A taste of history: Roman bread
11 February 2011
A great way to get children to actively engage with history is through food – not just learning about food from different periods but actually using recipes based on those from the past.
The recipes in this series can all be made in school. Each dish has a background ‘story’, providing opportunities to discuss aspects of its origins, the availability of certain foods and the connection to historical figures and events of the time.
Allow children to explore differences with the past and point out which cooking items would not have been available at the time. For example, how will we weigh the ingredients? Would a Roman/Tudor/Victorian/1940s cook have done it in the same way? This ensures that the lesson involves not only cooking skills, but some hands-on history, too.
Take a look at the first recipe in the series, ‘Roman bread’.
There is plenty of evidence, by way of archaeology (bread ovens and even fossilised bread in the ruins of Pompeii) and documentation (recipes and literature from the period) to confirm that the Ancient Romans were great bakers! Such was the importance of bread as a staple food that soldiers in the Roman army were given a daily grain ration that they would grind to flour and make bread.
Roman bakers generally used a ‘sourdough’ as a raising agent – this is a flour and water mix in which the natural yeasts present in the air and the flour are allowed to reproduce, causing it make the bread rise. However, in this recipe, dried yeast is used instead. It is a very simple recipe to try in school, as it only involves one stage of ‘proving’ (allowing the bread to rise), rather than the more usual two. The ingredients listed are enough to make two small loaves and can be made by a group of four to six children, sharing the jobs identified in each step.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of cooking and preparing food in school is the necessary level of team work. Most of these recipes work in small groups of about four to six. Encourage children to be introduced to all the tasks, even if they do not do them all. Emphasise the need for good hygiene (hand washing, clean surfaces, and so on) and ensure you have suitable hand-washing facilities near to where you are working.
Assign responsibilities to different members of the group, such as reading the recipe, clearing the surfaces, collecting equipment from a central table, putting away ingredients. I find it gives a fascinating and useful insight and informal assessment opportunity for observing the children engaged in a series of practical and group tasks. The recipes can be made at a suitably clean table in the corner of an ordinary classroom and then taken to an oven to be cooked, where necessary.
Recipes involve reading and following instructions, so the link here to literacy is clear. Prior to a practical session, ensure that all the children are familiar with the recipe and know what to do. Talk about the form and style of the recipe. Are the ingredients clearly listed? Do you understand all the technical terms? As well as just reading it, you could try making a short video giving the instructions and demonstrating techniques they will need, to be watched by all the class before starting.
If you can track down copies of original recipes (there are several on the internet), compare the wording with the modern-day ones. Can you interpret what is meant? Are there any different or puzzling ingredients? Which recipe gives most detail? This will give children to chance to explore some more old-fashioned language and discuss who may have used the recipe.
Estimating, weighing and reading scales on a variety of measuring equipment can seem forced in a maths lesson. In cookery, however, it is an integral part of the process and provides practice for the children and an opportunity for you to observe their practical measuring skills in action.
Ensure all the children in the group have a go at weighing or measuring at least one of the ingredients and don’t be afraid to stop them during the session from time to time, to look at and get a ‘feel’ for how much various amounts are. For example, could you estimate what 100g of flour looks like?
All of the recipes involve changes. Discuss whether these are reversible or irreversible. Again, encourage close observations as they work. Stop the lesson and ask each child to think of a word to describe the mixture or ingredients at that point.
If several groups are cooking, allow a minute’s ‘walkabout’ to make observations about everyone’s progress so far. Do all the mixtures look the same? If not, can they suggest some ideas why this might be? This should link in nicely with work on fair testing – do we need to be as accurate with cooking as we do in a science investigation? As well as looking at the actual cooking, encourage them to observe how well organised the other groups are at this point, too!
Make predictions before you carry out a step in the recipe, such as putting items in the oven. What will change and why? Do we need to take account of this? For example, the bread will expand when left to prove, so ensure there is enough space on the tray.
Design and technology
If you have several sessions to fill, the recipes can all be adapted in various ways, to update them according to modern tastes. Encourage children to make suggestions about how they might make changes or improvements. They could also consider thinking about how they worked as a group and suggest any improvements here, too. Items such as tarts could be packaged in containers designed for the purpose.
At the end of a cookery session, children love to share the results as a group or class. Inviting in the Head or office staff to share the results can help make an event of it. It could be combined with a history day, linked to the period being studied and children could bring in other items to provide a simple history-themed lunch.
Image © Christine Jenkins