Give us this day our daily bread — and a good bread starter is what we need to make it. But what’s a bread starter, you say? A bread starter, pasta madre, or levain, is what we have used to make bread for millenia long before active dry (instant granulated) baker’s yeast made its way into our pantries. Our foremothers and forefathers didn’t have quick-rise instant yeast packets at their disposal until the 20th century (AD), so prior to this time they had a much more historical and natural method for making leavened breads: Leaven. We know this from early documentary records such as Pliny the Elder’s ‘Naturalis Historia’ (77 AD) which tells us about early Roman bread-making practices, among many other things. But before we move on to Pliny’s references and the recipe for leaven, let’s delve into the history of bread-making a bit more.
Cereal grains have been a staple in the human diet for over 11,000 years and evidence of early cereal grass cultivation and domestication has been detected in the archaeological record as far back as 9,000 BC in the Levant, or what is now known as Iraq. Farming and grain cultivation was one of the early hallmarks of the Neolithic Revolution which saw hunter-gatherer societies in the Fertile Crescent begin to adopt sedentary (non-nomadic) lifestyles along with early farming and animal husbandry practices. It was during these early stages of the Neolithic Revolution that hunter/gatherer societies learned to grind wheat, and other cereal grains, …and our taste for bread was born. Farmed in the Levant and in the Nile Delta, wild emmer was the first cereal grain to be domesticated; being a coarser and heavier grain, and it would have produced very filling porridges and unleavened flat-breads for these early populations. As domestication of wheat continued throughout history preferred strains (wheat, einkorn, barley, millet, sorghum, for example) would be favoured and cultivated eventually leading to the grains that we bake with today.
The use of leavening agents in early bread-making was something that came along much further in the evolution of bread. Along with early beer-making, the ancient Egyptians were the first peoples to be credited with fermenting dough and baking leavened loaves in clay ovens, as opposed to over fires, hot stones, ashes or hearths. This fermented dough, or leavan, would be the fundamental ingredient for making leavened breads for millenia to come and we have a written record of its use in the Classical Mediterranean through Pliny the Elder’s ‘Naturalis Historia‘ (77 AD).
Who is Pliny the Elder? Gaius Plinius Secundus (24 AD – 79 AD) was born in Gaul to a wealthy Roman family. He was a naturalist, a naval commander, and fundamental personality in Roman history, well known for his writing about science, nature, literature and critical events in Roman history. Pliny’s interest in science and nature saw him create a 37 book compilation titled ‘Naturalis Historia’ in 77 AD which remains one of only a few intact Roman historical documents covering diverse topics from the Roman daily life and environment such as botany, warfare, astronomy, biology, art, and food. Pliny’s passion for Roman life, the land and the environment that he lived in eventually lead to his death by the hand of none other than Mount Vesuvius during a rescue mission in the Bay of Naples following the eruption at Pompeii in 79 AD. His writings continue to be referred to in archaeological and historical research to this day.
In his writings, Naturalis Historia, Pliny makes reference to leaven used in bread baking in the following passages:
Naturalis Historia (Natural Hisotry) Book XVIII.26:
“Millet is more particularly employed for making leaven; and if kneaded with must, it will keep a whole year. The same is done, too, with the fine wheat-bran of the best quality; it is kneaded with white must three days old, and then dried in the sun, after which it is made into small cakes. When required for making bread, these cakes are first soaked in water, and then boiled with the finest spelt flour, after which the whole is mixed up with the meal; and it is generally thought that this is the best method of making bread. The Greeks have established a rule that for a modius of meal eight ounces of leaven is enough.
These kinds of leaven, however, can only be made at the time of vintage, but there is another leaven which may be prepared with barley and water, at any time it may happen to be required. It is first made up into cakes of two pounds in weight, and these are then baked upon a hot hearth, or else in an earthen dish upon hot ashes and charcoal, being left till they turn of a reddish brown. When this is done, the cakes are shut close in vessels, until they turn quite sour: when wanted for leaven, they are steeped in water first. When barley bread used to be made, it was leavened with the meal of the fitch, or else the chicheling vetch, the proportion being, two pounds of leaven to two modii and a half of barley meal. At the present day, however, the leaven is prepared from the meal that is used for making the bread. For this purpose, some of the meal is kneaded before adding the salt, and is then boiled to the consistency of porridge, and left till it begins to turn sour. In most cases, however, they do not warm it at all, but only make use of a little of the dough that has been kept from the day before. It is very evident that the principle which causes the dough to rise is of an acid nature, and it is equally evident that those persons who are dieted upon fermented bread are stronger in body. Among the ancients, too, it was generally thought that the heavier wheat is, the more wholesome it is.“
(Translation from original latin from: Perseus at tufts.edu)
An interesting aspect of Pliny’s reference to leaven is that he mentions that dough kept from bread dough the day before can be used to make bread the following day. This isn’t a practice that we see much nowadays, is it? Why? Because we have refrigerators. Roman bakers of yore had no method to keep a permanent starter from going bad if left out for longer than a few days. This is why Pliny refers to drying the leaven into cakes that can be hydrated later, or using dough from the day before. Taking this into consideration, along with the fact that bread was baked daily, makes this early method of starter regeneration a very sensible method in keeping the yeasts and lactobacilli alive and working. In a modern context, however, we feed our starters and keep them in the fridge or in a cool place in the pantry. You can also try dehydrating the leaven by painting it onto thin sheets of parchment paper, allowing it to dry, and keeping the sheets or flakes in an air-tight container to be reconstituted later on with water.
