Baking with the Romans – The Key Ingredients: Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley

Recently, I have been delving deeper into the archaeological and documentary records, looking for evidence of the many weird and wonderful ingredients that are incorporated into Roman breads, as this is an integral (and achievable) aspect in exploring the sensory interpretations of Roman breads. Taste and texture are determined by the ingredients and food technologies that were used in the Roman Mediterranean. We often see the words ‘spelt’ and ‘farro’ being used when referencing Roman bread ingredients but this is only a fraction of the big picture. There was so much more involved in Roman bread-making than just the flour that held the loaf together, so many variables, which is why I have decided to write a series of posts about the many varieties of Roman breads and the key ingredients found within them… For this installment, we will explore an unusual bread offering… while asking ourselves: “Why don’t we make bread like this anymore??!!”

, Ostia Antica (Rome, Italy)
Painted Menu at the Caseggiato del Termopolio – Ostia Antica – Rome , Italy

While doing some recent research into Classical Mediterranean food frescoes in the 1st century AD, I stumbled upon an intriguing passage written by Philostratus, a Greek-born Imperial Roman-era sophist who settled in Rome. The passage describes a food still-life painting, and a Greek hospitality concept called: xenia. In these paintings we may encounter scenes of food being presented to guests themselves or just still-life depictions of food meant to be viewed by an observer that is external to the painting. The painting Philostratus refers to depicts food provisions that are offered to an esteemed guest to inform them of what has been procured for them during their visit. What a privilege that must have been! But why make a big fuss and commission an artist to paint a bunch of figs and rabbits on a board, you ask? Why not just slip a wax tablet under the chamber door with today’s menu like the Room Service order-card at the Marriott? Well, what’s telling about this convention, which is possibly what we are witnessing in other Roman-era food frescoes as well, is that it’s likely a bit of ‘food-flaunting’ but it is also a visual representation of food-stuffs portrayed and observed by people who may be illiterate. The majority of people in the Classical Mediterranean were illiterate with the exception of some scribes, poets, playwrights or educated members of the elite classes who made up a small percentage of the population who communicated and recorded history, science, nature, laws, theatrical works and poetry in the documentary record. These records, of course, also include more specific and brief administrative written communications such as epigraphy and graffiti which can be found painted on amphorae or the walls of Pompeii or commemorative writings carved into stele and other forms of monumental architecture.

Fresco of a chicken and a hare from Pompeii. Photo by Farrell Monaco

In Philostratus’ xenia scene, the description of the painting depicts a survey of the spoils from a successful day’s hunting and gathering. The passage begins with a description of what we, the viewer, are seeing in the xenia scene:

This hare in his cage is the prey of the net, and he sits on his haunches moving his forelegs a little and slowly lifting his ears, but he also keeps looking with all his eyes and tries to see behind him as well, so suspicious is he and always cowering with fear; the second hare that hangs on the withered oak tree, his belly laid wide open and his skin stripped off over the hind feet, bears witness to the swiftness of the dog which sits beneath the tree, resting and showing that he alone has caught the prey. As for the ducks near the hare (count them, ten), and the geese of the same number as the ducks, it is not necessary to test them by pinching them, for their breasts, where the fat gathers in abundance on water-birds, have been plucked all over.

– Philostratus the Elder, Imagines, Xenia II.26 (1st c. AD)

The passage then shifts as the painting seems to directly address the viewer as it offers the viewer a choice of other foodstuffs located in the painting:

If you care for raised bread or “eight-piece loaves,” they are here near by in the deep basket. And if you want any relish, you have the loaves themselves—for they have been seasoned with fennel and parsley and also with poppy-seed, the spice that brings sleep—but if you desire a second course, put that off till you have cooks, and partake of the food that needs no fire. Why, then, do you not take the ripe fruit…“.

