British Museum blog

A very versatile Roman oven

A very versatile Roman ovenSally Grainger, chef and author

In my previous post about Roman cooking I described a type of oven used to bake and roast food about 2,000 years ago. Known as a clibanus it was a sophisticated piece of cooking technology most likely used by the wealthy, and one with which I have spent many years experimenting.

These ovens were made with very course gritted clay and ranged in size from 15-50 cm in diameter, with walls of up to 10 cm high. A central hole seems to have been for regulating the temperature and could also allow cooks to keep an eye on the food baking inside. A flange allowed the fire to be placed on the top of the oven.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

The sites in Italy where these ovens have been identified tend to be rather elite villa complexes where one could imagine the baking of delicate cakes and also warm bread for dinner. It is not necessarily apparent that these ovens were used by the less well off as a means of cooking simpler fair, and it is often assumed that they took their bread to be baked at large bakery complexes in towns, while we do not know what the rural poor did about baking at home. There was an assumption that they didn’t eat bread but made puls wheat porridge in a cooking pot over a wood fire.

The poem attributed to Virgil called moretum suggests that a relatively lowly market gardener baked his bread sub testu: under one of these ovens, though the status of this man is quite difficult to determine. He is considered a peasant, but he sells his produce in town and comes home with a heavy purse on occasion. Identifying these ovens is also not easy as they often come to pieces after prolonged use and recognising the shards (broken pieces) as testa (ovens) is problematic.

There is quite a detailed description of this oven in use in an agricultural manual written by Cato the Elder, in 150 BC. The recipe is for a special sacrificial cake called rather unfortunately placenta: the reason for which is another story altogether. It is a complex layered construction with sweet pasta sheets and cheese and honey bound in an outer pastry shell which might best be described as a round cheese strudel. While being constructed, the cook is advised to ‘heat the hearth and the testum where you are to cook’. Then ‘make the hearth ready beforehand and place the placenta on it, cover with a heated testum and place hot coals on top and around it’ (i).

From original drawings and reconstructed ovens the instructions on how to use it seemed quite logical, although my initial experiments were rather haphazard. I used a wood fire at first and rapidly broke the first oven I owned – we find evidence of metal versions of these ovens in Greece which could be used with a wood fire but ceramic, even very coarse material as these were, could not tolerate an open flame for long. Subsequently I used charcoal with much greater success.

Now I bake so often it has become second nature. The oven needs to be raised above the fire in order to be heated, so a trivet is used. Leaving the vessel directly on the fire caused rapid heat differential which caused cracking and sometimes put the fire that was inside the dome out.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

I left the oven to heat over a charcoal fire and found that the hole acted as a chimney to draw the fire quite well. After a time it seemed better to close the hole and keep the heat in. The hearth I used was a raised platform and its position was crucial as a strong draft also helped the fire to heat. After about an hour or sometimes longer when the heat from the surface caused our spit to sizzle – a past visit to a wood-fired bakery had already told me that when the roof of these ovens is white hot that is when the baker knows it is ready to use.

At this point the hearth needs to be prepared which meant cleaning away the fire so that the cake or bread could go directly onto a tile or ceramic hearth. The fire was brushed aside to make space as big as the oven, and my freshly proved loaf or a Roman cake called a libum was placed on this hot surface with a bay leaf beneath for flavour.

The oven is put back over the cake and then the fire is piled around the sides and on top. A good bake requires good quality ‘restaurant charcoal’ (heavier and therefore long lasting) to retain plenty of latent energy. It is then possible to place fresh charcoal close to the already alight coals so that a continuous fire can be maintained. The remaining embers and smaller pieces of charcoal are pushed around the sides of the oven evenly spaced so that no area is left unheated. Doing this I was able to reach 410F (210C) on a regular basis when baking bread, so could then bake and roast very efficiently.

I can only indicate the quality of the bake by offering the following:

The crust on my sour dough was beautifully thick and crisp even when cooled; meat on the legs of a small chicken roasted for 45 minutes in a dish rather than directly on the hearth, fell to pieces; a lamb shank cooked for one and a quarter hours was similarly tender, and belly pork fell apart and had super crackling after the same amount of time.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the relatively small space inside the oven is such that any potential moisture both from bread and also meat is retained around the food being cooked so that a steam/roast/bake process is going on. Bakers know of course that you need steam to create a good crust and now it has become common to find modern catering ovens with added steam.

