While it would be difficult to date the appearance of the first pizza, it was definitely not around in paleolithic times! And while a number of nations hold claim to the invention of pizza, it would be hard to pinpoint the exact location where something we would identify as modern pizza was born. Many countries had their own versions: focaccia, pita, or loaves of flatbread, usually baked on stones beneath the ashes of household fires.
Was pizza ever made without wheat flour? As a person interested in health who knows first-hand the dietary problems of eating grains, I wanted to find out. Apparently, several versions existed, as wheat was initially expensive and not widely available in the early Mediterranean world. Eager to see what these ancient versions would be like, I tried my hand at making several no-grain pizzas this weekend, including two that were made according to rough historic standards. My third pizza was a modern fabrication, as taste was the goal, not historical accuracy! The result? The historic recipes should probably be reserved for antiquity; they weren’t that great. However, I was pleased with my modern attempt; it seemed to satisfy my cravings despite the lack of grains and dairy. Posted below are the two first-century recipes, and finally the one I think you should actually try!
Cecina (Old Roman Style Garbanzo Pizza)
First up is a sort-of pizza made of garbanzo beans. Garbanzo beans, or chickpeas, are an ancient food and were listed as ingredients in the first-century cookbook of Marcus Favius Apicius. This recipe is adapted from one in Bugialli’s Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking. I made it as a sort of history experiment, not as a substitute for modern pizza.
Note that as garbanzo beans cannot be eaten raw, they do not meet strict paleo diet guidelines.
- 1 1/2 c dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water
- 1 t salt
- 4 T olive oil
- 1 T fresh rosemary
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper
After rinsing the soaked beans, place them in a pot with fresh water and salt. Simmer, covered for about 1 1/2 hours, until fairly soft. Drain (reserving some of the liquid), and grind them using the pulse button of a food processor until they make a thick paste (add some of the reserved liquid as necessary). Stir in 2 T of the olive oil.
Oil a pizza pan or pizza stone with more olive oil and spread the paste out evenly to form a pizza. Top with more oil, the rosemary leaves and add salt and pepper. Bake at 375˚F for about 30 minutes, regularly checking to ensure it doesn’t burn on the edges.
Since wheat was beyond the reach of many early Romans, chestnuts were frequently ground into flour as they were plentiful and practically free. Chestnut flour is still popular in Corsica and was likely the original ingredient for polenta, before corn was brought from the New World. While this focaccia would qualify as paleo-friendly in today’s diet terms, once more I wouldn’t recommend it. Chestnut flour has a strong taste, and I think it more suited for sweet Italian desserts. This recipe is adapted from the late Jeff Smith’s Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines.
- 1 1/4 c chestnut flour (available in Italian markets)
- 1 1/4 c water
- olive oil
- 2 T pine nuts
- whole rosemary leaves
Beat the water and flour to a batter-like consistency and add a bit of olive oil. Oil a 12-inch pizza pan and pour the batter onto the tray, spreading it out evenly. Top with pine nuts and herbs, sprinkle more olive oil on top, and bake at 175˚F for about 20 minutes. The bread will turn a golden brown.
Non-Authentic (But Really Good) Paleo Pizza
Now for the finish. It’s time for something that’s actually tasty! This tomato-topped pizza was never made in ancient times of course (even tomatoes weren’t introduced to Naples until the 1500s), but it sure does hit the spot! There are several varieties of paleo pizza on the net, including some great ones from bloggers Son of Grok and Scott Hagnas. This version is similar to both of those, but I added flaxmeal to achieve a more bread-like consistency and coconut flour to keep the dough light. Expecting the worst, I was very pleased with the results. The thin crust stays together even when you pick a piece up in your hands.
- 1 c finely ground almonds or almond meal
- 2 heaping T of flaxmeal
- 2 heaping T of coconut flour (organic coconut flour is available at bulk stores, along with almond and flaxmeal)
- 2 lg free-range eggs
- olive oil
Preheat the oven to 375˚. In a large bowl, mix the almond and flaxmeal with the coconut flour. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with a bit of olive oil, then add the eggs and oil to the dry ingredients. Mix well until a compact, firm dough is obtained.
Oil a heated baking stone or pizza tray, and press the dough into a rough pizza shape. Place the pizza in the hot oven and bake for approximately 10 minutes. At this time, remove the crust, add the tomato sauce and toppings, then return to the oven for another 8-10 minutes.
- 1/4 c olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- red pepper flakes
- 2 t dried herbs (oregano, basil, mint)
- 1 28 oz can Italian plum tomatoes
- fresh parsley
- sea salt and black pepper (salt optional, it is not paleo)
In a large skillet, slowly heat the garlic and red pepper flakes in the oil. Add the dried herbs and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, crushing them in your hands, and let the mixture come to a soft boil. Season, add the chopped parsley and let simmer, occasionally stirring with a wooden spoon. Leave the cover off the pan to let the tomatoes reduce. Simmer for at least 1/2 hour.
Anything goes: I used anchovies (rinsed) and sun-dried tomatoes and garnished the finished pizza with fresh parsley. Have fun!