– Philostratus the Elder, Imagines, Xenia II.26 (1st c. AD)

Do you just see what I see?… Philostratus describes bread that incorporates poppy seeds, fennel and parsley! How unusual and exciting… and it comes in ‘eight pieces’…. EIGHT PIECES! Ceres have mercy! Is old Phil telling us that some Panis Quadratus loaves (known as Kodratoi to the Greeks) may have also incorporated poppy seeds, fennel and parsley into the bread’s recipe? It certainly sounds this way, doesn’t it?

After reading this section of Philostratus’Xenia‘ and doing more research on Roman food frescoes housed at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli… I decided that I was going to prioritize this bread recipe, experiment with recreating it, and get it up on the site without delay … and then National Geographic called.

Image result for seinfeld dancing gif

After a series of conversations with a wonderful group of people at Nat Geo (more on this very soon!) they asked if I wouldn’t mind sending some bread to their offices in Washington, D.C.. Naturally, I happily obliged and decided that I would recreate a few loaves of the xenia kodratoi for them, made the old-school way, from start to finish. All hands were on deck for this project: Popidius, my bread starter that was inoculated in the bakeries at Pompeii; my trusty manual hand-mill that processes cereal grains beautifully; the outdoor summer heat and humidity that brings bread-dough to an incredible rise, and my wood-fired, outdoor, beehive oven that bakes hand-made bread better than a conventional oven, any day. This was an all-day baking project that was nothing short (well, it was a donkey short, to be honest) of a one-woman Roman bakery operation in my own back yard. Popidius Priscus would have been proud of me, to be sure. He may have also laughed his flour-covered belly off to see me wrenching my hand-mill winch round and round, in lieu of a donkey… hour after hour… singing Depeche Mode songs to keep me moving while I milled two kilograms of flour. But all of it, every second of it, was worth it. With the xenia image in my mind and the excitement of the new ingredients being incorporated into the infamous Panis Quadratus/Kodratoi loaf, I was in my bread-nerd happy place. And I know that I’m not the only bread-nerd around here (yes, I am looking at you, good reader) so I’m going to leave this recipe right here for you to try as well! To make Philostratus’ Panis with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley, here’s what you’re going to need:

Hand-milling grain using a manual stone mill. Video by Farrell Monaco

Philostratus’ Panis Quadratus with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley (Yields two loaves)

Ingredients:

  • 8 cups / 1,200 gr of high-extraction, coarse, whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup / 235 ml of bread starter (yeast)
  • 2 3/4 cups / 650 ml of tepid water
  • 1 tbsp / 15 gr of salt
  • 1 tbsp / 15 gr of poppy seeds
  • 1 tbsp / 15 gr of fennel seeds
  • 1 cup / 60 gr of finely diced Italian parsley
  • Semolina flour for dusting

Implements:

Preparation:

Note: If you do not have a bread starter at home, you may want to start by growing one first. You can use Pliny the Elder’s recipe on this site.

Note: If you’d like to mill your own flour, send me an email and I can refer you to a few stone rotary hand-mills on the market and a reliable Bengay supplier.

Philostratus' Panis Quadratus with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley
Philostratus’ Panis Quadratus Recipe with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley

Making the Dough:

