the 8000-year history of the world’s favourite food
CNN recently published a wonderful article about the 2000-year old history of Italy’s favourite dish. Spoiler alert: it’s pizza, of course.
I thoroughly enjoyed the article (not only because we are mentioned in it!), and recommend everyone read it. But for starters, I must contest the headline. In my humble opinion, pizza is the whole world’s favourite dish, not just Italy! The global pizza market is projected to be worth $233 billion by 2023, growing at a rate of 10.17% per year. Over the course of this ongoing pandemic, pizza delivery sales have risen dramatically in North America. Pizza’s versatility and adaptability has turned it into a true global phenomenon. Everyone loves pizza.
Which brings me to my next point: I wish the article had gone even further and given us a true history of pizza’s humble origins. You know, give a little credit where it’s due. Even Neapolitans themselves have no reservations in teaching their students a little history, which began long before we know. At the AVPN School, we are taught from the beginning how and where pizza really originated. Though pizza as we know it today is a quintessential Neapolitan invention, the idea of a flatbread topped with local ingredients is much, much older. Believe it or not, pizza shares a history with Egypt that takes us back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians, without whom we wouldn’t have pizza as we know it today (or bread altogether).
Once upon a time, long long ago, it is said that a predynastic Ancient Egyptian baker had forgotten a sludge of flour and water in warm weather. Upon finding it, he noticed the active bubbling and new perfume being emitted, and decided to bake it. The resulting bread grew much larger and tasted much better than its previous counterparts, and thus leavened bread was created!
An alternative (equally plausible story) is that the Ancient Egyptians were avid fermenting experts and had already developed the technology to ferment grains (beer) and fruit (wine). The fermentation of dough was therefore imminent. In fact, for much of history, the baker and beer-maker worked closely together. To aid in “starting” the dough fermentation process, bakers used a yeast culture which was obtained as a byproduct of beer-making. Hence the name “khameera beera” for fresh yeast in Arabic, or “lievito di birra” in Italian. Nowadays “beer yeast” or “baker’s yeast” is a single-celled organism that we are able to commercially produce, but a true sourdough starter is a living, breathing colony of healthy bacteria and fungi used to ferment bread. Bread-baking enthusiast and X-Box inventor Seamus Blackley worked closely with archaeologists and scientists to extract a 4,500-year-old Ancient Egyptian yeast culture and bring it back to life to make bread today!* It gives us an amazing glimpse of the type of bread they were able to produce thousands of years ago. I find that fascinating!
Bread was truly a catalyst for civilization. From as early as 6,000BC, the ancient Egyptians as a civilized nation were known to use bread in their diet*. The production of bread is thought to have instigated the need for human settlements: making bread was a collective effort which started with sowing the seeds, then harvesting the grains, then drying, milling and finally baking* the bread. It literally took a village. Leavened bread was revolutionary because it was able to fill more hungry mouths for the same amount of water and flour. These innovations spread quickly across the Mediterranean and European civilizations, as well as the Fertile Crescent. Bread became the main food for the rich and poor alike, and in ancient Egypt, it was often topped or flavoured with local ingredients like herbs, coriander seeds, butter, eggs or honey and dried fruits.* It was even used as a currency. It dominated almost every facet of ancient Egyptian life.
Another indispensable innovation brought about by the ancient Egyptians is none other than the oven itself. Our beloved “baladi oven” is the ancestor of the modern Neapolitan oven. If we had figured out how to make bread in ancient Egypt, the next logical step was to figure out how to bake it. The ancient Egyptian oven consisted of a pointed dome made with Nile mud, with a separate chamber beneath a stone slab where the fire would be set. This technology was adopted by the Greeks, who developed the first wood-fired ovens where the bread could be placed directly next to the fires, on the same stone slab. The Romans then adopted that technology and developed it even further, improving the shape of the dome, the heat retention, and the materials used to make the ovens. Neapolitan ovens are able to sustain a temperature of well over 550 degrees celsius, meaning they’re able to cook flatbreads in a matter of seconds. More food, more quickly for everybody.
Just as the ancient Egyptians flavoured their breads with local specialties, the Neapolitans did the same. By the late 1700’s, the peasants of Naples began putting tomatoes - which had proven to be a successful and plentiful crop over the previous 200 years - on their flatbreads. It was the food of the poor for most of its history, and was little known outside of Naples. But when the kingdom of Italy was united in 1889, the new Queen Margherita made a visit to the kingdom of Naples to appease its citizens. She had heard about pizza and ordered the best Neapolitan baker of their time to make her one. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Neapolitans may well have invented pizza, and the Americans have definitely helped popularize it to the whole world. But every Mediterranean civilization had its own version of pizza long before pizza was pizza. Even the word “pizza” has ancient Egyptian origins: a possible etymology traces back to the word “b’taw” or “battaw” for bread in ancient Egypt, to “pitta” in Greek, and eventually “pizza” in Italian. We have mana’eesh and fatayer in the Levant, Lahmacùn in Turkey, Pissaladière in France. But it all started right here, in Egypt.
We owe our ancestors a debt of gratitude.
Now, everyone, say it loud and say it proud with me: “el pizza aslaha Masri!”.
· Koncept Analytics: Global Market Pizza Report (2019-2023), July 2019
· Attia, Venice: Bread in Ancient Egypt, Egyptian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities, April 2017
· Hassaan, Galal Ali: Mechanical Engineering in Ancient Egypt, Part 54: Wine and Perfume Industries, Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University, October 2017
· Pollan, Michael: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, April 2013
· Malamut, Melissa: Xbox inventor bakes “nerd” bread using 4,500-year-old yeast, NYPost, August 2019
· Leek F F: Teeth and bread in ancient Egypt., J Egypt Archaeol 1972; 58: 126– 132.
· Leek F F: Further studies concerning ancient Egyptian bread., J Egypt Archaeol 1972; 59: 199–204.