Thursday, 11 October 2012

Cato's Roman Bread


So, you've just arrived back from the grain distribution up on the Aventine and on the way home you popped into the miller's shop to get it ground up.  You're sitting there with a sack of flour. Great, how do you eat this?  Well, today we're going to start with the simplest of all recipes, and we're going to bake some bread.  I'm taking inspiration from Cato the Elder's agricultural handbook, de agri cultura.  This manual, written around 160 BCE, is the oldest piece of Roman prose we have, and is a guide to managing a farm.  I like this recipe because it's a simple recipe dating from simple times and thus requires few ingredients and relatively little preparation - it's the kind of bread any Roman could have been making at any stage of Roman history.  Cato writes:

Recipe for kneaded bread: wash both your hands and a bowl thoroughly.  Pour flour into the bowl, add water gradually, and knead well.  When it is well kneaded, roll it out and bake it under an earthenware lid. -Cato, On Agriculture, 74

I'm going to take some liberties when it comes to baking the bread under an earthenware lid, as I don't actually own one, but his advice on washing hands and equipment is timeless.  As Cato doesn't provide quantities or timings, I've experimented and come up with the following:


Cato's Roman Bread

Ingredients

  • 500g Spelt flour
  • 350ml Water
  • A Pinch of Salt
  • A Splash of Olive Oil

Method

  • Preheat an oven to 180°C.
  • Wash hands and wash a large bowl - we're being authentic here!
  • Add the flour to the bowl along with the pinch of salt.  Give it a bit of a mix to distribute salt.
  • Pour a splash of olive oil into the bowl.
  • Slowly add in the water, mixing as you go, until you get a dough which isn't too floury and isn't too sticky.  

  • Knead the dough well and form into a circular shape.  With a knife, score the top of the loaf, dividing it into 8.  This doesn't particularly help with the baking process, but it's how the bread preserved at Pompeii looked, and it's how it's often depicted.

  • Place on some greaseproof paper on a baking tray and place in the oven for 45 minutes.  By this stage the bread should be lovely and crispy and golden on the outside.  A good way to tell if it's ready on the inside is to tap the bottom of the loaf - if it's ready it will sound hollow.  Because there is no yeast, the bread won't have risen much if at all.

Notes

  • I added the olive oil because it keeps the bread softer for longer, and added salt to enhance the flavour of the bread a bit.  I need some bread leftover for my moretum recipe.  These two ingredients are ones which any Roman might have access to, so are not inauthentic.
  • The bread lasted four days before it started to go mouldy.

Results


The bread was a success, and everybody who tried it enjoyed it.  The texture and the taste were very 'wheaty' because of the use of Spelt, and I personally am not sure what to make of this flavour.  At the minute I find it quite overpowering, but with olive oil and vinegar for dipping the bread is very tasty indeed.  Do I envy the Romans?  In this instance, not quite.

13 comments:

  1. The lid would have made the bread rise more and be moister, especially so if there were some sort of leavening agent. I suspect that there would have been some sort of sourdough element, which was so "obvious" that Cato didn't mention it.

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    1. Since making this bread I've been investigating Roman sourdough and am planning to start the messy process to make my own!

      Cheers for the tip on the lid - I'll have to hunt one out.

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    2. I have a loaf in the oven as I type this. Would it have to be earthenware? Or would something like, say, a cast iron container with a lid work?

      I am not a cook.

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    3. I'm not sure myself, but am keen to find out! How did the loaf turn out?

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  2. Anything that creates an enclosed space would do, it allows the bread to cook in it's own steam for the first few minutes, thus avoiding the creation of an instant dry, hard crust - which would prevent it from swelling out as the air/gas in the dough expands ("oven spring" as it's known).

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! I tried this method yesterday and it worked so much better than before.

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  3. If you look at the carbonized loaves from Pompeii and Boscoreale (http://tinyurl.com/cdcxlcy) and the famous wall painting showing bread (http://tinyurl.com/bostoro) the loaves actually appeared to have been baked in a dish, with the pre-cut segments flowing over the top of the rim once they rose (a good clue surely to the use of sourdough). In Britain, the so-called coarse ware 'pie dish' (http://tinyurl.com/bt6pp6y) makes a good approximation (they get their informal name from the fact that they are frequently scored inside in much the same way as the loaves are divided up).

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    1. Thanks for this! I now have several new earthenware dishes, so will certainly try baking the bread that way.

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  4. I've seen modern cooks using terracotta flower pots. The water basin is your pan and the flower pot, inverted over it, is the lid. I think aluminum foil would take care of the hole in the pot.

    Just a thought. ;-)

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    1. I've got some good earthenware now, including a tajine, which I'm keen to get using. Your idea has crossed my mind! It's important to soak earthenware prior to using it though.

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  5. Okay, made this. The wife actually liked it. I thought it was...dense to say the least. Somewhat reminiscent of cooked paste. However, I served it, as you suggested, with the dill sauce (which is killer on chicken!) and we enjoyed it. So, thank you for a nice Sunday dinner.

    Pattie

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    1. I'm with you on this one - I think it's almost too dense to enjoy. Other people I've given it to love it though!

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  6. I have tried creating Roman-style leaven bread, based on Pliny's Nat. His. 18, 26.

    First, I created the leaven, by mixing "3 days old must", or grape juice (pressed from organic grapes and left for three days), organic spelt flour and water. The result was dried in the oven for a few hours, until I got a cookie-like disk of dry pre-ferment.

    For the bread, I've mixed the leaven with water, and added it to spelt flour and saltwater (Pliny mentiones sea water as being used. Though living not far from the Mediterranean, I wouldn't dare using its water for cooking). Let it rise, then baked.

    The result was quite good, tough the taste was a little on the bland side(due to insufficient salt, no doubt). It does prove that Romans could easily bake leavened bread - by using "commercial" style leaven, which kept for long period of times.
    Anyway, you can see pictures of my experiment here.

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