Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Food for Thought: When at home, bake as the Romans do

Nancy Leson's been reading Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle's column about why the Betty Crocker cookbooks of the '50s and the shopping practices they encouraged are newly relevant today in the time of the Coronavirus.


Among McArdle's favorite Betty recipes was "Bohemian Braided Bread," recipe pictured in the slide show above.  All very well as retro recipes go but I found one that out-retros it by almost 2,000 years.



Just before before Vesuvius threw its tantrum in 79 CE, a baker in Herculaneum loaded a loaf into the oven. When archaeologists opened the oven door in 1930 they found a bread that had cooked longer and at much higher temps than that baker had intended.


The British Museum commissioned baker Giorgio Locatelli to re-create that loaf. After watching his video I knew I had to give it a try. 


One of the things that most interested me about the circular loaf was the string tied tightly around its equator and then looped. Locatelli explains that customers could slip the loop over a wrist to carry the loaf home. “Like an edible pocketbook” Nancy said. 


I was more interested in the shape and the string than in the actual Roman era ingredients so I just winged my own recipe. I made an overnight biga, a starter with white flour, rye sourdough and water. 

Credit stein / KNKX

Next morning I mixed the biga with white, whole wheat, and rye flour, salt, water and olive oil. Locatelli mentioned buckwheat flour. I didn't have any but did have some buckwheat groats to grind up and add to the mix.


After kneading and shaping, the loaf proofed for about two hours and baked at 400 degrees (not the original 968) for 35 minutes (not the original 1,851 years).

Credit stein / KNKX
Besides providing a carrying loop, tightening the string around the dough's circumference creates a more perfect circle.

It came out looking about the same as Giorgio's with a dense crumb and a pleasant nutty flavor from the buckwheat. 


Obviously the mix I came up with was very different from that of two thousand years back. My feeling is that since there's no way we can know whether the flavor and behavior of 79 CE favorites such as spelt and emmer are the same in 2020, it probably wouldn't taste the same as those ancient breads anyway.


But if you want to try this with “authentic” ingredients, recipes abound.  Beatus pistoria! 


And for a more modern and local Roman bread check out the history of Roman Meal Bread in Tacoma




Two things only the people desire: Bread and the circus games.” – Juvenal





Dick Stein joined KNKX in January 1992. He retired in 2020 after three decades on air. During his storied radio career, he hosted the morning jazz show, co-hosted and produced "Food for Thought" with Nancy Leson and wrote and directed the Jimmy Jazzoid live radio musical comedies and 100 episodes of Jazz Kitchen.