A friend asked me the other day about Roman bread. He’d heard that the Romans made flat, unleavened slabs of bread on the open hearth. It would have been a kind of hard-tack or biscuit (English biscuit, I mean!) Poor people with no space at home for cooking, and armies on the march, ate this sort of tough but easy-to-prepare fare.
But the Romans liked their luxuries. Didn’t they have bread leavened with yeast, like ours?
They certainly did. It was usually made of wheat flour, or wheat and barley mixed; barley alone is low in gluten and produced a dry loaf that the Romans didn’t rate highly. In comfortably off homes, and inns like the Oak Tree run by my sleuth Aurelia Marcella, they ate wheat bread, baked fresh most mornings, so Aurelia’s guests got new bread for breakfast, accompanied by honey or cheese or perhaps olives. I’m feeling hungry now just thinking about it…
My friend gently interrupted my flow to ask, “How did they actually make the bread?”
That stumped me, I confess. I’ve seen modern recipes for reproducing Roman-type bread, but they all use commercial yeast to make the dough rise, and instinct told me that wouldn’t be possible two thousand years ago. Time for a little research.
I turned to my favourite present-day book on ancient dishes, The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger. This has many delicious-looking ancient recipes that you can cook in a modern kitchen, plus a lot of useful information. I learned that bakeries in Roman towns used big dome-shaped ovens to produce bread in quantity, and many householders bought their daily bread, as they’ve done ever since.
Fine if you lived in a town with bakeries handy, like Pompeii, where a lot of the evidence comes from. If not, you could have your own small bakehouse and oven (as the Oak Tree does,) or you could bake in your home kitchen on the hearth, under a dome-shaped cover with a small hole in the top. This could be made of metal or coarse earthenware; it had to be strong because it was first heated in the fire, then the hearth was cleared, the loaves were placed on it, and the cover put on top and surrounded with piles of hot coals to get a good temperature.
But Dalby and Grainger’s recipe uses modern cultivated yeast as a raising agent, and I was sure the Romans didn’t have that convenience. I looked on the Internet, and I was right. Roman bakers used what now we know as the sourdough method. Each batch of dough has to include a portion of “starter dough”, saved from the previous batch, which contains a culture including yeast. Mix the starter with new flour, water, other ingredients if you want; allow time for it to rise…and you’ll get bread that we’d recognise and enjoy today.
Well I assume we’d enjoy it. Truth to tell I haven’t ever tasted sourdough bread. So I’m hoping someone out there can enlighten me about this ancient-and-modern food. …is it tastier than bread raised with yeast, or not as good, or just different?
Enquiring minds want to know…and enquiring taste-buds are feeling hungry again.