Wednesday, January 6, 2010

“Hey Roman, What’s Cooking ”?

By Falavi Galerius Aurelanus
Former Scriba Curatoris Differum

PANIS-VITIS VITUM (Bread-The Staff of Life)

Bread and Circuses! The great cry associated with Rome representing the theory that the masses would stay content if you fed and entertained them (hmm...sound familiar). Bread was, without a doubt, the principal mainstay of the Roman annona, or public dole, of bread, oil, salt, and wine that was instituted in the Late Republic to keep Rome fed. Can modern Nova Romans obtain the same kind of bread that was baked over 2,000 years ago? I certainly hope not!

That bread was full of husks and bran from the imperfect winnowing process and grit from the querns and mills made from volcanic tufa stone. It was frequently adulterated with chalk, millet, rice, and seawater and could be made without salt or worse--kneaded with seawater. It could be chewy, heavy, flavorless, and could keep you in the balneum for hours while it scoured out your insides. To paraphrase Paul Hogan, "roman bread could keep you alive but it tastes like s**t."

There were many different grains used in the period from the founding of Rome to the beginning of the Empire that we are familiar with today--wheat, triticale, spelt, rye, barley, rice but you would be hard pressed to find any modern flour made from emmer, einkorn, millet, lentils, or beans. Yet these were very common grains for human consumption in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Einkorn is probably the oldest of the domestic grains grown by mankind with archaeological finds dating back to the Late Neolithic Period. It had a hard husk that was difficult to separate from the good parts of the grain-the germ, the endosperm, and the bran-and had a lower yield than millet, barley, or spelt.

However, it was more resistant to cold, heat, drought, fungous diseases, and bird predation that any other grain. Emmer wheat was also fairly common although it too had a small yield, its husk was easily removable and the groats (hulled grains) found their way into many porridges and polentas during the days of Socrates, Cato, and Hannibal. Emmer and barley were the most staple cereal grains during the period of the Greek city-states and of Rome under the Kings. Emmer is similar to modern durum wheat and semolina that is used for pastas and polentas today.

Before we go in to this article any farther, it might be a good idea to define a few terms for the Nova Roman that may not have an extensive knowledge of agriculture and the process of bread and porridge making.

a. BERRY - the whole kernel of wheat, rye, triticale, and other more grains in the high-yielding wheat family but not to barley, emmer, or American corn. The berry contains the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The term is interchangeable with hulled grain and groats.

b. BOLTING - the process of winnowing and sieving flour for fineness.

c. BRAN - a coating under the inedible husk of many grains surrounding the germ and endosperm and designed by Ceres to protect these nourishing treasures. The bran may be in several layers and may be a significant amount of the overall grain. While an excellent source of fiber, it may be sifted out. Leaving it in produces a more rustic flour or meal.

d. FLOUR - The berry or groat ground down to a powder.

e. GRIST - Grains, seeds, beans, nuts, and lentils suitable for grinding into meal or flour

f. GROATS - The term applied to hulled grains, especially buckwheat, barley, emmer, einkorn, and millet.

g. GERM - The embryo of the grain that sprouts into new life. It contains many vitamins, minerals, oil, and fat. Flour made with the germ goes rancid faster than flour made without it.

h. ENDOSPERM - The largest part of the berry consisting of starch. White all-purpose flour is about 99% endosperm.

i. MEAL - Similar to flour but not as finely ground. The Roman soldier's grain ration was usually meal rather than flour.

j. CRACKED GRAIN - Very coarse meal imminently suitable for porridges the inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world found that glutinous wheat made the best bread. The closest approximation to flour from the period of the Republic that one can find today is stone ground whole-wheat flour. This has had the husk removed but much of the bran is retained along with the germ and the endosperm. It is a healthier product than most modern flours but because of the oil in the germ, it can go "off" fairly quickly. I recommend that you transfer it from the bag to some glass jars with lids that can be kept in the refrigerator until needed.

Like the modern American and many Europeans, Romans judged the quality of bread by its whiteness, so the flour could be adulterated to make it whiter. Emmer and einkorn could be milled with chalk or white clay to give it a superior whiteness. Different classes and regions of the Roman world also made flour from lentils, beans, carob (St. John's Bread), millet, rice, and acorns. This could be done to extend wheat flour or for use during famines and shortages. I will not be discussing rye in this article as it was used less in the ancient Mediterranean world that it is today.

The ancient baker usually took his leavening from a portion of the previous day's dough. He would add some of the dough to an equal mixture of flour and water, then allow it to season into a leavening "sponge" such as is used to make sourdough bread. Other leavening agents were beer barm or foam in Gaul and parts of Spain and "must" from young wine. Of course, many Romans in the Republic preferred unleavened bread believing it to be healthier for the digestion. Pliny the Elder commented that salt was sometimes milled into the flour at the government mills but this was not always the case. He wrote that some unscrupulous bakers would save on the cost of salt by kneading their dough with seawater. This makes an acceptable bread but Roman and Greek physicians said the practice was unhealthy. I recommend that sea salt be used for your baking on the recipes in this article.

Bread was indeed the most common foodstuff in both ancient Greece and Rome, although porridges were a close second for those that had no access to ovens or public bakeries. The varieties of bread were infinite in type, size, and composition--milk, rice, eggs, oil, hone, cheese, sesame, poppy seed, flax seed, salt, pepper, herbs, spices; leavened and unleavened; flat, spirals, twists, sliced loaf, long, large, unmoded, baked in pans, et cetera. In the next section, I will give you several recipes that will approximate Greco-Roman breads and porridges. The recipes will be somewhat detailed since some citizens may not have done much baking or cooking.

Panis Quadratus (similar loaves found in Pompeii. D. Solomon & I suggest you eat this before 2000 years have passed.)

