When the landscape outside your window resembles an arctic tundra – as mine currently does – there is nothing better to turn to than warm bread fresh out of the oven. So appropriately, this hearty and flavour-filled loaf is dedicated to the Roman Goddess of Ovens, Fornax, and her February festival of baking. It’s a kind of ancient Roman flatbread filled with cheese, olives, dried tomatoes and capers (all I had left in the cupboards after a week of being snowed in) and I think it casts a perfect culinary spell to banish the chill.
Fornax can be roughly translated as the phrase “the Oven is the Mother” and her rites called the Fornacalia were once so important that every citizen in Rome was expected to attend. Ovens were draped in garlands, spelt and grains were toasted and offered to Fornax in order that she bless the ovens, ensuring that bread is properly baked and not burnt in the coming year. This nine-day festival concluded on February 17th with a grand “Oven Feast” during which everyone ate and drank profusely.
This is the only available image of Fornax I’ve been able to find, and it had no explanatory details. It comes from this site and interestingly suggests that the English word fornicate comes from the Latin fornix, which has led some to speculate Fornacalia was “orgiastic” feast. It notes, “In the Roman bakeries associated with temples of the Goddess, her harlot priestesses were often called Ladies of Bread‘”.
Fornacalia was a moveable feast and its official date was posted each year in the Forum. In early Rome, it was likely determined by the new moon, which was the first day of the month which Roman priests announced from Capitoline Hill. And as spring began officially somewhere between February 5th -7th, (also the beginning of Fornacalia) I also think it likely this festival is a remnant of fertility magic associated with much earlier goddesses who from Old Europe to Mesopotamia, were associated with grain, bread and baking. Their shrines and temples often featuring communal oven at the centre, a symbolic representation of the womb of the Great Mother.
Details are scant about what exactly was eaten during the “oven feast” but there surely had to be plenty of bread. Bread and cakes featured heavily in many Roman religious rites involving goddesses from Ceres, Diana to Vesta. Loaves were most often round or shaped into body parts, hands, breasts, ears, eyes, and consumed in religious feasts on the respective seasonal holidays and festivals of each goddess.
When it came to possible recipes for my Fornacalia bread there were many options to choose from, spartan spelt and salt bread, round fluffy loaves of white bread, honey cakes and bread stuffed with cheese. But in the end, the theme of my Fornacalia Loaf was limited by what I could find in the kitchen. I had plenty of cornmeal (left over from the La Befana Cake I made in December) which I mixed in with some sharp Kerrygold cheddar and Parmigiano Reggiano, as well as Roman-style goodies like olives, capers, dried tomatoes and aromatic fennel seeds (which were a favourite with the Romans!).
I also sprinkled in some wild fennel blossoms and calendula petals. They’re flowers of the sun and right now I’m calling on their powers to melt the frozen landscape that is now Vancouver Island. It turned wonderfully moist and flavourful, and I’m so grateful as it’s my dinner tonight along with some Roasted Cauliflower Soup. And guess what? Outside the ice is melting.
Golden Fornacalia Loaf
- 1 cup of flour
- 1/2 cup of cornmeal
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 4 eggs
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup pitted olives (green or black)
- 8 halves of sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 2 -3 tablespoons of capers ( I love them so added lots)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. English mustard
- 2 tablespoons of wild fennel seeds (you could also use anise)
- 1/4 cup of freshly grated cheddar
- 1/4 cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- A handful of dried Calendula Petals
- Heat the oven to 350F, grease and flour a round baking tin, springform is easiest.
- Mix the eggs with milk, olive oil and mustard. Beat till frothy.
- Mix the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, then add the eggs, milk and oil, mixing gently all the time. Beat until large lumps have turned into a smooth batter.
- Next add olives (reserving some to finish off the top), sun-dried tomatoes, capers, fennel seeds, calendula petals and half of the grated cheese. Mix gently.
- Pour the mixture into the tin, put the reserved olives on top. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Sprinkle with a few more fennel seeds and calendula blossoms.
- Bake for 40 minutes until it feels firm to the touch and is golden and crusty on top. Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out and cool on a wire rack.