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Baking Bread with the Romans: Part II – Panis Quadratus (tavolamediterranea.com)
164 points by samclemens on Nov 17, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

> Now, we can debate whether these sections were made by a knife, by a cutter, or by twine but it is difficult to determine this from the carbonised loaves that have been excavated. It is probable that bakers may have used twine to define each of the eight sections of the panis quadratus but it does seem like a fairly intricate and tricky job to complete, requiring knots or loops at eight junctions on the twine that encircles the loaf horizontally.

I really think that scoring the loaf after raising (their method) looks nothing like the either the carbonized loaf from Pompeii or the fresco shown. What they look like is more akin to sectioning with something blunt, either with twine or a piece of wood.

Not to cut the sections, but to divide them so it can be pulled apart easily without a knife. It would be undesirable to actually cut the "skin" of the loaf. Then as they suggest, wrap twine around the circumference to pull it back together. The result would be more like a batch of rolls that can be pulled apart.

It makes sense they'd want to sell a loaf that can be easily eaten without a knife. Just scoring the loaf as they show doesn't give you a loaf that tears apart, the scores end up being just decorative and bakers do that to avoid a split when it bakes.

I was also thinking about the marks and it doesn’t stack up - the circumferential one in particular though. Why would a baker tie a string around their loaf randomly - bread made up a far greater part of everyone’s diet until quite recently (basically until the modern Chorleywood process fully industrialised it, making it far less appealing). Making the job harder isn’t in anyone’s interest. That Pompeii loaf recreation looks more like 2 on top of each other when compared to frescos or the preserved one. Old style flour had next to no gluten so you wouldn’t expect much rise. It seems more likely that bread was risen in a basket or in a cloth of some sort that had a string around it. It could have been made upside down too, and so the pattern was on the plate/tray it was risen in and then turned over when put into oven. This is a standard way of patterning bread - bannatons are the current name. Both the fresco version and the recreation look delicious.

I had to look up the Chorleywood process[0] because I had never heard of it, and it turns out I probably haven't ever had bread made using it. Is it any worse than American mass-produced bread? It sounds like it was designed to work with the quality of wheat grown, rather than anything else.


Sorry, I meant to include that very link.

It doesn’t take much real bread to turn people away from the mass produced options.

Soughdough is surprisingly forgiving and can be made in a pretty lazy fashion with excellent results - just keep deleting steps in the recipe until it doesn’t work, then go back one step.

It’s like a more bland wonder bread. Truly awful stuff.

Really there are two products. Bread, and white-sliced bread, the latter made by the Chorleywood process and having only a vague resemblence to the former. The white sliced stuff has its uses though - toast, sandwiches, egg soldiers, bread and butter pudding, bread sauce, and other bread puddings.

Just don't confuse it with real bread and you'll be fine!

My theory is that the baker would use ready-made circular nets, made of a rim and four pieces of string attached to it and at their center where they cross.

Then they would simply lay the net on the dough before letting it rise or before baking it. The bread expanding sideways when rising would first hold the rim into place and make the straight strings taunt, which would then leave their mark on the bread.

No slow and complicated tying, no unexplained lateral groove, and an easy way to ensure that each loaf is the same size while also making convenient slices.

There would still be slow and complicated tying (and untying), because if the rim was permanently closed then there would be no way to remove it from the finished bread without destroying it. It's not visible in the carbonized bread, or the fresco, so we know it wasn't left in place, and it seems unlikely that an individual net was made for every piece of bread.

True, but it seems almost sure to me that the rim groove is connected to the transverse ones on the burnt bread[0] which completely rules out the (already unlikely in my opinion) scoring with a knife.

Then look at this picture[1], there the loaves have a lot more sections, and that seems completely impossible to tie by hand for each piece of bread. However, they could be ready-made and with just one opening on the rim, to tie before laying on the loaf (which would be easy, and could be done during off-time when waiting for the dough to rise or other loaves to bake, for example) and to untie after baking to allow removing the net.