  1. Begin by dissolving your starter into the tepid water.
  2. Add the poppy seeds, salt, fennel to the flour and quickly fold it all together evenly.
  3. Add the water and starter into the flour and knead the flour and water together. You can do this in a large mixing bowl or on a clean surface by creating a font (cavity) in the flour and adding the water to the centre, folding the dry into the wet until you have a mass of dough.
  4. Knead the dough for 10-15 minutes until the dough is a solid mass. It’s going to be quite dense. If you find that it’s too dry or you’re still trying to pick up flour, add a bit more water (not too much though) and keep kneading.
  5. Place the dough in a warm, humid place and cover it with a clean, damp cotton tea-towel. The damp towel will keep the dough surface moist.
  6. Let the dough rise for approximately 3 hours.
  7. Remove the dough and cut it in half. You can also weigh it using a scale. Each half should be roughly 1.3 kg of bread dough which is the equivalent of 4 Roman libre, the amount of bread dough required to make a standard panis quadratus that matches the size of the archaeological specimens found at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
  8. Stretch and fold the dough over itself a few times. Then, tucking the sides under and towards the centre, create a round formation. You can use your hands or a bench-knife to control the underside of the dough and shape it as you work it.
  9. Place this dough on a dusted surface or on the sheet that you will bake it on and cover it again with a damp tea towel.
  10. Let the dough rest and rise again for another 3 hours in a warm and humid place.
Philostratus' Panis Quadratus Recipe with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley
Philostratus’ Panis Quadratus Recipe with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley

Forming the Loaf:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400 F / 200 C / Gas Mark 6
  2. Dust the top of each loaf with some semolina flour to create a dry working environment on the surface of the dough.
  3. There are three consecutive moves involved in creating the infamous form of the panis quadratus: a) Forming the belt-line around the horizontal perimeter of the loaf; b) Forming the wedge impressions on the top of the loaf; 3. Creating a central cavity on the top of the loaf to allow hot air to cook the loaf’s interior crumb during baking.
  4. Start by tying off the loaf around the horizontal perimeter. I called it ‘the belt-line’ and the Italians call it la cintura… so, let’s give each loaf a belt. You want to cut approximately 82 cm of twine (or more) and try to wrap it around the loaf at the mid-section and tie a single-knotted bow to secure the twine. Cut any leftover longer pieces of twine from your bow.
  5. Using the method of your choice, create the eight wedges on the top of the loaf. This can be done with twine, a reed, a dowel or the panis quadratus bread wheel-press which is now for sale on this site!
  6. Make sure that you have enough semolina on the top of the loaf when you create the wedge impressions. The dough is of a lower hydration so you should not have any trouble but to keep the dough from sticking to your twine or dowel, make sure the top of the loaf is lightly dusted.
  7. Take a sharp knife and press the tip of it into the centre of the loaf straight down to the bottom of the loaf. Don’t cut side to side or make a long cut. Just punch a small hole into the centre of the loaf, at the junction of the wedge lines, and create a cavity for air to get into once the loaf is baking.
Philostratus' Panis Quadratus Recipe with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley
Philostratus’ Panis Quadratus Recipe with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley
Philostratus' Panis Quadratus Recipe with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley
Philostratus’ Panis Quadratus Recipe with Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley

Baking the Loaves:

  1. Bake the loaves for 45 mins.
  2. Put the kettle on and give yourself a pat on the back! You’ve done a lot of hard work to get these loaves into the oven!
  3. The loaves will be fully baked at 45 minutes and the exterior should be a nice golden/amber brown.
  4. Once the loaves have baked fully, remove them from the oven and let them cool for a few hours….
  5. And then tasting time begins!
Baking with the Romans - The Key Ingredients: Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley.
Baking with the Romans – The Key Ingredients: Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley.

Now here is when we want to return to the words of Philostratus again:

If you care for raised bread or “eight-piece loaves,” they are here near by in the deep basket. And if you want any relish, you have the loaves themselves—for they have been seasoned with fennel and parsley and also with poppy-seed, the spice that brings sleep.”

– Philostratus the Elder, Imagines, Xenia II.26 (1st c. AD)

So let’s not put anything on this bread at all! Let’s follow what was written, break the bread open with our bare hands, and taste the crust and crumb alone without any oil, wine, or water. I think you’re going to be surprised by how complete this loaf is on its own, without any ‘relish’, as our friend Philostratus says.

