Baking chicken under a brick

Finally, a recipe older than I am.

When out on campaign, especially in what was known as a “full pace march,” Julius Caesar’s soldiers were expected to cook for themselves. (On slower marches, their accompanying servants or slaves cooked for them.) Roman legionnaires and centurions didn’t benefit from any sort of mess hall. Quartermasters didn’t stock food; in large part, they were mere blacksmiths. And, nope, no chuck wagons.

Consequently, a Roman soldier lugged his own food, as well as the implements needed to cook it. Chief among these was the clibanus (also called the testum), a sort of small upside-down Dutch oven made of thick-walled clay. What we would call the top of the Dutch oven was the bottom “plate” of the clibanus, while the pot-like portion would be placed over it, like a dome, topped with fiery hot coals. The heat radiated down and cooked or baked what was in the cavity. Cato and Pliny recount many “sub testum” recipes. (Modern-day campers cook in a similar manner with cast-iron Dutch ovens.)

In time, and in order to roast small game or fowl, a heavy, glazed terracotta tile (what in Italian is called a mattone) replaced the hollow part of the clibanus and was designed to apply significant weight on the meat cooking under it, which by now was heated from below by a flame or all around within an oven. You can buy such two-part, all-clay cooking set, with a mattone, in shops in Tuscany, especially in the coastal region around Lucca.

Thus, we inherit the recipe for “pollo al mattone,” or “chicken under a brick,” to my mind one of the more delicious ways to prepare a small 3- to 4-pound fryer.

Chicken Under a Brick read to go into the oven. (Bill St. John, Special to The Denver Post)

Chicken under a brick (Pollo al mattone)


1 whole, small to medium chicken, 3-4 pounds, the cavity trimmed of excess fat

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (not overly fruity or peppery), plus more for cooking

Juice and zest of 1 lemon, plus another lemon in wedges for serving