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How did the Romans bake bread?

Trudging grimly round the tiny room, her eyes fixed on nothing in particular, the slave pushed the beam that turned the heavy stone mill. As the two halves of the mill pulverized the gritty husks of grain, she daydreamed about how wonderful it would be to be given her freedom.

In around 30 BC there were more than 300 bakeries in Rome. Commercial bakeries were essential to provide city dwellers with their staple food, and also to meet the needs of garrisons, travelers, prisons and slave gangs. Many bakeries in Rome were owned by Greeks - masters of mixing doughs and creating different-shaped loaves and comprised several rooms - a mill room, kneading room, oven and storeroom for the baked bread.

Baking bread - A woman's work

Milling was mostly done by female slaves, often prisoners of war. Once the grain was ground, some of the flour was simply mixed with water and used to make maza, a coarse unleavened bread, but bakers also mixed flour with a yeast sponge to produce a light, well-risen bread. The baker's assistants kneaded the dough by hand or, occasionally, in a large basin carved from a lump of lava, which had a central wooden shaft with two or three arms attached to the end. Wooden teeth were inserted into holes round the edge of the basin. As the baker turned the shaft, the arms pushed the dough forward and the wooden teeth caught it and held it back.

After kneading, the dough was shaped into loaves and left to rise. When the loaves had risen enough, they were passed through an opening in the wall into the oven. The charcoal or wood fire that warmed the oven was lit each morning. When the oven was hot enough, the baker raked out the ashes: the retained heat was enough to bake the bread.

Bakers catered to all tastes: apart from the standard loaves, specialty breads were also available. Picenum bread was made with dried fruits and cooked in earthenware molds, which had to be broken to remove the loaf after baking. It was eaten soaked in honey-sweetened milk. Honey-and-oil bread, suet bread, cheese bread, and mushroom-shaped loaves covered in poppy seeds, were also on offer; alongside pancakes, sweet flaky pastries and piada, a flat maza bread topped with pickled fish and onions - an early form of pizza.

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