Grape must was commonly used as a leavener in ancient Rome. As we have seen a few weeks ago, it was used fresh to prepare bread (the mustacei from Cato’s recipe) and dried, as in the case of the recipe we are preparing today. The preparation of the must is simple: you need to take unwashed grapes (the skins contain the wild yeasts necessary for the fermentation process, so this step is fundamental), crush it, and remove the skins, leaving it to ferment for a couple of days. You can use both wine and table grapes.
Today we are preparing a bread that was baked by farmers, as Pliny writes in his Naturalis Historia. The author does not specify in this part of his book how to leaven it; luckily, in the chapter dedicated to yeast he explains thoroughly how ancient Romans prepared and preserved it.
In this case, we decided to use a dried yeast whose fortune clearly will extend beyond the 1st century because we find a similar recipe in Palladius’ agricultural book, written about the 4th century.
For this recipe you can choose other leaveners, for example, fresh must, sourdough, or a piece of the dough from the previous day, all methods widely used by ancient Roman according to the testimony of Pliny and Cato.
We suggest pairing this bread with a meat dish, for example pork stew, lucanica with mustard, or meatballs. Below, you will find the original texts with the translation into English and a short note about the ingredients. Enjoy!
For 8 pieces of dry yeast
200 gr grapes
200 gr millet or fine wheat bran
To prepare the dry yeast, destem and pound the grapes in the mortar, paying attention not to crush the seeds not to give an unpleasant flavor to the yeast. Remove the skins and let the must ferment for a couple of days.
Knead coarsely-ground millet or wheat bran with the must to reach a consistency similar to bread dough. Shape it into little cakes and let them dry for at least one week. This yeast is meant to be preserved throughout the year.
Mili praecipuus ad fermenta usus e musto subacti in annuum tempus. Simile fit e tritici ipsius furfuribus minutis et optimis e musto albo triduo maceratis, subactis ac sole siccatis. Inde pastillos in pane faciendo dilutos cum similagine seminis fervefaciunt atque ita farinae miscent, sic optimum panem fieri arbitrantes. Graeci in binos semodios farinae satis esse bessem fermenti constituere.
Millet in particular is used to prepare yeast, knead with must, [it keeps well] throughout the year. It [yeast] can be prepared in a similar way with fine wheat bran soaked with white must three days old, knead, and dried in the sun. The pieces so obtained are diluted in fine spelt flour and let to ferment when one makes bread. It is considered an excellent way to make bread. Greeks reckon that eight ounces of yeast will suffice for one modium of flour.
Note about the method
We chose to let the must ferment just for two days, not three as Pliny writes. In this way, we used the must when it was more active. Remember that the fermentation depends on the temperature of the room: with a cold temperature, the process is slower.
500 gr white wheat flour
nigella, white poppy, and celery seeds
Add a pinch of sea salt to the flour, crumbling the dry yeast and kneading with warm water. Let the dough rest overnight. Work again the dough for a few minutes, then sprinkle the cooking surface with nigella and celery seeds. Beat the egg, then brush it on the upper crust of the bread sprinkling with white poppy seeds.
Let the dough rest for at least half an hour.
Bake the bread in the oven and cook for about half an hour. Remember that the leavening and cooking time can change.
With this quantity of dough, we obtained two loaves.
Candidum [papaver] cuius semen tostum in secunda mensa cum melle apud antiquos dabatur; hoc et panis rustici crustae inspergitur, adfuso ovo inhaerens, ubi inferiorem crustam apium gitque cereali sapore condiunt.
The toasted seeds of the white poppy were served with honey by the ancestors during the secundae mensae [as a dessert]; farmers sprinkle the upper crust of the bread with them after having brushed an egg to make it stick, while the bottom crust is seasoned with celery and nigella seeds.
Note about the ingredients
Pliny does not specify what kind of flour to use. Wheat flour was the most common for the bread, as we can see reading his book as well as Cato’s, usually sifted to remove the bran. We can see this method in the Appendix Vergiliana, in which we find another kind of bread prepared by a plebeian, in this case unleavened. Whole bread seems quite rare in ancient cuisine. We find it rarely mentioned in Latin literature, for example, in Petronius’ Satyricon and Pliny who treats it as a medicinal remedy, with the Greek name autopyron.
Romans used white poppy seeds and honey not only to prepare sweets, but also meat, as Petronius reports. Nigella seeds, instead, were used only by bakers, Pliny writes.
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