Usually, ancient Romans leavened bread in three ways, Pliny writes in his monumental work Naturalis Historia: preparing a sourdough, kneading fresh must with millet or bran (or, according to Palladius, a few centuries after, wheat flour) and letting it dry, or keeping aside a bit of previous-day dough to use it as a starter for the new bread. This last method was the most common at Pliny’s time. There was also unleavened bread, the author says. A few months ago we prepared a flatbread, taking the recipe from a beautiful poem attributed to Virgil, Moretum.
This time, we made the mustacei, bit-sized bread leavened with fresh grape must, from the agronomy book of Marcus Porcio Cato, De Agri Cultura, written around the 2nd century BCE. Alongside with advice about the management of the farm and the daily life in the countryside, Cato writes many recipes of bread, sweets, preserves (particularly interesting, his olive recipes), wine, and oil.
We chose this bread recipe, a little long but easy to prepare, not only because the outcome is delicious, fragrant with bay laurel leaves and slightly sweet, but also because it represents a fascinating example of seasonal recipe ancient Roman farmers prepared during the days of the grape harvest.
Below, you will find a short note about the ingredients and the original text with the translation into English. Enjoy!
500 gr white wheat flour
50 gr lard
25 gr cheese
a dozen bay laurel leaves
2- or 3-day-old grape must
Prepare the must destemming and pounding the grapes, paying attention not to crush too many seeds to prevent the must from turning bitter. Remove the grapes’ skins and let the must rest for two or three days.
Pound in the mortar anise and cumin, then the cheese. Knead the dough with the white wheat flour, spices, cheese, and lard, adding the grape must a little at a time. If the cheese is not salty enough, add a pinch of salt. Let the dough rest overnight.
Now, shape the bread the same size of the bay laurel leaves and let it rest for at least half an hour.
Put the bread in the oven for 20-30 minutes depending on the size.
Serve it still hot with beef or pork stew, guinea fowl, or a plate of fava beans.
This bread keeps well for a couple of days. We suggest storing it well covered without removing the bay laurel leaves to maintain its fragrance.
Note about the ingredients
Cato writes nothing about the kind of cheese to use. We chose a cow-milk caciotta, but you can use cow, sheep or goat cheese, all common in ancient Roman times, according to your taste.
The original text suggests using superfine wheat flour.
The use of lard is quite frequent in common-people meals (as remembered also by Ovid and Martial, rarer in high-end cuisine). We suggest not substituting it with butter, uncommon in ancient Rome.
To bake this bread, you can use a regular oven or the testum, as we did with Virgil’s flatbread and Cato’s libum.
We adjusted the doses of the ingredients, keeping the ratio suggested by the recipe. An ancient Roman modium is about 9 liters.
Mustaceos sic facito. Farinae siligineae modium unum musto conspargito. Anesum, cuminum, adipis P. II, casei libram, et de virga lauri deradito, eodem addito, et ubi definxeris, lauri folia subtus addito, cum coques.
Prepare the mustacei this way. Pour must on a modium of white wheat flour. Add anise, cumin, two pounds lard, one pound cheese. Pick bay laurel leaves and shape the bread the size of the leaves. Bake the bread on the bay laurel leaves.
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