Baking Bread the Roman Way
This fresco from the house of Julia Felix in Pompeii shows traditional round loaves with eight tear-off wedges. On the far left are two broken-off pieces. Fresco of Panis Quadratus, or Panis Siligineusm from Ancient History Encyclopedia, Farrell Monaco. Last modified May 17, 2019.
Although Ceres (Greek Demeter) was in charge of all agriculture, she is most famous as the goddess of wheat and other grains that made up 70 percent of the Roman diet. Her name gives us the word “cereal,” and one of her most important symbols was an ear of wheat. In late May before spring planting, Romans celebrated the festival of Ambarvalia (“Walking around the Fields”) and asked the goddess to help the seeds grow.
Roman celebration of the spring planting was tied to Ceres’s daughter, Proserpina (Greek Persephone). As the story goes, the god Pluto (Greek Hades) took Proserpina to the Underworld, and in her grief and anger, Ceres stopped all plant growth and caused eternal winter. When her daughter was allowed to come back, Ceres agreed to let plants grow again, sending the mortal prince Triptolemus around the world to re-seed the earth. Thus, every year at planting time, Roman farmers remembered to thank the goddess for the seeds and ask for her blessing.
Since bread was an essential daily food, emperors subsidized enormous amounts of wheat and, eventually, bread loaves to feed city-dwellers. To remind everyone of their generosity and associate themselves with the goddess, the rulers issued coins with their portraits on one side and Ceres holding wheat on the other.
Making Roman bread
In about 200 B.C., the senator/farmer Cato the Elder recorded this simple recipe, requiring just flour and water. He even included some good advice about hygiene:
Wash your hands and a bowl thoroughly. Pour coarse flour into the bowl, add water gradually, and knead thoroughly. When you have kneaded well, form and bake under an earthenware cover.
Since humans have domesticated wheat and witnessed natural fermentation for about 9,500 years, this flour and water recipe goes farther back than Cato!
Easy bread: Most Roman homemade loaves like this were probably formed into plain rounds, but some loaves were divided into eight wedges, like pizza. You can try either style.
For the professionals: Roman city bakers tied twine horizontally around each loaf before marking the wedges on top, perhaps to keep the shape stable in a large, full oven. This option is for those whose dough is not spreading at all!
This recipe can be halved for a child’s loaf.
- 4 cups whole wheat or spelt flour (switch in all-purpose flour for a lighter loaf)
- 1 1/8-1 1/2 cups water
- Olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of a bowl
- Optional: 1 ½ tsp salt; thyme, coriander, poppy or fennel seeds, pine nuts
- Notice: no leaven/starter. That probably became popular after Cato.
The Simple Loaf
Stirring and mixing are great for the youngest family members.
- Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Put a tray with water on the bottom rack.
- Measure flour, salt, spices into a bowl and stir.
- Slowly mix in 1 cup water, then add tiny amounts until dough holds but is fairly dry.
- Knead (flatten, fold, repeat) until the dough is stretchy.
- Make a rough ball (about 5 ½ in. diam.) and place it in a lightly oiled bowl.
- Cover the dough and let it rest for 10 minutes, then knead for 2 minutes.
- Place the dough ball on a floured baking tray and flatten the top to about 6 ½ in. diam. (If the dough is spreading, place it in an 8-inch circular pan). You are now done with a simple loaf! Continue with wedges if you like.
- Wedges: Using a chopstick or rounded tool, quarter the top by impressing 4 deep lines, pressing center-outward. Add 4 more lines inside each quarter to make 8 wedges.
- Make a hole in the center of the loaf with the handle of a wooden spoon.
- Place dough in the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 45 minutes. (When the bread is done, the bottom will sound hollow when you knock on it.)
- When the bread is done, let it cool for 30 minutes. Expect a dense loaf!
Join the professionals
- For the look of a professional bakery loaf, you will need twine or thick string.
- Tie twine in a circle around the lower half of the dough before pressing wedges on top. But if the dough sags and spreads, it will cover the twine. Try again later!
Enjoy your bread Roman-style with cheese, olives, figs, honey… or any way you like. And remember, Ceres and Bacchus work together, so raise a glass of wine or grape juice to the ancient gods!
Tips and Suggestions
- Spelt makes a denser loaf than whole wheat, so if you aren’t familiar with the taste, mix them or lighten with all-purpose flour. You can also simply start with all-purpose flour.
- It can be hard to bake the middle as thoroughly as the edges. It helps to flatten the domed top and poke a hole through the center.
- For a sourdough taste and a higher rise, let the tightly-covered dough sit for 48 hours, kneading 2x a day.
- To brand your loaf, invent a baker’s mark or press a tiny cookie-cutter deeply on top.
- Store in a plastic bag and refresh by microwaving one wedge for 30 seconds!
Want to learn more about ancient bread?
Food archaeologist Farrell Monaco explores the ancient evidence for Roman bread and shares her own recipes on her blog. Look for her classes and presentations online.
Naturalist Pliny the Elder explains how to make starter (Natural History XXVI.11) here.
Ancient food writer Apicius in On Cooking provides recipes to go with your bread.
Go beyond baking with The Classical Cookbook, which includes fifty recipes from the ancient world.