As a service to my readers, food & feast posts will always feature the recipe first, with history, folklore, and cooking tips toward the bottom of the page. For background on this recipe and helpful hints for navigating technique, scroll down! Otherwise, dive right in with the recipe below.
photo by Frances F. Denny
Serves 10-12 guests
Prep time : 50 minutes, plus 2½ hours proving
Cook time : 35 minutes
1 1/2 cups whole wheat berries (or 1¾ cups whole wheat flour)
1 head of garlic 1 teaspoon sugar 2 teaspoons active dry yeast 1½ cups warm water
1¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sea salt 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing 1 cup pitted kalamata olives 6 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved A bunch of chives A small handful of rosemary sprigs Edible flowers Large-crystal garnishing salt, Maldon or similar
Begin by toasting and grinding your wheat berries. While this procedure adds a cumbersome step to an otherwise simple bread recipe, it is one of the few elements of traditional Roman Fornacalia that can be historically authenticated. I also find that freshly toasted wheat lends a depth of flavor to this bread that cannot be found elsewhere, and celebrates the humble wheat berry by unlocking its sweeter, more caramel notes. For this, you will need a spice grinder or heavy-duty blender, as analogue technologies like the mortar and pestle will be insufficient in grinding our wheat to a fine-enough powder. (For those who wish to skip this step, use whole wheat flour instead.)
To begin, preheat your oven to 350ºF/Gas 4 and spread your wheat berries in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. When the oven is sufficiently warm, light a single beeswax candle on the stove top. Offer incense, and speak a greeting to Fornax. There are no traditional verses or epithets preserved for her, so taking poetic license is appropriate here. Toast your wheat berries for 8–10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until fragrant and lightly browned. Allow to cool, then grind your flour as finely as you can and set aside.
When the berries have been toasted, halve your head of garlic crosswise and place it on a sheet of kitchen foil. Drizzle both halves with olive oil, then seal the foil and roast until the garlic is golden and soft, about 20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool, then carefully remove the cloves and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large mixing bowl, mix your sugar and yeast. Add your water, which should be as warm as an almost-too-hot bath, about 43ºC/110ºF. Allow to stand for 5 minutes, or until the mixture is frothy and bubbling. Add your flours and 2 tablespoons of your olive oil and mix using the paddle attachment or a wooden spoon until just combined. Switch to the dough hook or your hands and knead the dough for 8–10 minutes, or until it is smooth and passes the windowpane test. Grease a large bowl with olive oil and place your dough into the bowl, covering with a tea towel and allowing to prove for 90–120 minutes in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size. I recommend taking a photo of the dough before proving, so you can accurately check how much it has risen before proceeding.
When the dough has doubled in size, preheat your oven to 220ºC/425ºF/Gas 7 and set a baking sheet in the middle of your oven as it warms.
On a counter, turn your dough out onto a sheet of baking parchment the size of your baking sheet. Roll or press out your dough onto the parchment, spreading the dough as close to the edges of the parchment as you can. Allow the dough to rise on the parchment for 30 more minutes, then drizzle the dough with the remaining olive oil and dimple the surface thoroughly with your fingertips. Decorate the bread with your olives, tomatoes, roasted garlic, herbs and edible flowers, poking them into the soft dough. Garnish with large-crystal salt.
Carefully remove your hot baking tray from the oven and slide the dough-covered parchment on top. Return the tray to the oven and bake for 20–25 minutes, or until the bread is deeply golden. Remove from the tray and cool on a baking rack for 10 minutes before serving. The first slice from this loaf should be burned in offering to Fornax, along with any remaining incense, in exchange for her blessing on all that we wish to bake in the coming year.
In Ovid’s Fasti, a monolithic poem detailing the Roman calendar, he provides one of the few pieces of lore that remain from the ancient feast of Fornacalia:
"The earth of old was tilled by men unlearned: war’s hardships wearied their active frames. More glory was to be won by the sword than by the curved plough; the neglected farm yielded its master but a small return. Yet grains the ancients sowed, and grains they reaped; of the cut grains they offered the first-fruits to Ceres. Taught by experience they toasted the grains on the fire, and many losses they incurred through their own fault. For at one time they would sweep up the black ashes instead of grains, and at another time the fire caught the huts themselves. So they made the oven into a goddess of that name (Fornax); delighted with her, the farmers prayed that she would temper the heat to the grains committed to her charge."
And so Fornax, whose name means “the oven is the mother”, was honored in late winter at Fornacalia, the feast of bakers. She is a personification of the oven as alchemical flask, and sole priestess of its powers of transformation. She is also described as one who can temper the power of fire, safely containing it within the home at her altar, the hearth. So beloved was this goddess that she even has an oven-shaped constellation bearing her name. Her feast at Fornacalia was a moveable feast in the Roman calendar, lasting from February 5th to the 17th, with each Roman district performing their rites on a different, predetermined date. This was no marginal feast, and every citizen was expected to make offerings during the weeklong celebration. However, with citizens often in confusion about their region’s designated offering dates, many would wait until the last available day in the season to perform their rites, leading to the holiday’s alternate name, the Feast of Fools.
Although few details are known about the specifics of these rites, we do know that offerings of bread and toasted grains were delivered to Fornax to bless the harvest and the ovens, ensuring a productive and safe year ahead. We can also imagine that an incense of frankincense mixed with flax, wheat chaff or straw would be a suitable offering for the goddess alongside her portion of toasted grains, as incense would have been offered as well in Ancient Greece and Rome.
While Ovid’s passage suggests applications for both the setting of intentions and protective magic on this date, the primary purpose of this feast is to ensure Fornax receives her due, lest the fires of her holy hearth work against the baker’s designs. For home bakers who desire a year of unburnt loaves, this springtime festival is not to be missed!