At the beginning of February, Queen’s Grant Latin teacher Ben Henkel undertook an unexpected lesson with his Latin students: they made fresh pasta together.
If asked what they might eat in modern day Rome, most people would probably imagine a huge bowl of pasta with marinara sauce. The ancient Romans did eat pasta as well as many of the staples of what we call the “Mediterranean diet” today, but their pasta would have looked a little different than what we eat in modern Italian restaurants.
“Technically, the Romans didn’t eat what we would consider pasta,” says Henkel. “They used spelt flour instead of semolina, which did not exist in the Mediterranean world.” The result for ancient Romans was a more dense noodle, more like a whole grain pasta you might eat today. One of Henkel’s students with some cooking experience said the dough reminded her of making dumplings.
Henkel’s students made their fresh pasta by mixing semolina flour, all purpose flour and egg. Having never made pasta from scratch before, they were surprised to find the task more complicated than they imagined as ratios had to be tweaked and adjusted.
Henkel’s students confronted other surprises as they worked through making their own pasta. “The biggest one was no tomatoes!” said Henkel. Instead of a “pomodoro” sauce, ancient Romans would top their pasta with a pesto or a cheese sauce. Henkel’s Latin students topped their fresh pasta with a jarred basil pesto.
Cooking in a classroom – especially in a school that lacks a cafeteria – is challenging. Henkel’s makeshift classroom kitchen involved an old-fashioned pasta roller and a hot pot on a folding table in the front of the classroom. Lots of hand washing, gloves and proper refrigeration for the dough, which was made one day prior to rolling it out and cooking it, was also key. But these weren’t new challenges to one-time Queen’s Grant cooking club sponsor Henkel. “We can make it work,” he says. “That’s one of the main things about Queen’s Grant. We make it work.”
Most of Henkel’s Latin students had never made pasta from scratch before. In fact, many of his students had little to no experience cooking at all. For Henkel, this brought added value to his lesson, which became more than a lesson in Roman history. “Not many of them had cooked before. It’s not offered in schools as much,” says Henkel. “It’s about learning different methods of cooking, different views on the world, and the idea that things aren’t as easy as buying it in a box.”