Staititai, sweet, tart and perfumed by sweet bay and fragrant olive oil, is, perhaps, the ancient grandfather of modern day pizzas. Soured spelt dough is first fried in olive oil, brushed with even more oil and topped with crumbled ewe’s milk cheese, sesame seeds and honey. The combination of whole grain spelt flour coupled with ewe’s milk cheese, sesame seeds and honey is both elegant and rustic in its presentation. One of my favorite desserts to serve guests is fresh feta drizzled with honey, so when I happened upon this ancient recipe I knew in an instant that we needed to prepare it. The acidic, salty flavor of feta marries beautifully well with the aromatic sweetness of fresh, raw honey. The sesame, spelt and olive oil? Why they provide that earthy base from which the other flavors blossom.
Athenaeus, a 2nd century Greek philosopher outlined a recipe for staititai in his lengthyDeipnosophistae or the Banquet of the Learned. He simply describes it as, “A type of cake made with spelt dough and honey … The moist dough is spread on a frying pan, and on it are poured honey, sesame seeds and cheese, according to Iatrokles.”
From here, Athenaeus’ Roman contemporaries would have similarly made simple dishes of flat bread seasoned with herbs and oil, cheese and honey. It wasn’t until the discovery of the New World that the tomato and its rich sauce made their way to Italy and so heavily influenced Italian cuisine. Similarly, Atheneaus’ spelt dough would not have enjoyed the simple leavening of bakers yeast which wasn’t widely available to home bakers until the latter decades of the 19th century, and non-existent in the third century; rather, Roman and Greek breads would have been leavened through a long slow fermentation process. This natural method of leavening through the action of wild yeast and beneficial bacteria not only improves the flavor of baked goods, but also their staying power and their nutritional profiles. Souring increases the folate content of whole meal flours1, degrades antinutrients like food phytate2thus rendering the trace minerals in the bread more available to the human body.
Of course, the Greeks and Romans weren’t alone in their love of seasoned flatbreads. Just as modern day pizza has become ubiquitous, so, too, were the flatbreads of our ancestors. Assyrian soldiers, on their long and hot marches, would cover whole grain dough with cheese and fresh dates then bake them on their shields under the unyielding rays of the Levantine sun. These ancient breads evolved over the millennia but are still as loved today for their ease, flavor and simplicity just as they must have been so many thousands of years ago.