can be helpful to supplement the recipe with some baking yeast (just whisk it into the dry ingredients and follow the rest of the recipe the same.) The starter will still give the bread a lovely flavor, but it won’t become as sour. Using a less-active starter will require much longer proving and rising times, resulting in a much stronger-tasting bread with a less vibrant color.