When at Home, Bake as the Romans Baked
SAPIENS host Chip Colwell talks with experimental archaeologist Farrell Monaco about her work re-creating ancient Roman bread and what it means to reconnect with bakers of the past. Farrell also offers some tips for pandemic-era bakers who want to take their new hobby to the next level.
For more from Farrell, her award-winning website is Tavola Mediterranea.
Read more about experimental archaeology, including Farrell and her work, at SAPIENS.org: “Pandemic Bakers Bring the Past to Life.” And go ahead and try to make the Roman bread recipe described by Cato the Elder.
Chip Colwell: When the coronavirus pandemic hit, like many people, I headed to the grocery store. I filled my basket with all the basics I could think of. What would last me in the weeks to come? Cans of garbanzo beans, tins of fish, a big bag of oatmeal. When I got to the aisle with baking goods and arrived at the shelf with flour, I found it empty—barren as the Sahara. Every two weeks, throughout the spring, I returned to the grocery store. Again and again, the flour shelf was empty.
Eventually, I learned about why it was so hard for me just to even get a single bag of all-purpose flour. I heard about pandemic baking—the turn to baking as so many people were stuck in their homes, looking for old-fashioned sustenance for their bodies and souls. But then a contributor pitched SAPIENS a story about how some bakers were taking their hobby a step further—or should I say, a step further back in time.
Farrell Monaco: So, for today’s recipe, we are going to make a Roman bread called Grape Must Cakes. This actually means that little bits and pieces of grapes were incorporated into the bread. And it is so delicious, I think you’re going to love it.
Chip: Farrell Monaco is an archaeologist, a baker, and the proprietor of the award-winning TavolaMediterranea.com, where she posts recipes and blogs about her edible adventures in archaeology, and lately hosts workshops for history buff bakers all over the world. Farrell, welcome to the show.
Farrell: Thank you for having me, Chip.
Chip: The work you do is called experimental archaeology, and you put a culinary twist on that. Can you tell our listeners about your work?
Farrell: Yeah. So, basically, what I do is I experiment with re-creating archaeological foods. And so, the approach that I take to it is instead of looking at something and assessing it and interpreting it with my eyes, I prefer to actually involve my body and re-create the object, experience all the aspects of what it would have been like to have been the original creator or user of that object. So, the labor that’s involved, what it does to my hands, my back, what it smells like, raw and cooked. The technologies, what it feels like to use them, what they sound like when you’re using them. And then, of course, the final taste, and what it does is for me is it gives me an idea as to what the Roman palate was like, what flavors they preferred. We can look at the types of foods that they used by reading, you know, Columella or Pliny, for example. And then when we put them together, we can taste the complexities of Roman cuisine. It also can tell us what types of contact they had with regions in the area. For example, in the Mediterranean, the Romans were using foods that were being imported from all the provinces from the north to the south. And those tastes are represented in their foods.
Chip: That sounds really amazing, in part because at the end of the project or, at the end of the work, you actually get to eat what it is you’re studying. That’s a pretty awesome way of approaching archaeology.
Farrell: It’s very rewarding. In my opinion, it’s much more rewarding than quantification or taking a bucket of pot sherds or pieces of ceramic, counting it, weighing it, running it, you know, through Excel and producing stats. I know math can be very comforting, but I prefer to taste it and actually explore the archaeology down on the ground, in the kitchens, in the fields, rather than looking at the broader patterns. To me, it’s much more representative of Roman daily life and the real Romans, the 99 percent.
Chip: How did you get interested in all this?
Farrell: I became interested in it when I was working on a few projects in Rome. I was on a team at Monte Testaccio, which is the large, man-made landfill that’s comprised of ceramics that’s um on the Aventine in Testaccio, as well as working with a team at Pompeii. And they were studying food-related archaeology. So, amphora, for example, or amphorae, the large, conical ceramic containers that food was shipped in all over the Mediterranean or at Pompeii, triclinia (dining spaces), kitchens, et cetera. So, it’s all related to structure and vessels. But while I was working with these teams, I kept thinking about, again, the actual food and the people that produced it, the technologies. Like, the tendency to kind of focus on food-related archaeology and the broader patterns that you can extract from that or you can study from that is a general leaning that we have in archaeology. But I’m more interested in the people. I’m interested in the cooks, the slaves, the women, the stories, the bakers, the people that made this food daily. Because in a modern sense, when we think about food as much as we backburner it in our heads, it’s one of the most important aspects of our day. It’s how we survive.