3 cups (750 ml) stone-ground whole wheat flour 1.5 teaspoons (7 ml) sea salt
1.5 cups (375 ml) warm water 1 packet of active dry yeast
1 tablespoon (15 ml) warmed honey some good olive oil (optional)

Put .5 cup (125 ml) warm water in a good-sized bowl and sprinkle the yeast over the top of the water. Wait 10 minutes and add the honey to it, stirring gently with a wooden spoon (olivewood is good but not essential) until thoroughly mixed. Add a cup (250 ml) each of warm water and flour, stirring vigorously until well mixed. Cover the bowl with a clean ea towel that has been dampened with warm water and wrung out. Put the bowl in a warm, draft-free place and let sit for 1-12 hours.

Uncover the bowl and sprinkle in the salt, stirring well. Slowly add the flour a bit at a time until the dough begins to separate from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be damp and sticky but no dry areas should be visible. Let the dough rest for a few minutes while you sprinkle your kneading surface and the top of the dough (or the dough in the bowl, if you are kneading it there) with a couple of tablespoons (30 ml) flour. Knead for 10-15 minutes adding the flour until the dough is smooth and elastic but no longer sticky. Turn the dough onto your warm, damp tea towel and clean out the mixing bowl with hot water until clean. Rub some olive oil over the whole ball of dough, put it back in the bowl, cover with your tea towel, and let rise for 30 minutes to an hour. Preheat you oven to 400 degrees F. /200 degrees C.

Uncover bowl and punch down the dough. Knead for a couple of minutes and shaped loaf into a flattened round. Slash the top with a sharp knife into four or eight sections about a fourth of the way into the loaf. Place on a lightly oil-baking sheet (or pizza bricks, if you have some for the baking sheet) and bake for 30 minutes.
To approximate the effect of a Roman furnace (oven) take your tea towel, wet it down with warm water, and wring out. After you put the bread into the oven, hang the tea towel over the oven door on the inside for the first 10 minutes of baking, and then remove it.

When the loaf is golden brown on top, remove the sheet from the oven. The best test for doneness is to turn the loaf over using a tea towel or potholder and tap it with your finger. If it sounds hollow, it is done. Let cool, slice (or rip off a piece, dip in flavored olive oil (garlic & dill is a good one), and enjoy with a little watered Shiraz, some feta, and a few pickles or olives.

MUSTACEI (must rolls)

1 pound (450 g) stone-ground whole wheat flour 1.25 cups (300 ml) must or young wine (Beaujolais)
2 tblsp (30 ml) anise seeds 3.5 ounces (100 g) lard
2 tblsp (30 ml) cumin seeds* 3.5 ounces (100 g) crumbled feta or chevere cheese
20 whole bay leaves

[This recipe can also be made with active dry yeast if you want to lighten the rolls as they are very chewy otherwise.]

Pour some must over half the flour in a good-sized bowl and stir gently with a wooden spoon until you get a sticky dough. Stir in the anise & cumin seeds (*this recipe comes from a translation of Cato that I do not agree with as cumin was not introduced to Rome until after the Censor was dead but the cumin does add some interesting flavor). Blend in the lard and the cheese with a fork or a pastry blender. Add more flour until the dough becomes less sticky and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Sprinkle more flour on top of the dough, flour your hands, and knead for 5-10 minutes until the dough is elastic and does not stick to your hands.

This takes a little time as you may need more must or flour to obtain the right texture. When you have a dough you can easily handle, form small rolls, and put a bay leaf under each roll before you put them on your lightly oiled baking sheet. You can put the rolls so that they touch or leave a little space between each roll. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees F. /180 degrees C. for 30-35 minutes using the damp tea towel in the oven door method from the first recipe. Remove the bay leaf before eating the rolls, place in a basket, and eat with a little honey and some of the young wine.

[For the yeast method, warm the wine to body temperature and put about .25 cup (63 ml) in a bowl. Sprinkle about two packets (20 g) of active dry yeast over the wine and let sit for 10 minutes. Then proceed with the recipe through "until you get a sticky dough." Let the mixture rest for about 30 minutes and then proceed with the rest of the recipe. -Flavi]

PULS PUNICA (Carthaginian Porridge)

.75 cup (120 g) ounces semolina or emmer groats 10-12 ounces (300-375 g) ricotta cheese
2 tblsp (30 ml) honey 1 small egg, beaten

Put the semolina or groats in a medium saucepan in just enough water to cover. Soak for 30 minutes or until the grain is soft, then drain off any remaining water. Add the ricotta cheese, beaten egg, and honey and stir until well mixed. Heat this slowly until just below boiling; look for little bubbles along the sides of the pan and then cook at this temperature for about five minutes.

The porridge can be eaten with a little additional honey or sweet herbs like anise may be added.
[Believe it or not, we have this recipe compliments of Cato the Censor who may have wanted Carthage destroyed so he could take credit for this nourishing, pour able porridge.]

KYKEON (Homeric Porridge)

.75 cup (120 g) barley meal or quick cooking barley Enough young wine to cover the barley
10-12 ounces (300-375 g) ricotta or crumbled feta cheese 3 tblsp (45 ml) honey

Put the barley in a medium saucepan in just enough wine to cover. Soak for 30 -60 minutes until the barley is soft, then drain off any remaining wine. Add the ricotta cheese and honey, stirring until well blended. Simmer just below the boiling point for 5-10 minutes. Serve with more honey.

[For a variation of this that I got from Harry Turtledove, omit the honey but add 2 ounces (60 g) sliced dried beef, some onion, and a clove of crushed garlic. According to Harry, this variation was a popular method of using barley when Caesar was campaigning in Gaul. Of course, the legions soaked the barley overnight in water or posca to soften it enough to make the porridge.-Flavi]

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