Archaeological Inspirations for my Roman Bread

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, my husband refers to my recipe as “Roman Poop Bread”, which I have to admit isn’t the most tantalizing of titles. The reasons for this unsavory name are from some of the archaeological inspirations behind this recipe. For a less scatological sobriquet, I call this bread Panis Militaris (or military bread).

This week we have looked at some of the historical written works, mainly from Pliny the Elder regarding grains, leavening, and bread. But now I want to take a glimpse at some of the archaeological findings and in particular the one that inspired this loaf.

The primary inspiration comes from Bearsden (in modern day Scotland) where there was a Roman fort on the Antonine Wall, occupied from 142 – 158 CE. At this site, the contents of a latrine were discovered and analyzed and gave interesting insight into the diet of the Roman soldier assigned to one of the most northernmost reaches of the Roman frontier. This is an exciting find since plant remains sometimes do not survive unless they are preserved under the right conditions and often latrine pits are ideal sources for such remains.

Joan Alcock describes this find in her Food in Roman Britain:

“Examination of the faecal remains revealed quantities of emmer and spelt pericarp together with fragments of coriander, seeds of celery, figs and opium poppy and minute remains of lentils and field beans. The two wheats could have been used to make porridge, as indicated above, but if they had also been used to make bread, the soldiers would have eaten a highly palatable, flavoured bread of a panis militaris type, rich in the B vitamins. A sample of the wheat fragments submitted for electronic spin resonance spectroscopy (ESR) gave a temperature between 180 and 200 degrees centigrade consistent with a temperature required to make bread.”

So the remains do seem to confirm some of what Pliny had described, with wheat and spelt grains being used for bread. There isn’t really a way for us to tell if the coriander, poppy seeds and celery seeds were part of the bread rations or if they were ingredients in some other dish they ate. But we do have the reference from Pliny stating that they were sometimes ingredients so it is a possibility – at least all of these same ingredients ended up in the same place. Which is why my dear husband calls this ‘poop bread’.

In Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain, the author states:

“Vegetius, writing about supplying the army in the field, lists grain together with wine and salt, as the provisions whose shortages should be prevented at all times. Considering the quantities of quernstones found, and the evidence of the charred grain deposits, it seems very likely that the inhabitants of Roman Britain viewed foods derived from grain in a similar way.”

“Given the regular presence of spelt in the carbonized grain deposits, it seems likely that bread was preferred in Britain during the Roman period as well. Apart from the evidence of the digested remains of wholemeal wheat bread in what appears to be an outflow of a mid-second-century latrine at the for at Bearsden, there is little direct evidence of this, though the information derived from skeletons is suggestive. The wear on the teeth is indicative of a diet where it was necessary to chew most of the food…. The teeth often show heavy wear, and there is a lack of oclusal caries consistent with the eating of relatively coarse-grained wholemeal bread…. A diet where cereal is consumed in a soft form like porridge does not result in this type of wear.”

Looking at a few other archeological sites such as a Roman fort at Birdoswald (3rd – 4th century CE), a Roman fort and a civilian site at Carlisle (1st – 2nd century CE), we also find remains of wheat and coriander (as well as a range of other items) in their drains, ditches and pits. The size of the grain fragments under magnification also show that they are consistent with the size you would find in bread (instead of a whole-grain porridge which was also commonly eaten).

“The contexts under analysis comprised sieved material from pit and ditch fills (see Table 1) and were not macromorphologically distinguishable as discrete human coprolites. Furthermore, no chemical approaches such as sterol analyses were used to independently confirm the presence of human sewage. However, the taxa identified in these deposits, both from this study and previous macrobotanical work, can be used to understand their composition and their likely origin.”

Britton, Kate and Huntley, Jacqui. “New evidence for the consumption of barley at Romano-British military and civilian sites, from the analysis of cereal bran fragments in faecal material.”

So, enough talk about poop! Let’s talk about what it is before it gets to that stage.