Chip: Yeah, that’s right.
Farrell: Food is sustenance, and it’s pleasure. For the Romans, it was exactly the same thing. So, I’m not so much interested in the Mason jars that they were held in. I am interested in what Romans ate repeatedly because it brought them pleasure. Which foods fell into which social classes? Who got access to what? And how it was made, and how much time it took to make it. So, that is what interested me the most. And I found that my mind would wander when I was working with these teams. And as much as I’m interested in all of the culture related to food, I became even more so interested in the actual food itself.
Chip: Yeah. You know, it strikes me how easy it is for archaeologists to overlook these really fundamental and basic practices like eating, right? Like, that is what’s required for us humans to live, and every known human has done that throughout time. And yet for a lot of archaeology, you know, it’s focusing on, you know, architecture or migration patterns or, you know, how tools are made. And yet, it’s like, let’s just focus on the stuff that actually is unique to cultures, but then also connects us across time and space.
Farrell: I fully agree, and I think that there is safety in mathematics. There’s safety in patterns. So, to lean toward quantification and counting things and looking at assemblages, like heaps of artifacts, and gleaning data and patterns out of it, it’s safe, right?
Chip: Yeah, it’s Science, with a big S. Yeah.
Farrell: But human beings don’t operate with formula. They don’t particularly behave in patterns on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis. So, I’m interested in stepping out of that comfort zone and actually looking more into human behavior on the ground and looking at things like labor and technologies and how people used a particular object or like a hand mill, for example, and how they prepared their bread, what the workspace was like, what the flow of production was like. And to me, it gives us a much clearer glimpse into Roman daily life than taking an incomplete body of evidence like a bag full of ceramic pot sherds, counting it and looking at the rim sherds, looking at the body sherds and saying, OK, well, we had contact with so and so. And it looks like 15 percent of the pottery was brought in from Tunisia, for example. That’s great. But you’re dealing with an incomplete body of evidence, right? So, there might be safety in that. But it doesn’t really tell us much about human beings. It doesn’t tell us about daily life. It tells us about larger patterns such as trade and transport. So, I, yeah, I definitely prefer working from an experimental standpoint when working with food and food technologies.
Chip: So, you were working in Italy when you got started on this line of research, and so you’re working at sites that date to, what, about 2,000 years ago? And is this sort of the height of the Roman Empire? Could you remind us about the time and place that you were working in?
Farrell: Primarily, the sites that I was working at were most active from the 1st to about the 3rd century. Of course, Pompeii was active from the Republic through to A.D. 79. Monte Testaccio was in use from, I wanna say, the beginning of the Augustan period through to about the mid-3rd century. So, it is during the peak of the height of the empire. And that’s, of course, when you’re going to find some of the most interesting data because Roman bakeries didn’t pop up in the urban infrastructure until around 160, 170 B.C., following the third Macedonian war. And this was actually a period of time where Rome was expanding and where commercial opportunities were increasing and there was high urbanization, and Rome was growing at such a rapid rate. So, people were moving in from the countryside into small towns like Pompeii or into a large city like Rome. And they were leaving larger living spaces and tracts of land for life in these tiny little insulas. It’s very similar to living in Manhattan today. For example, we would live in a tiny little studio apartment with a little cooktop. And it was no different in Pompeii or Rome.
