How does a curious scientist who likes to bake entertain himself? Well, if it’s Seamus Blackley, he tries to get some ancient Egyptian yeast, so he can bake a loaf of bread.
Seamus Blackley is fairly well known as the man who came up with the idea for the Xbox game system. But Mr. Blackley was a scientist long before he worked on video games. Most scientists are naturally curious, and that’s true of Mr. Blackley, too. Currently, he’s curious about baking.
“My mom was a really good home cook, and I had been baking my whole life, but picked it back up 10 years ago,” he told the New York Post. Now Mr. Blackley calls himself a “bread nerd”, and what really interests him is yeast.
When many people think of bread yeast, they think of something you buy at the store. But yeasts are tiny living things found just about everywhere. There are many different kinds of yeast.
Though yeast is alive, it isn’t always active. When there’s not enough food (like sugar or flour), yeast becomes dormant. Basically, it dries out and goes to sleep. It can stay dormant for thousands of years. Dormant yeast can be made active again with warmth, water, and food.
Mr. Blackley is especially curious about little-known yeasts. If yeasts are everywhere, why not grab them and use them? He’s made bread with yeast he collected in the woods. In April, he made bread with yeast that someone told him was 5,200 years old.
But when he realized he had no way of knowing how old the yeast really was, he decided to collect his own ancient yeast.
To do this, he worked with two other scientists: Richard Bowman, who studies tiny forms of life, and Serena Love, who studies and teaches about ancient Egypt. Dr. Love was able to connect the scientists with 4,500-year-old Egyptian pottery at two museums in Boston.
Even though the clay pots are solid, there are tiny holes in the clay. Mr. Bowman figured out that the team could use water to wash out any yeast that was inside the tiny holes. Once they’d done this, Mr. Bowman took most of the samples that the team collected. He is testing them.
But Mr. Blackley kept one sample. He wanted to test it in his own way – by making bread.
Mr. Blackley worked carefully to get the dormant yeast active again. Then he made a loaf of bread using other grains that would have been around 4,500 years ago. Grains are seeds that are ground up to make flour. Mr. Blackley made sure the grains didn’t already contain any yeast.
Mr. Blackley says the flavor of the bread is “incredible”. But he’s still not 100% sure he’s baking with 4,500-year-old yeast. It’s possible that some more recent yeast got on the clay pots. Mr. Bowman’s tests should answer that question more clearly.
Still, Mr. Blackley feels pretty confident. “It’s really different,” he says. “And you can easily tell even if you’re not a bread nerd.”
(The front page shows a later batch of bread made with the yeast. Image source: Seamus Blackley.)