Roman Sourdough Bread
The Romans knew several kinds of bread. Mostly these breads were made with sourdough. The bread could be made of wheat, spelt, barley, millet or rice. Even ground pulses were used. In the second century before Christ bread started to displace pottages with pulses as basic food. Bread was eaten every day, at every meal. This explains the "bread and circuses": both were considered essential to the well-being of the plebs.
The bread in this recipe I have composed from the description; by Faas of several Roman kinds of bread (P.C.P. Faas, Around the table of the Romans: Food and feasting in ancient Rome (Palgrave McMillan 2002). This is not a historical recipe, but an 'impressionistic' recipe. It tastes great with the Roman Mussels or the Patina with asparagus and quails. Other Roman recipes on this site: Roman apricots and Roman broccoli.
The two breads on the pictures on this page do not have an authentic shape. I simply used my fantasy. Faas mentions bread shaped like a ring with a laurel wreath, a flat bread like pizza, a long breadroll, a mushroomshape, a square bread shaped like a dice, and a bread shaped like the breast of a young woman.
See also the recipe for Medieval Bread. A modern recipe: Christmas Bread.
500 gram (4 1/4 cup) spelt flour
1/4 litre (1 cup) white grapejuice
200 gram (7 fl.oz) sourdough on room temperature
75 gram (1/3 cup) fresh goat cheese (chevre) at roomtemperature
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. each of aniseed and cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. salt
and also some yeast (15 gram/1/2 oz. fresh or 5 gram/1 tsp. dried)
Temper the sourdough with 1 decilitre of the grape juice, 100 gram spelt flour and honey (sponge). Let this stand for at least one to three hours on a warm spot until it has doubled in volume, then mix in the other ingrediėnts. Knead well until you have an elastic dough. Let it rise on a warm spot under a damp cloth. If you use extra yeast, one or two hours will suffice, but when sourdough is the only rising-agent, you can also leave it an entire night. When the temperature goes down, rising will be slower. To prevent the dough from drying out, place it in a plastic box with lid, together with some glasses of hot water. You can knead and let rise for a third time, but this is not mandatory. Now you can create your bread in any form you like. Use your fantasy, or create a simple loaf.
When the bread is formed, let is again rise, this time for half an hour. Preheat the oven to 220 dgC/425 oF. Bake the bread for 20 to 25 minutes.
How to make your own sourdough. When you want to make your own dough you have a small problem: how do you catch wild yeast?
You can set the flour/water mixture someplace and hope for a satisfying result. One is dependent on what is in the air. Sometimes you get lucky and a great sourdough is the result, sometimes you get something rather unsavoury, and sometimes nothing happens. Start with 100 gram whole wheat flour and 1 to 2 decilitre lukewarm water. Let it stand at room temperature for a couple of days, covered with a damp cloth. Stir well twice a day. When you have caught the right yeast, the mixture will start to smell sour. After three days add 1 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon water, repeat this the next day. In less then a week you have a sourdough ready to bake bread with. When you want to, you can add a teaspoon of honey or sugar.
How to get ready made sourdough. When you want to be on the safe side you can ask a gift of sourdough from a friend that has a good one, or buy a sourdough starter and follow the directions on the package. If you can't find any in the stores in your neighbourhood, you could visit this site.
How to keep your sourdough. Once you have satisfying sourdough you have to take care of it. Keep your little 'pets' in the refrigerator in a closed container. Some advice to punch some holes in the cover, but you then risk a rather smelly refrigerator. At least once a week (twice is better) you have to air the sourdough: let it stand, covered with a damp cloth, at roomtemperature for 24 hours. When you look at your sourdough you will see that it has seperated in sediment at the bottom and a grey-brown fluid on top. Stir this well. You will have to feed your pets: after stirring, add equal measures of lukewarm water and flour. Take some of the sourdough out to bake a bread with, or to give away.
How to bake sourdough bread. For 500 gram flour (whole wheat, optionally mixed with rye, oats, millet) use 100 gram sourdough and 3,5 to 4 decilitre water (start with 3,5 decilitre, add more water only if the dough needs it). The recipe for Roman bread has different proportions. You also have the right to experiment!
All descriptions of ingredients
Spelt flour - Spelt is a grain. This grain flourishes best on poor ground, with no pesticides. That is why less and less spelt is being cultivated since the beginning of the twentieth century. It is an uneconomical crop. Apicius names spelt several times in his recipes. You can buy spelt flour (at least in the Netherlands) in organic foodshops.
Yeast - Fresh (pressed) yeast must be crumbled and mixed in some lukewarm water with a spoonfull of flour. After fifteen minutes you add it to the bread dough or sponge. Dried yest is mixed into the dry flour.
The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)
- P.C.P. Faas, Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome. Umiversity of Chicago Press, 2005 (Translated from Dutch)