All manner of complicated techniques are used to achieve the desired moist atmosphere yet 2,000 years ago the Romans had invented the technique already.

i. C. Grocock and S Grainger, 2002 Moretum: a peasant lunch revisited. The meal: proceedings of the oxford symposium on food and cookery 2001, Prospect books Totnes, pp.95-104.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Chiseldon cauldrons, Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, , , ,

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. vanbraman says:

    Reminds me of how we would use a Dutch Oven in scouting.


  2. R M Shannon says:

    Hmmn! I have used a cast iron type to cook bread, Christmas roast with all the vegetables, cakes etc over an open fire in the Australian bush. Called a camp oven here in Australia. I would be interested to see someone make a link with this Roman one and the Australian one, probably used in 18th Century in Britain. Was it used in Medieval times?


  3. ritaroberts says:

    Hi Sally. Love your exhibition. We met some years ago at one of the reenactments. I now live in Crete.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,503 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Room 95 includes some of the finest Chinese ceramics in the world dating from the 3rd to the 20th centuries, from the collection of Sir Percival David. Some of the ceramics are unique creations, while others were mass-produced in batches of several hundred at a time. Technological innovations and the use of regional raw materials mean that Chinese ceramics are visually diverse.
Porcelain was first produced in China around AD 600. The skilful transformation of ordinary clay into beautiful objects has captivated the imagination of people throughout history and across the globe. Chinese ceramics, by far the most advanced in the world, were made for the imperial court, the domestic market, or for export.
#China #ceramics These white wares date from the late Ming to Republic period (1600–1949). Potters in the late Ming, Qing and Republican periods made copies of Ding wares at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, Zhangzhou in Fujian province and in other southern kilns. Potters at Zhangzhou under-fired the clay, which resulted in a ‘rice-coloured’ body. They then covered the ceramics either with a white slip and thin clear glaze or with an opaque white glaze.
See these amazing ceramics alongside nearly 1,700 objects from the collection of Sir Percival David in Room 95.
#ceramics #China Collector of Chinese ceramics Sir Percival David died #onthisday in 1964. He built the finest private collection of Chinese ceramics in the world. His passion for China inspired him to learn Chinese well enough to translate 14th-century art texts and to give money towards establishing the first public display of Chinese ceramics at the Palace Museum in Beijing. He was determined to use his own collection to inform and inspire people and to keep it on public view in its entirety. His collection is on long-term loan to the British Museum and has been on display in Room 95 since 2009.
Explore nearly 1,700 objects from Sir Percival David’s incredible collection in Room 95, including some of the finest Chinese ceramics in the world, dating from the 3rd to the 20th centuries.
#China #ceramics #todayimet goddess of love, Aphrodite. In this statue the voluptuous Aphrodite crouches down at her bath and turns her head sharply to her right, as if surprised by her audience. This Roman copy from the 2nd century AD is based on an original sculpture from Hellenistic Greece. This statue is lent to the British Museum by Her Majesty the Queen.
You can fall for the goddess of love in Room 23, one of our Greek and Roman sculpture galleries.
We’re celebrating @instagram's 5th birthday by sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the Museum #WWIM12 For @instagram's 5th birthday we’re sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the British Museum.
#todayimet this Ming Dynasty figure, who helped judge people in the underworld! The belief in Hell entered China with Buddhism during the early 1st millennium AD. This figure of a judge’s assistant is holding records of evil deeds under his left arm. Meet this fearsome figure (if you dare!) in our Asia gallery (Room 33) #WWIM12 We’re celebrating @instagram's 5th birthday by sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the Museum.
#todayimet Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt for 67 years over 3,000 years ago. This colossal statue is one of the largest pieces of Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum. Like all Egyptian statues, it was originally painted. Traces of pigment remain: black for the eye pupils, red for the skin, and blue and yellow for the stripes on the headcloth.
Meet the pharaoh for yourself in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) #WWIM12

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,503 other followers

%d bloggers like this: