Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cato's Roman Bread

"Scipio Africanus the Elder". The Ro...
 This bust of Scipio Africanus the Elder is at the National Archeological Museum in Naples, Italy. It was excavated in the Villa dei Papirii in Herculaneum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So, you've just arrived back from the grain distribution up on the Aventine and on the way home you popped into the miller's shop to get it ground up.  You're sitting there with a sack of flour. Great, how do you eat this?  Well, today we're going to start with the simplest of all recipes, and we're going to bake some bread.  I'm taking inspiration from Cato the Elder's agricultural handbook, de agri cultura.  This manual, written around 160 BCE, is the oldest piece of Roman prose we have, and is a guide to managing a farm.  I like this recipe because it's a simple recipe dating from simple times and thus requires few ingredients and relatively little preparation - it's the kind of bread any Roman could have been making at any stage of Roman history.  

Cato writes:

Recipe for kneaded bread: wash both your hands and a bowl thoroughly.  Pour flour into the bowl, add water gradually, and knead well.  When it is well kneaded, roll it out and bake it under an earthenware lid. -Cato, On Agriculture, 74

I'm going to take some liberties when it comes to baking the bread under an earthenware lid, as I don't actually own one, but his advice on washing hands and equipment is timeless.  As Cato doesn't provide quantities or timings, I've experimented and come up with the following:

Cato's Roman Bread


  • 500g Spelt flour
  • 350ml Water
  • A Pinch of Salt
  • A Splash of Olive Oil


  • Preheat an oven to 180°C.
  • Wash hands and wash a large bowl - we're being authentic here!
  • Add the flour to the bowl along with the pinch of salt.  Give it a bit of a mix to distribute salt.
  • Pour a splash of olive oil into the bowl.
  • Slowly add in the water, mixing as you go, until you get a dough which isn't too floury and isn't too sticky.  
  • Knead the dough well and form into a circular shape.  With a knife, score the top of the loaf, dividing it into 8.  This doesn't particularly help with the baking process, but it's how the bread preserved at Pompeii looked, and it's how it's often depicted.
  • Place on some greaseproof paper on a baking tray and place in the oven for 45 minutes.  By this stage the bread should be lovely and crispy and golden on the outside.  A good way to tell if it's ready on the inside is to tap the bottom of the loaf - if it's ready it will sound hollow.  Because there is no yeast, the bread won't have risen much if at all.


  • I added the olive oil because it keeps the bread softer for longer, and added salt to enhance the flavour of the bread a bit.  I need some bread leftover for my moretum recipe.  These two ingredients are ones which any Roman might have access to, so are not inauthentic.
  • The bread lasted four days before it started to go mouldy.


The bread was a success, and everybody who tried it enjoyed it.  The texture and the taste were very 'wheaty' because of the use of Spelt, and I personally am not sure what to make of this flavour.  At the minute I find it quite overpowering, but with olive oil and vinegar for dipping the bread is very tasty indeed.  Do I envy the Romans?  In this instance, not quite.