Let’s get the word out there on the table right now: panis. Because that’s what I’ll be discussing this morning. I know, several of you sniggered yesterday at the word “coctum”, probably the same bunch that were chuckling at my pasties when I made them. I know you back-of-the-bus types, out to ruin everything that’s good and wholesome in the entire panis-eating world. Sometimes I feel like a high school health teacher.
So where was I? Oh yes, panis. Panis biscotus, to be more specific, “bread that’s been baked twice”, as the Romans used to say. I bring it up because you see panis biscotus is referred to in just about every popular food column on biscotti. So the narrative goes, the Romans were the first to invent biscotti, and found it so durable — as well as delicious — that they made it part of their permanent military ration kit. The story conjures up delightful imagery of brightly-clad centurions in flag-festooned bivouacs, gaily swizzling their classical-era cuppuccini.
There are a lot of problems with this tall tale, the biggest of which has to do with what I spoke about yesterday. Namely, that while the word might be the same, Roman biscotti and modern coffee house biscotti are at best distant cousins, many, many times removed. Yes, they were both baked twice, but leaping from there to the claim that the Romans invented “biscotti” is tantamount to claiming that because the Romans knew how to dry meat, they invented chipped beef on toast.
Roman panis biscotus was military hardtack. Which is to say, a rough paste of ground grain and water, pressed into a mold and baked until it was thoroughly dry and all but impervious to microbial infestation (vermin and insect larvae were another matter entirely). Like later versions of the stuff (which were eaten by military men well into the 20th century), it was tooth-shatteringly hard, and therefore had to be soaked in water and/or boiled in stew before it could be eaten. It wasn’t sugared, contained no eggs, nor any of the other niceties that make biscotti such a pleasant experience with cups of tea or coffee: nuts, spices, citrus rind, dried fruit, bits of chocolate, etc.
So shake off the myths that so many of today’s food columnists would have you believe. Roman soldiers ate nothing like the biscotti we eat today. In fact a present-day $1.99 biscotto is a little luxury not even a Roman Emperor would had access to. Think about that the next time you go a-dunking.