This experiment produced a loaf that is aromatic, flavourful, hearty and filling. The crumb is fragrant with scents like that of a garden in the summertime. There’s something very summery, fresh, and ‘herbal’ about this loaf. It’s hard to explain but the combination of parsley and fennel together, which is something most of us are not used to, adds a flavour to the crumb that is so clean, fresh and summery. That said, this is also a dense loaf and there’s the slightest hint of smoke in the crust from the fire inside the oven. It’s intoxicating! There is still a nuttiness of the whole wheat present in the flavour of the crumb, behind all of the fennel and parsley, and a hint of tang from the starter that controls some of the brighter fragrant flavours that pop out when you bite a fennel seed or get a pop of a poppy seed on your tongue. It’s very pleasurable eating this loaf without anything at all but, if old Phil turned his head, I might be tempted to drop a wedge into a bowl of hot salty broth, a cup of robust red wine, or sop up a plate of peppery olive oil with it.

Baking with the Romans - The Key Ingredients: Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley.
Baking with the Romans – The Key Ingredients: Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley.

Making this new panis quadratus recipe was truly a labour of love and discovery because what resulted from these efforts was not only worthy of a National Geographic bread-tasting but it was an exercise in experimental and sensory archaeology that resulted in the understanding of a whole new area of Roman bread ingredients and flavours. First the git; and now this!

In choosing to run this experiment and make this recipe using as close to the original preparation methods as possible, there were sensory elements to the process that could not be ignored: The smell of wood-smoke in your hair and on your hands as you baked and tested the heat inside the oven; the slight hint of smoke on the crust of the bread; the tougher, drier texture (unlike clibanus bread) which is common with a larger wood-fired oven; the coarseness of the flour product that went into the bread registered prominently in the crumb; the fine flour dust in your nostrils and in your eyes as you mill the flour; the ache in your shoulders and lower back from the milling and the kneading; and the rhythmic kneading and milling also compels you to hum or sing along with the rhythm in order to keep you on point while you’re working. All of these factors culminated in an introductory understanding of what manual labour in a Roman bakery must’ve been like had they only used human labour or had the donkey called in sick for work that day… 😉 And I only made four loaves! Had I made 40 I may have ended up at the chiropractor!

By the end of the long day’s work, as I stood outside under the stars pulling the last loaves out of the oven, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and pride for the hard work that I did and I valued every single one of those loaves as a result of that labour and the resources that I worked with. To me, each loaf was worth a small fortune because they were made with sweat, hard work, wood, fire, flour, curiosity and care. There was no way that I would work that hard and make loaves like these and then throw half of them out in a few days or let them grow stale on the counter. Not a chance in Hades, because I worked for an entire day making my daily bread. And this, good reader, is how most of our fore-fathers and fore-mothers felt when they grew, gathered, hunted, slaughtered and prepared their own food daily with the threat of drought, famine, poverty or war around every corner. And yet we throw our food away… daily. Without a care in the world. Perhaps more than just experimental archaeological data or an understanding of the Romans can come out of experiments like these. Perhaps we can learn to understand ourselves and our own actions better by experiencing actions and processes from the past as well? Perhaps the more that we labour over our food or connect with our food supply, the more we too will value it and protect it, just as our ancestors did before us.

Happy baking and keep cooking it old-school!

Baking with the Romans - The Key Ingredients: Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley.
Baking with the Romans – The Key Ingredients: Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley.

Note: If you have food-allergies and any of the ingredients found in this recipe are new to you, please consult your allergist first before trying new food-stuffs that you have not tried before! Safety first!

Join in the discussion on our Facebook page or leave a comment about this recipe below on this page. If you’d like to chat in person with me or about any of the other recipes, you can join me at one of the The Old-School Kitchen live events taking place at a museum or venue near you. More information about this year’s events can now be found on the Events Calendar page.

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2 comments on “Baking with the Romans – The Key Ingredients: Poppy Seed, Fennel and Parsley

  1. Hèctor Bautista on said:

    Simply amazing! Since I don’t know how to bake or have the equipment or space to undertake this task, is there any place where you could direct me to taste it?

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