"Is this it?" - that's what you'll all be thinking right now. "We've gone from lovely, fruity, succulent ham to thin sheets of dried dough." But before you delete Pass the Garum from your bookmarks and unlike the Facebook page, I want you to hear me out. These sheets of dried dough, or tracta as our friend Cato calls them, are vital to several recipes:
- Tracta were used in the off-puttingly named placenta, which you'll be glad to hear has nothing to do with the modern meaning of the word. Placenta was constructed out of layers of a honey-cheese mixture separated by layers of tracta - it helps to imagine the way in which a lasagne is constructed (but there the resemblance to lasagne must end). This was then used in religious ceremonies, which we'll learn more about more when we actually make placenta.
- The other use for tracta was in thickening stews, making them that little bit heartier and more filling. This is what we'll be using ours for initially, so let's make some.
The Roman recipe for tracta is as follows:
Soak some groats in water, and after they have sat a while and softened, drain them and put them into a bowl. After kneading them for some time, gradually add some flour and make a dough. Make the tracta from this dough, spread them out, and let them dry.- Cato, On Agriculture, 76
It was a recipe in Grainger's Cooking Apicius which required me to make tracta in the first place, so it was to this book that I turned for an interpretation of Cato's recipe. I didn't use the quantities recommended by Grainger, but her methods, honed by years of experience, worked perfectly. Before we start, I must warn that this process is equal parts labour intensive and frustrating. With that in mind, let's begin.
- 200g of Semolina (the 'groats' in the recipe)
- 200g of Spelt Flour
- 150ml of Water
- Cover the semolina in water (not from the 150ml) and leave to soak for 20 minutes. When done, drain away as much excess liquid as you can using a sieve (or a fine cloth if you have it).
- Add the 'groats' to a clean bowl and gradually mix in the flour.
- Add as much water as is necessary to form a smooth and workable dough. Our biggest enemy in this recipe is sticky dough.
- Take half of the dough, roll it into a sausage, and divide it into 8 pieces. Do the same with the other bit of dough. Roll these little pieces into balls, cover with flour, and place back in the bowl. Cover with a damp cloth to prevent them drying out.
- Flour a LARGE work surface, a rolling pin, and several baking trays and chopping boards.
- Grab one ball and place it onto the floured work-surface. Squash it flat with the palm of your hand, then, keeping everything well floured, roll it as flat as it will go without it sticking to the work surface or the rolling pin. Unfortunately, it will stick to the surface, but persevere. It also doesn't matter how irregular it looks, as my attempt demonstrates. Using a fish slice or something similar, gently lift it up and set it onto one of the floured trays.
- Repeat this for all of the little dough balls and set aside to dry, which can take hours. I had just finished baking a new loaf of Cato's bread, so I set the tracta into the cooling oven for maybe ten minutes at a time. It is important that the oven is not switched on as we want to dry these, not cook them.
- Spelt flour is expensive, so for the dusting I used normal, cheap, plain white flour.
- The semolina in the dough makes it very squishy and fun to play with.
Yum. These looked so appetising that I ate them all in one go.