Porridges can be found around the world, and have been eaten for tens of thousands of years. Cato the Elder wrote a recipe for boiled wheat with milk that may have been eaten by peckish Romans. Here, a recreated version for you to make, plus a story of porridge’s past.
A bowl of Cato’s wheat porridge with milk. He was centuries ahead of the whole foods game!
It’s the morning eight days before the calends of February, and you’re woken by the sound of water dripping in the corner of your apartment. The roof has been leaking recently from the past week’s winter rain, but the price of maintenance is steep and it’s tricky to get up to the fourth floor anyway.
As you clamber out of your straw bed, a cold breeze drifts over the windowsill, causing slivers of early light to pierce through the sheet flapping across your window. The usual bevies of hawkers and peddlers have yet to set up shop along the street below, so the morning is noticeably quiet. You hear the floorboards creak and sag beneath your feet as you walk toward the window, and as you jerk the sheet aside, you feel your stomach grumble.
Walking back across the room, you catch a glimpse of a rat shooting out from a stack of crockery next to the hearth. You grab a bowl from the top and drag a low stool over to the fire. The coals are still smoldering, gently warming your feet. Your stomach growls again, and you peer into the olla resting on the embers, only to see… porridge.
Porridge, porridge, porridge. Grain and water. Dishes like these can be found around the world — think Indian kheer and Chinese congee, both made from rice; South African mealie pap and Southern grits, from corn; or kasha, made from buckwheat and eaten across eastern Europe. Regardless of the grain being stewed, porridge is everywhere (and has been for millennia).
In 2015, archaeologists excavating Grotta Paglicci, a cave in southern Italy, discovered a stone pestle covered in the remains of ground oats. Now dated to around 32,000 years ago, this grinding stone would’ve been used by members of the Gravettian complex, a term used to refer to similar artifact styles these people shared (this archaeological era is known for its “Venus” statuettes, like the one from Willendorf in Austria).
These people would’ve almost certainly been hunter-gatherers. And though there’s no direct evidence, it’s plausible the oats they would’ve foraged and ground were heated and eaten with water — analysis suggests they were dried. Even before the dawn of organized farming, we can think that people have lived on porridge. Who knew?
So you may eat the same breakfast as a cave-dwelling colony of Italian foragers did thousands of years ago! As great as this may be, we mustn’t forget porridge’s historical recurrence. Medieval diners ate a porridge of cracked wheat called frumenty, the Greeks ate a barley broth called trahana, and the Akkadians ate sasqu, an emmer or barley porridge served with dates. And as in the scene I set at the beginning of this post, porridge-eating permeated Roman society, too.
Some sources I read described porridge as the aboriginal dish of the Roman people, which doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. It’s believed porridge formed the basis of the vesperna, an evening meal eaten during the earlier part of Rome’s history. Even in the imperial age, it seems likely that poor Romans lived on little more than the grain provided by the Cura Annona, a grain dole that kept the hoi polloi fed and relatively happy.
The Romans cultivated umpteen dozen crops. Well, maybe not, but Pliny the Elder describes a number of different grains known to the farmers of his day — wheat, barley, millet, panic, vetch, lupine, lucerne or alfalfa, and chickpeas (as legumes were considered grains, along with cereals).
Many of these were probably eaten as porridge in addition to being used as fodder, thatch, or tinder, but it seems wheat was the corn of choice. Another parallel between the classical world and today — check! Cato the Elder, the senator who wrote extensively on agriculture and pastoral life, wrote down a recipe for a wheat porridge with milk in his work De agri cultura (On farming). Here’s what he said:
Graneam triticeam sic facito. Selibram tritici puri in mortarium purum indat, lavet bene corticemque deterat bene eluatque bene. Postea in aulam indat et aquam puram cocatque. Ubi coctum erit, lacte addat paulatim usque adeo, donec cremor crassus erit factus.
Wheat porridge is made this way. Place a half-pound of clean wheat into a clean mortar, wash well, rub away the shell of the grain well, and clean it out well. Afterwards, pour it into a pot and boil pure water. When it has been cooked, add milk gradually until the gruel will finally have become thick.
This recipe clearly calls for wheat — triticeam in Latin. The question remains, though, of what type of wheat is meant by this recipe. And would it have been ground or whole? Dried or roasted or raw? I’m thinking that the recipe can help clue us in.
Cato mentions that the grain at hand had to be stripped of its shell before it could be eaten. So we couldn’t use semolina, farina, or any other wheat meal — there would be no need to rub away anything.
Moreover, Cato describes that alica, as used in his Punic porridge recipe, ought to be soaked before serving. It’s believed alica is spelt, either whole or ground, and the modern consensus is that spelt and other types of hulled wheat are best if they’re soaked beforehand. Here, Cato doesn’t mention any soaking business prior to cooking the wheat, so I don’t think spelt is right, either.
For these reasons, my best guess is that common wheat (Triticum aestivum) is what we’re working with. I figure farro would work in a pinch, though. Grain terminology is hairy, I’ve decided, much like the awns on an ear of wheat. But enough of that — here’s my recreated recipe to try.
1 cup of wheat berries or farro
3 cups of water
½ cup of milk
A healthy pinch of salt
Pour the wheat into a strainer and rinse with tap water. Transfer to a small pot, fill with the three cups of water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Let cook until the water is mostly gone from the pot, about 15-20 minutes. At this point, the wheat should be just past al dente, so a bit mushy. If not, add more water and continue to cook until the grain achieves this consistency. Lower to low heat and slowly stir in the milk. Serve while still warm.
Pictures of the famous Venus of Willendorf, in Vienna’s Naturhistoriches Museum; the porridge ingredients; the boiled grain in a pot; and some of the porridge with milk in an aptly simple bowl.
This recipe has lent further weight to a conclusion I’ve formed: plain food is good food. It’s tasty, sure, and by the nature of this dish’s plainness, gives the chance to dress it up. Lard or olive oil, cheese, roast squab, leeks, parsley — you name it, you could mix it into this porridge. Or you could enjoy it plain, savoring the porridge and the comfort of not sleeping in a rat-ridden heap of straw.