[0] http://tavolamediterranea.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/IMG...

[1] http://tavolamediterranea.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Rom...

I like the way you're thinking. What sort of string would survive baking? I just looked up http://www.4thegrill.com/butchers-twine/ and it says cotton and one-time use. I thought cotton was not used in Europe at the time (though I'm not sure) and I'd guess it'd be expensive at their tech level to not reuse it.

The Romans had cotton, but it (and silk) were imported from Asia and were more or less luxury fabrics.

However, they also had locally-produced linen (the classic Roman tunic was made from linen) and linen is considerably more heat-resistant than cotton.

If you have a steam iron handy, take a look and you'll see that the ironing temperature for linen is higher than that for cotton.

Hmmm, would it actually be twine? I'm thinking some sort of plant stalk, straw if you could tie it or bind it. (I'd guess straw's too brittle but it'd be readily availability if you're producing grain.)

I'm thinking, it doesn't have to be very strong, and if you can't reuse the twine anyway...

Might be fun to try! (Not me, I'm gluten-sensitive.)

There would have been very little gluten in that bread - look at the rise. Additionally, something about soughdough reduces the effect of the gluten on those that are intolerant. Don’t take that as medical advice though...

Yeah, I was actually sticking to sourdough back when I still ate bread. It didn't seem to make enough difference.

I agree with this smart observation and just want to pick nits with this last part:

> bakers do that to avoid a split when it bakes.

I know from experience that slashing an under-proofed, or appropriately-proofed loaf allows it to rise more than if it weren't slashed.

Here is a picture of another roman bread - http://kitchenboy.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/RA-bre... Looks more like it was baked upside-down in a form? I don't know...

I'm surprised there's no mention of Byzantine Prosphora as a comparison. It's an ancient breadmaking tradition, Roman in origin, and still in widespread use today in Eastern Orthodox churches.

Although it doesn't have the eight slices of Panis Quadratus, it does have the distinctive ridge in the middle, formed by taking two circular discs of dough and pressing them together with a stamp.

This seems to me at least as likely of a theory for the ridge in the middle, as wrapping a bit of twine around it solely for the purpose of making the indentation.

See also the English cottage loaf, make by stacking a smaller ball of dough on top of a larger one and pressing them together:


I find it remarkable how that bread recipe wouldn't be at all out of place in a modern book. 60% hydration is a little lower than most craft bakeries are using, and 1% salt is also on the low side, but they are very much in range of what a local bakery might do with their spelt sourdough loaf. Similarly the proving schedule isn't unusual.

Maybe that's not surprising - there aren't really that many ways to make bread - but it's interesting how old these recipes are.

Isn't the recipe just an attempted recreation?

In that case it would be informed by modern practice.

That's all I thought about when reading this. The methods are all modern and the bread pictured would be a marvel to bread makers in Roman times.

I think the two biggest modern differences that would affect the quality of the bread would be (1) modern flours are probably way more consistent than ancient stone-ground flour (and don't contain rock dust/grit) and (2) the oven will keep a much more consistent temperature.

I'd have to imagine slap-and-fold is a pretty old technique, even if why it worked would be as mysterious as the leaven itself.

On the down side for us, decent bread gets made at very high temperatures. Those Roman ovens would beat any standard kitchen appliance by a mile. A wood fired traditional bread oven holds heat very well and gives a very even bake at high temperatures too.

This article made me recall a high school Latin class excerpt about status in ancient Rome. At a party the high-status guests would get to lie or sit on higher couches and eat "snow white" bread, while the low-class guests received the hard loaves.

The carbonized examples are clearly fully sectioned instead of just being slashed.

Am I the only one who read "Breaking Bad with the Romans" and was really confused?

"Baking Bread" is a common anagram for "Breaking Bad". Google Images finds some nice mashups.

Servus Brokus

Some background music for your reading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQAIoSC3kAQ.

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