So, what we see begin to pop up in the urban infrastructure is bakeries and bars. And the bakeries are so plentiful that we can almost liken them to Starbucks or Pret A Manger nowadays. They’re on every single corner. And it’s there for people to grab a wedge of bread and a little bowl of stew while they’re on their way somewhere else or on the way to work or on their way back home. So, it’s essentially a response to urbanization and a lack of cooking facilities. And then, of course, the fact that the bakeries are so plentiful in Pompeii, for example, which is the most pristine example of bakery complex left in situ, is it tells us how high the demand for bread was in Roman society.
Chip: On the internet, I’ve seen some pictures of Pompeii, and there are these images, really amazing images, of bread. But it’s hard for me to tell whether that’s actual bread that’s been preserved when Mount Vesuvius blew up in A.D. 79 or if that’s somehow the volcano turned that bread to stone. Do you know what I’m talking about? Could you share your thoughts about that?
Farrell: It is actual carbonized loaves of bread that were left inside of an oven at the bakery in Modestus. At some point, the baker fled, bolted the door of the oven shut, and left 81 loaves of bread on the floor of the oven to bake for an eternity. [laughing]
Chip: So, has any intrepid archaeologist tried to eat any of those loaves?
Farrell: It’s funny, the BBC asked me the same question. I was actually, when I was studying the loaves, I had her words in the back of my head. And I was examining the loaves, and this tiny, tiny little fleck of carbonized dust was on my thumb knuckle. And I did put it in my mouth. And it was disgusting. [laughing]
Chip: It was?
Farrell: Yeah, because it just tasted like dirt that was in the collections cupboard at the Museo Archeologico in Naples for a very long time, for several hundred years. So, no, I mean, it’s impossible to taste it. They are fully carbonized. They’re also incredibly fragile. They are as light as a feather. So, when you’re picking it up, you’ve got to be very, very delicate. When I studied them in November of 2018, I did so with two of the staff members present, and we both lifted them so carefully in order to be able to examine the bottoms and the tops. They’re beautiful. They’re pristine, but they have to be handled very carefully. And they’re stunning examples of Roman bread sizes. Their aesthetic preferences as well as functional preferences because the loaves themselves are formed in a way that they’re meant to be broken apart into wedges so that they can be distributed to people, and they can be sold in halves or in quarters.
Chip: Mm hmm. And they’re just gorgeous. I mean, you know, even the 2,000-year-old ones are amazing to look at. And then these re-creations that you’ve done, they’re just aesthetically beautiful pieces of bread, loaves of bread.
Farrell: Thank you so much. I’m actually going to be publishing a paper based on all of that research that I did over the last few years that is going to delve much deeper into the form, the shape, how it was produced, why it was shaped that way. And I look forward to letting everybody know a little bit more about that very shortly.
Chip: We’ll keep an eye out for that. What is your process like? Take us from the remnants of those bakeries in Pompeii to the freshly baked loaf that’s coming out of your oven.
Farrell: Well, to begin with, I conducted research in 34 bakeries at Pompeii, and I looked at the oven sizes. I looked at the flow of the production in the space itself so that I could imagine what the use of space was like. And then I studied the mills. Unfortunately, I’m not able to reproduce a mill because it has to be reproduced using leucite, which is a volcanic rock that comes from Tuscany. So, I use a hand mill, like a modern hand mill, to mill at an extraction rate, which is very similar to what these mills most likely produced at. It was a fairly coarse flour that could be sieved in order to produce a finer product. It could be re-milled in order to break away as much bran as possible. So, what I do is I work with a flour that has been sieved or refined or bolted only once. So, there is some bran remaining in the flour. I use two starters that I’ve created based on Pliny’s writing. One of them is a grape base starter, which is grown initially using grape must, or the skins of grapes, as well as, of course, whole wheat flour and water.
Chip: And remind us what a starter is?
Farrell: It’s a sourdough starter. It’s a bread starter. So, prior to, I want to say probably the early 1930s or the ’40s when we began using granular yeast, everybody used a bread starter, which is a fermented dough product. And it’s what a lot of commercial bakers will keep in the back of the fridge, and they will just use it daily to produce masses of bread. So, I use the grape-based starter. His name is Popidius, and he’s named after one of the bakeries at Pompeii.
