Food Mores

Ancient Roman Breadmaking

Ancient Roman Recipes


Food and drink often suggested coin designs.
Metapontum (southern Italy), ear of wheat and locust.

Ancient Roman Bread

We are quite sure that when the Romans invaded Greece they had their eating habits changed drastically. The Greek slaves who were taken back to Rome taught the Romans to use several different flours in a single loaf instead of the one common flour that was used in Rome. I think this recipe is about as close as we come to the flavors that were enjoyed during the early days.

  • 2 envelopes fast rising dry yeast
  • 2½ cups tepid water
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • ½ cup rye flour
  • unbleached white flour to make up 2 pounds 3 ounces of total flour weight
  • 1 teaspoon salt dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
  • cornmeal for dusting the baking sheet

Put the tepid water in your electric mixing bowl and dissolve the yeast.

Use a paper lunch sack for weighing out the flour. Put the whole wheat and rye flour in the bag first, and then make up the weight with the white flour. Put 4 cups from the bag into the mixer and whip it for 10 minutes. Add the salted water. If you have a heavy mixing machine such as a KitchenAid, allow the dough hook to do the rest of the work. If not, you need to add the remaining flour by hand. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Put the dough on a plastic counter and cover with an inverted steel bowl. Allow to rise once, punch it down, and allow it to rise a second time. Punch down and form into 2 or 3 loaves. I never use bread pans for this, as they will ruin the crust. Place the loaves on baking sheets that have been dusted with cornmeal and allow the loaves to rise until double in bulk.

Bake in a 450º oven about 24 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the loaf is light to the touch. It should make a hollow sound when you thump your finger on the bottom of the loaf.

This recipe comes from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines China - Greece - Rome, by Jeff Smith, ©1991

Barley Rolls

First I shall recall the gifts to humankind and fair-haired Demeter, friend Moschus: take them to your heart. The best one can get, the finest of all, cleanly hulled from good ripe ears, is the barley from the sea-washed breast of famous Eresus in Lesbos - whiter than airborne snow. If the gods eat barley, this is where Hermes goes shopping for it.

Archestratus 4

Among the cereals, barley was the most popular in ancient Greece, as Archestratus' enthusiasm attests, but even there it was not all that often used for bread. In Rome, by contrast, barley was the punishment ration for soldiers. Under the Roman Empire, Greeks too came to despise the grain that grows so well in the Greek climate.

Barley is very low in gluten. When only pure barley meal is used for bread, the resulting loaf is flat and heavy. Its keeping qualities are poor; the crust and texture can be very dry. It seems likely that ancient bakers, if preparing barley rools for an elaborate banquet such as Philoxenus describes, would have mixed their barley meal with some other flour to produce a lighter loaf: coarse bread would be out of place. Elizabeth David, in her definitive English Bread and Yeast Cookery, recommends a 50 percent mixture of barley meal and strong wholewheat flour, which I have followed. She also quotes a very simple barley bread recipe, originating in cornwall, that is remarkably well adapted to classical tastes and kitchens and which provides the basis for the recipe given above: "Cover the newly mixed bread with a cloth and set in a warm place. When risen form into cone-shaped loaves and bake under a kettle on the hearth. The loaves were usually grouped in threes, and the soft crust, where the loaves touched each other, was called a kissing crusts."

Greeks and Romans too baked on the hearth under a brick, or testum. The fact that the rolls will be touching under such a cover will ensure a moist and soft crust. Cooks piled red-hot coals over the testum, creating a mini-oven on the open hearth. This we cannot really duplicate: all that we can do is to heat the container that we use. The brick can be replaced by a large casserole or any large metal or crockery bowl that is oven proof. Many of the testa found by archaeologists have a small number of holes in the top. I have experimented with a large, shallow, clay flowerpot, 12 inches across and about 5 inches deep. The drainage holes in the top of this allow air circulation. If your own "baking brick" does not provide air holes, probe one side of the container about 1 inch around the baking tray. You may have to bake twice if your container is too small to cover all the rolls.


  • 2 oz. (½ cup/60 G) barley flour
  • 1 teaspoon fresh or ½ teaspoon dried yeast


  • 6 oz. (1 ½ cup/170 G) strong wholewheat flour
  • 6 oz. (1 ½ cup/170 G) barley flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For the leaven, dissolve the yeast in 1T warm water and use to form a dough with 2 oz. barley flour. Knead the dough briefly, mould into a pat, crossit lightly and put a thumbprint in the centre. pour 2t of warm water into the indentation. Place in a glass dish with a lid and leave to ferment in a warm place for at least 24 hours.

Now for the dough: sift the wholewheat and barley flours together, add 1t salt and the leaven and form a dough with sufficient warm water. Knead well and allow to rest and rise in a bowl, covered with plastic wrap or a plastic bag, in a warm place until it has doubled in size. Divide the dough into 12 pieces and mould them with the palm of your hand into smooth balls. leave to rise in a warm place, covered with a cloth.

Heat the oven to 400º and also heat a baking tray and an upturned casserole, shallow clay pot or metal bowl - whatever you decide to use as a "baking brick". Brush the tray with a little olive oil and place the rolls in 2 circles of 6, with the edges barely touching. Cover with the upturned container and bake 15-20 minutes until lightly golden and hollo-sounding when tapped.

This recipe is from The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, ©1996

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