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

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

Heat, steam and Roman cooking

Heat, steam and Roman cookingSally Grainger, chef and author

There are two exhibitions on at the British Museum at the moment which relate to the theme of Roman cooking and dining.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain evokes a late Roman dining room, including a partial reconstruction of a curved dining couch, or stibadium, arranged around the Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure. Many have puzzled as to how these huge silver platters were used: what kinds of food, if any, were placed on them and was it acceptable to cover up the fine carving?

Having spent many years studying and experimenting to understand what Romans ate and how they prepared and made it, my particular interest is not so much with the outward service of the food, but the actual cooking process. It is clear from ancient texts that the preparation of dishes for fine dining was very sophisticated with intricate vessels combining steam and oven heat and also gentle delicate poaching and simmering: techniques one does not normally associate with ancient cultures.

Food also features heavily in Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which has a unique and inspired focus as Dr Paul Roberts, curator, has re-created the shell of a Roman home, each room containing the artefacts associated with the function of that room.

When I visited, I entered the kitchen room with huge anticipation. I was not disappointed: a good selection of bronze cooking pans, and food residues of all kinds including one of those wonderful carbonised loaves of bread and dried fruits, seeds and nuts which are so perfectly recognisable. The cooking equipment is very fine; a compact little portable brazier that appears to be the kind shared around by the tenement dwellers, and most importantly for me a double clibanus or portable oven/ casserole.

Many years ago, Dr Roberts was responsible, along with two other archaeologists, in reporting on these ovens and had alluded to the idea of a double one, but no drawings existed and I had long been impatient to see one (i). He tells me that when he found this oven in the Naples store he just had to have it for the exhibition and I am so grateful that he did as it is a beautiful piece of cooking technology that I am eager to experiment with.

Many years ago now I had one of the more common single bodied clibanus ovens made by potter Andrew Macdonald. Since then these ovens have spread among the Roman historical re-enactment fraternity and I see them wherever Roman cooking is demonstrated. Over the years I have had numerous versions made (as they inevitably fall apart under the thermal shock) and have also developed the skills needed to bake and roast in them and written about these experiences in my own publications on Roman food (ii).

Replica of a double clibanus oven

Replica of a double clibanus oven

On Sunday 19 May I received a replica of a double clibanus made just three weeks after the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition opened, by potter Chris Lydamore whose creations are highly valued as museum replicas as well as by historical re-constructionists.

My first experiments with this new piece will be reported on here soon. But as a preliminary I will start with a look at how the single-bodied oven works.

i. Cubberley et al 1988 AL Cubberly, J.A Lloyd, P.C. Roberts, Testa and clibani: the baking covers of classical Italy. Papers of the British school at Rome 61, pp. 98-119

ii. C. Grocock, and S. Grainger. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with Introduction and English Translation. Totnes: Prospect Books. Grainger, S. 1999 Cato’s roman cheesecakes: the baking techniques, Milk:beyond the dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on food and cookery, Prospect books Totnes, pp.168-178

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: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , , ,

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