Chip: Wait, wait. So, to be clear, you’re naming your starters?
Farrell: Absolutely. They’re my children. They are my children. [laughing]
Farrell: They’re very precious. I have a second fridge in my house that my husband knows not to go near and not to touch. It’s full of starters that I’ve grown, and they come from all over the world. And so, my latest is Marcus Atilius, the gladiator, and he’s named Marcus Atilius because it’s a legume starter that’s fed legumes, chickling vetch, in this case, and barley, which is exactly what the gladiators ate. They had a vegetarian diet of legumes and grains. They didn’t eat meat very often.
Farrell: So, this starter is actually, it’s a beast. It really is. It takes maybe an hour or two at the most to feed, and then it’s ready to work. And it produces bread like a monster.
Chip: Just like a gladiator.
Farrell: Oh, yeah. So, I use that starter quite a fair bit. And so, I experiment making the loaves outside where it’s warm. I mean, it’s not the same temperature as Naples here in California. It’s similar, but again, 2,000 years ago, we’re not necessarily dealing with the same climate either. But I do my work outside. It takes anywhere from four to six hours to rise the bread. But the true experimentation and the interpretation comes in the forming of the loaf because that’s the most interesting aspect of it. And to work with the constant experimentation in re-creating the loaf is how I get closer to understanding what it was like to be a slave working in the preparation room off to the side of the oven, to understand what tools they might have used to create these wedges that were to be broken off and sold separately or broken off at the table in the home. And it gives me an idea as to what they may have had access to, what they had lying around in these preparation rooms, and of course, how much bread they may have needed to sell to one particular consumer or two consumers. So, it’s very telling about consumption.
Chip: And how does it taste?
Farrell: It’s very it’s very plain; it’s very plain. Given that I don’t often use salt because I experiment with commercial bakeries in mind. And so, when you think about a commercial bakery producing 200, 300, 400 loaves a day, that’s a lot of salt for a baker to procure, and salt was very expensive. So, it was difficult to come by. It came from mines in the north or the salt flats off the Tiber River to the west of Rome. So, when I typically experiment with bread making, I won’t use salt. I’ll just make it very simple with flour, water, and starter. And then again, it pays to remember that bread in Rome was often used as a utensil. It went with something. So, you would dip it in olive oil, or you would dip it in your soup or your stew. So, it was often meant to soak up something. So, the additional flavor and the taste would come from whatever it is you’re going to stick the bread in.
When bread went stale, you could also drop it into milk or water or wine, and you could eat it in that fashion.
Chip: That’s fascinating. So, let’s return back, if we can, to the question of what the research value of this kind of experimental archaeology work is. And so, what can we learn about the way ancient Romans, like you mentioned, some of the people who were enslaved that were maybe making or were making the bread. How they lived? What that experience was? What are some of the bigger picture insights that this kind of work is providing?
Farrell: I think there’s two insights. The first one, which is the most basic, would be that it connects us to food preparation, and in the society that we live in now, where we’re running to get on the train and we’re working 12-hour days and we’re grabbing some, you know, fast food to eat for dinner. We are becoming increasingly more and more disconnected from food preparation. So, just laboring over dough and producing bread and spending some time with your food in silence, with your own thoughts, connecting to what it is that you are going to sustain yourself with—that in itself is a connection to our ancestry, to our past, to our food roots. And it is valuable in that sense. But what it also tells us about is the amount of time that Romans spent thinking about food, processing food, preparing food. It was so central to their lives and to their survival. So, it tells us about the role of food in their lives and how they would get it, what it tasted like, and how much basic time it took up every day in order to sustain themselves.
Chip: I’m guessing at this point in the show, some of our listeners might be interested in getting a little more archaeological with their pandemic baking. Do you have any advice for a good place to start?
Farrell: Yeah, I would start on my site. Honestly, each article digs fairly deep into the evidence that is available. There’s always a good jumping off point for readers to take something and run with it on their own and study something. And that’s often the case with the articles. And I have readers that email me every day with their ideas and their thoughts, and then they’ll go off in a different direction. And to me, that’s the most satisfying thing for me, because it makes me endlessly happy to see that people are interested in this and to see that they, too, are also getting off their couch, shutting off their phone, getting back into the kitchen, you know, which is such a human thing to do—to cook and to feed yourself.
