Panis quadratus, carbonised at Pompeii

When first I came across the ancient Roman festival of Fornacalia, back in 2010, it seemed to me an ideal opportunity for newly inspired bakers at home and in bakeries to celebrate their art. Two years later, I even left a desperate little plea to that effect in a forum I frequented. It died a death, as it has most years subsequently, a notable exception being Dan Etherington’s post Fornacalia, Fornax and burnt spelt. Like my leaven, though, which refuses to die, I’m going to give it another go.

I’m emboldened to do so by Chris Aldrich, who took it upon himself to anoint me curio maximus. As such, it is my duty to proclaim Friday 16 February, an auspicious day for me, the day to celebrate Fornacalia, using the hashtag #fornacalia.

I’ve been doing a little research of my own, torn between the Scylla of tried-and-tested and the Charybdis of new-and-appropriate, and I think I have come to a decision.

Stay tuned. And spread the word.

I’ve just finished listening to the Modernist BreadCrumbs Podcast. Some of the guests often had interesting things to say.

Flour power: why every revolution begins with a piece of bread in Prospect magazine also occupied me for a couple of minutes. I suppose it is a marker of the new grooviness of bread that the piece even exists, but does it have to peddle quite so many alternative facts?

  • No need to quote a pundit’s opinions when experts have actually studied food prices and social unrest.
  • What does “A bowl of gruel for one becomes dinner for six out of thin air.” actually mean?
  • The Big Mac index is not about “basic economic theory”; it is about the relative value of currencies, as The Economist helpfully tells us.
  • "[S]omething abysmal-sounding about mixing yesterday’s stale crusts with today’s fresh ’wheaten dow’” would not, I fancy, seem at all abysmal to the many bakers (mostly German in origin) who regularly add stale bread (altes) to their dough and make perfectly fine loaves that actually depend on the stale bread for their flavour.
  • It is not “a historical fact that Victorian millers’ habits of adding alum to the flour gave children rickets.” ((Was it even the millers, rather than the bakers?)) It is a historical fact that the great proto-epidemiologist John Snow hypothesised that this might be the case, but he offered nothing like convincing evidence, which yet might be obtained from the Victorian bones.

As an antidote to all my naysaying, treat yourself to Paul Levy’s Let them eat bread in the Times Literary Supplement, a lovely review of several books, including Modernist Bread, my point of departure for this little rant.

This recipe from master rye baker Stanley Ginsberg sounds really delicious and makes me want to try it. Only problem is that I don’t have any rye malt, and I’m not inclined to make or buy some just for this. I wonder whether the malt powder I do have, which I think must be wheat, will do? Only one way to find out …

Which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?

As part of the Modernist Bread Crumbs podcast series, Heritage Radio Network has been offering a series of baking tips. Today’s is “How to sift flour“. It contains this priceless gem:

One thing to note, as well, is that sifted flour weighs significantly less than unsifted flour, so you may be putting in the wrong amount if you are not sifting carefully.

Daft, at least to me. And true only if you are attempting to weigh, say, a cup of flour. Why would you even bother to do that? Oh yes, because your forebears did it and all your recipes continue to do it and you don’t actually have a decent scale.

I suggest you ask Santa nicely.

You may still want to sift your flour for some recipes, but at least you won’t have to worry about how much it weighs.