Pliny (with a dash of Cato) on Bread

Over the past few blog posts I have quoted from Pliny the Elder on Leavening and Grains on my meandering way towards baking my Romano-British inspiration loaf. As far as most bread goes, flour and yeast are the main star players. Really, the only other ingredients needed for a basic loaf of bread is water and salt. Technically, you can make bread without salt but you will not be happy with the result…take my word for it!

In Book XVIII, Chapter 27, Pliny states:

“It seems to me quite unnecessary to enter into an account of the various kinds of bread that are made. Some kinds, we find, receive their names from the dishes with which they are eaten, the oyster-bread, for instance: others, again, from their peculiar delicacy, the artolaganus, or cake-bread, for example; and others from the expedition with which they are prepared, such as the “speusticus,” or “hurry-bread.” Other varieties receive their names from the peculiar method of baking them, such as oven-bread, tin-bread, and mould-bread. It is not so very long since that we had a bread introduced from Parthia, known as water-bread, from a method in kneading it, of drawing out the dough by the aid of water, a process which renders it remarkably light, and full of holes. like a sponge: some call this Parthian bread. The excellence of the finest kinds of bread depends principally on the goodness of the wheat, and the fineness of the bolter. Some persons knead the dough with eggs or milk, and butter even has been employed for the purpose by nations that have had leisure to cultivate the arts of peace, and to give their attention to the art of making pastry.”

Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia

This excerpt from Pliny’s Naturalis Historia starts to give an indication of the wide variety of breads that were baked and consumed in ancient Rome. Pliny doesn’t really go into any sort of recipe. For something a bit closer to a recipe I turned to our friend, Cato the Elder and his written work, De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture). Cato predates Pliny by roughly 150 years, and Pliny often refers to Cato’s writings in his own.

“Recipe for kneaded bread: Wash your hands and a bowl thoroughly. Pour meal into the bowl, add water gradually, and knead thoroughly. When it is well kneaded, roll out and bake under a crock.”

Cato the Elder, De Agri Cultura

Now, I say this is a “recipe” but as you can see, there really isn’t much to it. He doesn’t mention salt or leavening. It could be that he was referring to an unleavened bread, or simply just assumed the reader would know to add leavening. But, from other written sources, like Pliny, it’s obvious that these ingredients were part of bread baking, and any modern bread bakers will agree. In the quote above from Pliny, he also mentions the additions of eggs, milk, and butter are sometimes added which we would make a more enriched bread dough.

One of the interesting things Pliny mentions is the use of seasonings in some bread. This is actually where my experimentation/inspiration is leading to this week. Pliny refers to “gith” which appears to be Roman coriander or nigella and also mentions the use of poppy seeds and parsley (although there appears to be some debate/confusion on if he is referring to parsley or celery):

“Gith is employed by bakers…. the seed is held in esteem as a most agreeable seasoning for bread.”

“[T]he country people sprinkle it [poppy seeds] on the upper crust of their bread, making it adhere by means of the yolk of eggs, the under crust being seasoned with parsley and gith to heighten the flavour of the flour.”

Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia
Seeds of Nigella sativa or Roman coriander
From Wikimedia Commons

So, I have tended my sourdough starter all week and now we get close to show time! I’ve mixed it up and the dough has set to it’s first rise. It’s a simple mixture of whole wheat flour (what I have on hand is spring wheat and not the winter wheat Pliny prefers for bread – but it’s what I have and most stores have had a run on flour with everyone quarantining/social distancing), spelt flour, sourdough starter, water, salt, nigella, and celery seed.

In my next post I’ll go into some of the archaeological inspirations for my bread as well as getting into my own process and I’ll give a slightly more detailed recipe than good old Cato.

Ingredients kneaded together and ready for the first rise!

Translations from Naturalis Historia from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/.

  • The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.

Translations from De Agri Cultura from https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cato/De_Agricultura

  • De Agri Cultura. Cato the Elder. W. D. Hooper and H. B. Ash (trans.) Loeb Classical Library edition, 1934.

1 thought on “Pliny (with a dash of Cato) on Bread

  1. So exciting! I’m looking forward to seeing what happens!

    Like

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