Man Selling Bread
Naples National Archaeological Museum / Public domain

My recipe is a basic sourdough recipe, just with the addition of Nigella (or you can use regular coriander – that is also very tasty since nigella isn’t a common spice you find in your local grocery store), celery seed, and poppy seed (and an egg wash to get the poppy seeds to stick). My loaves are missing the poppy seeds because I realized too late I didn’t have any in my cupboard. Depending on your flour, start with 1 cup of water and add more if needed.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 cups whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur White Wheat)
  • 2 cups spelt flour
  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 cup sourdough starter
  • Salt (how much depends on what kind of salt you use, I use kosher salt which has a larger flake structure so I add 1 Tbsp but if you use regular table salt it will probably be about 1.5 tsp)
  • 1 tsp Nigella seed, ground
  • 1 tsp Celery seed, ground
  • 1 tsp Poppy seed, for the top of the loaves (along with egg wash)

INSTRUCTIONS:

Mix all the ingredients together (except for the poppy seeds and egg wash) and knead until it forms a smooth, elastic dough. In my electric mixer, I knead it for 5 minutes with my dough hook attachment. Let it rise for 1 – 4 hours (I know this is a wide range but it will really depend on how active your yeast starter is, if it’s a bit sluggish you’ll want a longer rise or possibly cover and put in the fridge overnight for a longer fermentation time) until doubled in volume. Punch down the dough and form two round loaves and let rise for another hour. Score or imprint your loaves (see comments below) paint the egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 Tbsp water) on the unbaked loaf and sprinkle with poppy seeds. Bake at 425 degrees F for 25 – 30 minutes. The spices in the bread make for an aromatic loaf with a pleasant, unique flavor.

For loaf shapes, the best example we have are the carbonized bread loaf remains from Pompeii. I was lucky enough to actually see one of these at a Pompeii exhibit up in Richmond, VA over the summer. I’m such a geek for getting excited over a lump of charred bread. But you can see from this photo that it looks like it has wedges imprinted in the loaf.

A lot of modern bread recipes do scoring where the loaf is cut for expansion. So with my experimentation this weekend, I did one where I scored it and one where I imprinted the wedges. It was interesting to see how that baked up and I was actually happier with the imprinted one and it looked much closer to the one from Pompeii. NOTE: I realized when I got to this stage I didn’t have poppy seeds in my pantry – so my loaves are sans poppy seeds.

Above from left to right: Carbonized bread remains from Pompeii, My loaves before baking: imprinted & scored.

Baked loaves
Left to right: Scored (cut) loaf, imprinted loaf

I was actually not particularly thrilled with how these loaves turned out. I did not get a lot of rise out of the dough. I don’t know if my sourdough starter wasn’t strong enough. They are whole grain so it’s going to be a denser loaf than if one used white flour but I was going for something not quite so “hearty”. So, I might try again this weekend and see if I can get a bit better results. But, the flavor of the bread is good, you can taste the spices (although I realized in the middle of making mine that I didn’t have poppy seeds so these are minus those seeds – oops) and it has a strong wheat taste from the whole grains.

Pictures:

Other Sources:

  • Alcock, Joan P. Food in Roman Britain. Stroud, Gloucestershire Charleston, SC: Tempus, 2001.
  • Britton, Kate & Huntley, Jacqui. “New evidence for the consumption of barley at Romano-British military and civilian sites, from the analysis of cereal bran fragments in faecal material.” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. 2011.
  • Cool, H. E. M. Eating and drinking in Roman Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

2 thoughts on “Archaeological Inspirations for my Roman Bread

  1. I can’t speak to the historical side of this, but the crust may have formed too quickly, and that can happen if the surface of the bread is dry, or there isn’t enough steam in the oven. I’ve had good luck baking in a covered pot and spraying water either on the loaf before baking or in the oven.

    Also, consider cranking the oven to 500, putting in the bread, and turning it down to 425?

    For the extant impressed loaf, it looks like someone pushed their finger to the bottom after impressing. This is done in rustic breads like the cottage loaf, and I’ve seen it done in a French boule, but I don’t remember what kind, and I no longer have the big book of bread p*rn.

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    1. The baking rise wasn’t too bad, it was more the rising I was trying to do before baking which was almost non-existent. I did have a container of water in the oven as well to help with the humidity. It was a bit cool in the house but I’m thinking my starter wasn’t kicking enough. I could have supplemented with some regular yeast but I’ll see if I can strengthen my starter and have another go at it. 🙂

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