Nigella Barley Bread
On the whole, an ideological commitment to vegetarianism has never been well received in the west, but in classical antiquity, rogue thinkers like Pythagoras and his philosophical descendants lent the vegetarian diet at least a modicum of respectability, the extent of which would not be seen again in the west until the Enlightenment.
The Ancient Greeks themselves had a variety of plant-based foods available to them, and meat consumption, among all but the wealthiest citizens, was probably quite limited by modern standards. Grains in particular—made into breads, gruels, and pastes—likely comprised the bulk of the common diet, but the Greeks were skilled at maximizing the culinary value of such basic fare , as Colin Spencer describes in The Heretic’s Feast:
…there was a wealth of different kinds of bread, seventy-two types using different flours—barley, wheat, rice, coarse or finely ground—made with milk or oil. Bread flavoured with cumin, poppy seeds, fennel, coriander, raisins, fenugreek, nigella, marjoram, rosemary, capers, sage, cabbage leaves, garlic and onion. Bread made into all kinds of shapes: braids, crescents, animals, mushrooms. The Greeks were master-bakers and even at the time of the Roman Empire the Greeks were the bakers of Rome.
I make no claim for the historical accuracy of the following recipe, but I don’t imagine it would have been turned down by any respectable Pythagorean. If you can’t find barley flour, you can make it by grinding pearl or husked barley in a spice grinder. I found nigella (also called kalonji, black caraway, black cumin, or black onion seed) in an Indian grocery. I also used agave, which is obviously not historically accurate, but the honey-ambivalent and accuracy-obsessed can use honey instead…
- 1 cup barley flour
- 3 cups unbleached bread flour (plus extra for kneading)
- 1 tbsp nigella seed
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp active dry yeast
- 1 1/2 cup touch-warm water
- 1 tbsp honey, agave nectar, or brown rice syrup
- 1/4 cup olive oil
In a small bowl, mix together water, yeast, and sweetener and let stand until foamy, about five minutes. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine flours, nigella seed, and salt.
Mix the yeast mixture into the flour and knead until elastic, dusting with flour as necessary, about 8-10 minutes. Knead in olive oil, about a tablespoon at a time. Divide into three equal pieces, place in a bowl covered with a kitchen towl, and let rise in a warm place for one hour.
Preheat the oven to 450F. Roll the three parts into long cylinders and braid them. Put into a greased loaf pan. Bake until the outside is golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped, about 25-30 mins.