Note: This recipe calls for millet flour or whole wheat flour (wheat bran, as referred to by Pliny). If you cannot find millet flour, feel free to simply use the whole wheat option. You may also use barley flour. Also, it’s important to note that the leaven is a source of fermentation for future bread loaves and the gluten content in the starter isn’t as critical as it would be for the bread dough itself. If you choose to use millet flour in your leaven you can then feed it with wheat flour or millet flour, going forward. For a glutinous loaf of bread, however, you will have to use wheat flours for the bread dough.
So with that said, let’s roll up our sleeves and get started!
Pliny the Elder’s Leaven
Making your own leaven (starter) for the first time may seem like a daunting task but it’s not, it just requires you to pay attention to it during the first few days. A bread starter can take 2 to 5 days to cultivate depending on the temperature inside your home. Follow these easy steps, keep an eye on the little fella, and you should have a very successful starter that will serve you well for years to come! After you have created this leaven, maintaining it should be fairly easy as you take from it and feed it week by week as you bake.
- 2 cups of millet or whole wheat flour
- 2 cups of grapes (rinsed)
- 2 cups of tepid water
Step 2. Check on your leaven. When the starter has begun fermenting, bubbles will appear in the mixture. When this happens, pull the grape pouch out and dispose of them. Have a quick look at the starter to make sure there is no white fuzz or black mould forming: this will occur if air comes in contact during the start-up phase or if the starter has been left too long unattended. If you have fuzz or mould on the surface, throw it out and go back to Step 1.
After you remove the grapes, pour the mixture into a fresh, clean container and feed your starter with 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of tepid water. Give it a stir, cover it again and put it in the cupboard for another 1 to 2 days.
Step 3. Check on your leaven again. At this stage you may start to see hooch (alcohol) forming on the top, a dark boozy liquid that smells strong and is quite normal to the process. Don’t dispose of the hooch, just stir it back in to the starter and let it do its job. Note: If you find hooch or a liquid layer forming on the top of your starter and this mixture is too wet, top it off with 1/4 cup of flour. I find that hooch usually means the mix needs a bit more to eat! The starter will usually react by becoming active again if you do this.
Step 4. After 4 to 5 days you should be seeing significant growth and bubbles forming, like in the photo below. The starter is now ready for use.
Step 5. Cover it and store it in the refrigerator or in a cool place from now on. When using it to bake, if you use one cup of the leaven for your recipe always put in what you take out: One cup of leaven out=1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup tepid water put back in. Two parts flour and one part water seems to make a good consistency when feeding. Note: You should always have at least 2 cups of leaven on reserve for future baking projects. When using the starter for baking, pull it out of the fridge the night before and activate it by feeding it the night before. Store the remaining leaven in your fridge in a fresh, clean container after every use.
Important! Don’t forget to feed your leaven often. To keep the yeast growing, it needs fresh wheat to our and water to eat from time to time. As it eats, it produces more bubbles and gas, just like when a baby eats! In fact, I was told by a good friend of mine in Rome, Angelo the baker, that you should really treat your starter like a living thing and give it a name. It needs to be loved, fed and kept alive, afterall. So let’s go ahead and name this leaven ‘Pliny’. What will you name your starter, I wonder?
If the first attempt at this recipe fails, do not despair or give up. It will succeed and it will work just fine. In fact, I can attest to the fact that once you grow your own leaven, you will not return to using instant granulated yeast again. It is an incredibly rewarding exercise and the quality of the bread produced changes dramatically, becoming richer and tangier in flavour, and chewier in texture. As proof as to how healthy and robust this leaven is, put your speakers or headphones on and watch the video below. This is how hearty our ‘Pliny’ is. Now imagine how well it will produce a leavened loaf of Roman bread? We’ll get to that very soon, I promise.
Note: This recipe is the first part of a two-part series; a bread recipe for Roman bread will follow next week. The bread recipe can be prepared with this leaven after about a week, once the leaven has matured and been fed. A link to the bread recipe will be posted on this page, and on the front page of our site, as soon as it is published.
Cena bene and good eating to you!
Please feel free to leave comments or suggestions about this recipe below.