Chip: Yeah. And in this case, it’s a way to do history. You can actually be connecting yourself.
Chip: Through feeding herself, you’re actually connecting yourself back in time to people that lived thousands of years ago.
Farrell: Yes, absolutely.
Chip: My daughter and I are hunkered down because of the pandemic, like so many people. And next week is her fall break. So, I was actually peeking at your website, and there was the recipe that you put together from Cato the Elder that had grapes in it. And I thought it’d be a perfect one for a 9 year old and myself to get a shot at.
Farrell: It is perfect. It is. That recipe for children is perfect. If you wanted to do it unleavened, you can. So, it takes less time. But if you wanted to leaven it as well, it’s very easy for them to produce because you can just use a little cookie cutter to cut them out, or they can break pieces off and form them into little cakes with their hands. Lot of fun for children. They are also, those are the most flavorful breads on my site. This is one thing: We can add this to what we have learned from the Romans and their cooking. I will never understand why we left so much of that sophistication behind. I will never understand, because when you look at how they cooked, when they combine the sweet and the savory in those breads, the grapes, the must and the sugar that comes from the grape pulp, creates a crunchiness of the dough that is so off the hook. It is so amazing. And then the cumin and the anise inside of it as well, gives a little bit of a pop of the savory. And you really don’t need to put anything on those little cakes unless you want to put like a nice peppery olive oil with it. It packs such a wallop. And I just, the first time I made it, I thought, What happened to these? Why aren’t we eating them now? Why aren’t they in every home? You know, they’re just incredible.
Chip: Well, my mouth is watering, and I look forward to actually bringing that tradition back into the home.
Farrell: Let me know how it goes.
Chip: OK. I’ll do that.
Chip: Well, until then, Farrell, thank you so much for your time today.
Farrell: Thank you. I really appreciate it, guys.
Chip: A few days after speaking with Farrell, I did get the chance to test out her recipe for Cato’s Grape Must Cakes with my daughter Mina.
Chip [on location]: All right, Mina, are you ready?
Chip: OK, what’s the first step here?
Mina: Crush the grapes fully by hand, and this means actually, with your hands. Ha ha.
Chip: It took about 10 minutes to get the flour and grapes and ricotta and spices and everything else together into a nice dough.
Chip [on location]: Squeeze harder! Ha ha. You can do it.
Chip: After about 40 minutes in the oven and some time to cool, it was time to taste history.
Chip [on location]: Do you feel like you’re in Rome 2,000 years ago?
Chip: What’s it taste like?
Mina: Tastes wonderful.
Chip: I’ve had some time to reflect now, and I guess I think that archaeology is always about reconstructing the past. Reconstructing migration patterns or the tools people used or the architecture of buildings. So, I found this baking experience to be right in line with those other forms of archaeology: taking what we’ve learned from the dirt and trying to make it real and understandable in the present. But the really fun part of this archaeology is that it can happen right in your own kitchen—it’s an archaeology for your own taste buds.
Mina [on location]: Mmm, that’s good.
Mina: Try the olive oil.
Chip: If you want to try out Farrell’s recipe for Cato’s Grape Must Cakes, we’ve added a link in the description to this episode.
Chip [on location]: All right, say goodbye.
Mina: Bye for now!
Chip: Bye, listeners.
Chip: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi; mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton; and hosted by me, Chip Colwell. SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with contributions from Executive Producer Cat Jaffee.
SAPIENS is an editorially independent magazine funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and published in partnership with the University of Chicago Press. Thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and all the staff at the Wenner-Gren Foundation and SAPIENS.org.
SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.
Mina [on location]: See you again, fellow sapiens!
Chip: No, it’s, see you around. And you just ate. You were stuffing your mouth. Ha ha. All right, see you around, fellow sapiens.