Is this staple food really good for us?

  • Find out what the Romans ever did for us
  • Don’t miss out on the perfect bread recipe
  • Learn the simple way to buy healthily

“What have the Romans ever done for us?”

Some of you should now be reciting…”Aqueducts, sanitation, the roads… and peace”, others may be completely mystified.

Don’t worry it’s not some secret Masonic ritual, but part of the script from a Monty Python film.

Avoiding the opportunity to ramble on further about the brilliance of the Monty Python team, I need to tell you about Roman food.

From a dietary perspective it is fair to say they made bread a staple part of our diets. You see Roman food wasn’t all about huge feasts of dormice and suckling pigs, at least not for the common folk.

Ancient Roman ingredients and dishes bore little resemblance to modern Italian cuisine. Some, however, could have formed the basis of some Italian favourites.

  • Ancient Pesto. Columella describes a sauce made from ground pine nuts, hazelnuts or almonds, mixed with oil, peppered vinegar and cheese, with thyme or oregano.
  • Laganon was the ancient version of pasta, made from wheat flour mixed to dough with water. Unlike modern pasta, it was fried and not boiled and used to scoop up the vegetable sauce usually served with it.

As it was the average Roman peasant could look forward to a plate of spelt bread and porridge after a hard days toil. With meat and fish being very rarely available, most meals were based around cereals and vegetables and pulses.

So, when it comes to our daily bread it seems that the Romans were responsible for popularising its usage across Europe as their empire spread.

Now we are awash with various bread based offerings, bagels, muffins, crumpets and croissants abound in every cafe.

Bread making is all about using your loaf…

The real variety, though, is in the choice of loaves. When I walk into a bakery now, I start to get a headache.

In the good old days, like when punk rock was at its height in the early 1970’s, there was a choice of white or brown loaves. Now it’s a choice of 25 different white breads and a never ending list of brown & wholemeal ones. Do we really need this choice?

It would seem so. Bread has now become a very individual choice. Even for me!

In my student days we delighted in combinations of Mighty White and baked beans to get us through. Nowadays, the university snack bar is filled with Panini, bagels and whole seed baps.

At home we tend to bake most of our own bread, thanks to the modern invention of a bread maker – which takes all of the art and skill of the baker out of the equation.

I do still enjoy making bread the old fashioned way though, mostly because it gives me chance to experiment. My current favourite is a honey oat bread recipe that I picked up from a friend, which goes as follows;

  • Mix 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats, 1 cup strong white flour, 1 cup whole wheat flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder and a half of baking soda, a half cup of plain natural yoghurt, a small pinch of salt, an egg, 2 tablespoons of canola (or rapeseed) oil, ¾ cup of milk and 4 tablespoons of Manuka honey. Make into a dough and place in a warm spot to rise slightly.
  • Bake in the top of an oven preheated to 375F (190C, Gas Mark 5) for about 40 minutes. Use a skewer to check that the middle is cooked.
  • Eat warm for a truly delightful experience.

Top tips for choosing your daily bread

Of course it’s not always possible to make bread every time it is needed, so the occasional trip to the supermarket is necessary. This is when you need your wits about you.

There are many health pitfalls when it comes to buying bread, so I have a very simple method of choosing the right one – look for whole grain to be listed first on the ingredients list.

It may well be that your bread contains all sorts of nuts, wheat and country goodness, however, unless the bakery specifically says they are using whole seeds, and list them first on the label, chances are that all you have is the sweepings from the mill floor.

Keep in mind that for wheat, oats, corn, rye and barley, unless the word “whole” precedes the grain name, you can’t be sure that the entire grain is intact.

Also, avoid any breads that have added sugar and all its processed aliases: corn sweetener or syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, syrup and sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose).

Lastly, look out for added oils – especially those high in omega 6. Yes, it does happen that corn oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil gets added to commercial bread doughs to keep them moist. The problem is that this disrupts our health because they compete with the omega 3 oils we need for our hearts and brains.

These manufacturers can be pretty sneaky when it comes to labelling so be sure to check any bread out carefully.

Once you have the perfect bread, you can then make the best sandwich – and I can do no better than to leave you with a quote from Marge Simpson…

“I brought you a tuna sandwich. They say it’s brain food. I guess because there’s so much dolphin in it, and you know how smart they are.”

Until next week.

Yours, as always

Ray Collins