A Recipe from Cato that Requires Common Sense

A Very Basic Early Bread Recipe

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 [check] De Agri Cultura (On Farming or On Agriculture[1]), 160 BCE

This bread recipe is early enough that one can say it is one of the first written bread recipes of all time, and one of the first, if not the first, in the Greco/Latin literary tradition. Cato wrote several recipes for his book on farming. This one is the most bare bones. Two thousand years later, William Harrison, who will absolutely have known this book by Cato, included bread recipes in his History of England published in the 1580s. I think we should assume that there were many bread recipes written down before Cato, but for all practical purposes, nothing survives. I am thinking here of recipes written in Hittite, Akkadian, Harappan, Egyptian, and other ancient languages.

Whoever Cato was imparting bread knowledge to, he assumed that the reader knew the rudiments. Importantly, he seemed to have assumed that the reader knew what a bread dough looks like, an assumption one cannot make today. What I find so fantastical about this recipe is that Cato begins at the beginning with hand-washing! No other bread recipe that I am aware of includes the hand-washing instruction. Not one! Not one in the intervening 2,200 years! Cato also mentions cleaning the bowl.

So, starting at the very beginning, Cato basically says to us, before starting to make bread, wash your hands, idiot! Perhaps Cato was a germaphobe? Was he grossed out by the thought of people mixing bread with lived-in hands? Or, is something else going on? Millenia before germs were understood as germs in our scientific way, washed bodies were associated with purity—and dirty bodies with pollution.

“Never omit to wash your hands before you pour to Zeus and to the other Gods the morning offering of sparkling wine; they will not hear your prayers but spit them back.”
Hesiod, ‘Works and Days’, lines 722-725.

In addition to exhorting us to wash our hands, Cato also tells the baker to wash the bowl. I think it may be worth resting our thoughts on ritual purity. Before Eritrean women make coffee in the Ethiopian/Eritrean “coffee ceremony,” which is their everyday making of coffee, you often see them rinsing the clean cups in water, giving them a last touch of ritual cleanliness before the incense is lit and the coffee poured.

Was Cato a clean freak, suggested by being the only author in 2,200 years who suggested hand and bowl washing, or is he touching on a strong, local cleanliness tradition, or was there a religious use of bread—temple breads—that began with ritual cleaning, and he is modeling the recipe he puts in his book on what he perceived to be “best practice.”

In the books Gervase Markham wrote on dieting race horses around the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries, he discusses advising bakers to wash their feet before kneading horse bread with their feet. Cato and Markham, different appendages, but the only bread authors I know of who got into personal hygiene.

The next time you wash your hands before making bread, think back to Cato!

Cano’s recipe for a flatbread baked under the lid of a Dutch oven is a legitimate bread recipe. I say this because it lacks what modern readers demand from a recipe: ingredient amounts. What am I to do? There is no information!

There is lots of information. Firstly, we are told to make a dough that can be “well kneaded” and rolled. How much water to flour? He tells you, watch what you are doing. Eternally good advice, add water gradually. As we are not told what grain to use—and culturally it could have been wheat or barley—this is a work-by-feel recipe, a use what you’ve got recipe.

I suggest measuring out water to equal 60% the weight of the flour you use. Add that slowly, as you mix. Whole meal flour, which this will have been, absorbs water as the bran hydrates. So, mix to form a kneadable dough. Let is rest ten to twenty minutes, and then adjust the water and knead to form a smooth dough.

What kind of bread?

Cato says the bread will be baked under an “earthenware lid.” This lid is a “teste” in Latin. It is a terracotta top to a Dutch oven. The lid will have had a lip to hold embers. This style oven is still used for traditional cooking in Croatia, a country well within the cultural territory of Cato’s Rome.

My suggestion is to build a fire on the ground, when it is dying down move it aside, put the bread down where the ground is hot, cover with the lid, and then pile embers onto the lid.

Thinking more about the bread — what was it — a little bit of cultural knowledge about flatbreads is useful. Flour and water make a pita bread. But pita is not baked under a lid. It is first baked on a griddle and/or first baked directly on embers. Once the dough is set, however, you set it, the bread is placed on a very hot surface (a bed of embers) or placed upright near flames. Pita is steam-leavened and will puff up into a ball.

A bread baked under a lid will never get hot enough to turn the bread into a ball. Pita will work as a white bread, although in India it is usually whole meal. In order for Cato’s bread to be edible it will have to be either a whole meal flour, or it will have to be made with seconds flour — a middlings flour that is the overalls (the flour held back by the sieve) when making white flour. That is because a refined white flour gets gummy when it is baked at a comparatively low temperature, as it would here while flours with bran in them — or flours that are granular rather than powdery as the seconds flour is — remain palatable even when baked at lowish temperatures — like the 350F that is common to Dutch oven baking.

What is the shape of this bread? How thick? I would have thought that this bread would be in the form of a “cake.” As in the mud cake inspired by the nursery rhyme, “patty cake patty cake baker’s man!” I would have thought that this a bread formed into a cake between he hands of the baker. But Cato says to roll the dough out. So, I think we have to imagine here a certain thinness.

Modern Version of Cato’s Basic Bread

100% whole meal wheat or barley flour, or the wheat overalls from producing white flour.

60% water.

Wash you hands with soap and water, and rinse the mixing bowl. Weigh out the amount of flour you plan on using — it should either be whole meal wheat or barley, or the middlings the semolina collecting in the sieve the last time you sieved meal to make white flour.

Weigh your chosen amount of flour. Measure out water that weighs 60% of that amount of flour, so if you ended up with 300g flour you will set aside 180g water.

Put the flour in the bowl and add the water, a little at a time, until the dough comes together and is kneadable. This may, or may not, use all of the water. Bran absorbs water. If your flower has a lot of brown in it then after the meeting, let it rest 10 minutes. You may need to add water to it at that time.

If you are baking in an oven, then I would bake at 350F, 180F. These are temperatures that I find are common when baking under lids heated with embers.

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