And every time I cook, I always seem to find myself asking the same question: “How did it taste? Can we ever know what an ancient dish tasted like?”
Some of the difficulties are obvious; there are no precise measurements and times. Moreover, if a recipe calls for 4 eggs you will probably use 3 thanks to modern chickens that lay big eggs. The modern milk is homogenized, pasteurized, and has less fat than ancient milk, so you may need to use a mixture of milk and cream.
The truth is that while forming the recipes, I experiment with all the possibilities.
The following section presents a dinner based on recipes that appeared during Rome’s Imperial period.
The table of the ancient Roman aristocracy allowed to express one’s wildest imagination. That’s not a big surprise since the Empire, at its zenith, stretched from Western Europe to the Near East and from Northen Europe to Northen Africa (famed for its agriculture). Moreover Romans adopted Greek fashions, spending lavishly on imported foods and wines.
Of course, not all inhabitants of Rome ate stuffed dormice and peacocks’ tongues. The common people lived in crowded conditions and had to sustain on grains, vegetables and fruits. The state provided them bread and free entertainment; panem et circensus~ bread and circuses. So, they didn’t revolt.
Cucumbers and watermelon, sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper, pennyroyal powder, liquamen, wine vinegar and passum.*
Zucchini seasoned with pepper, cumin, a pinch of asafoetida,** rue (Ruta graveolens), liquamen,wine vinegar and a little defritum (for color).*
Always in use in the Roman kitchen were olive oil, garum or liquamen and wine. Salt was used mainly in preserving. Since sugar was unknown, honey and a concentrate of grape must were commonly used as sweetener, as were dates produced by Syria and Egypt.
In the Apicius cookbook, the flavor of dishes is often enhanced with 5-15 spices and herbs.
Aliter Isicia omentata: I mixed ground meat with bread soaked in wine. The mixture was flavored with pepper and liquamen and after I had added pine nuts and pepper, I shaped it into something like keftes or small kebabs. Then, I wraped them in caul (omentum — caul) and boiled them in caroenum.*
Porcellum oenococtum: Sucling pig cooked in wine. SCALD [parboil] THE PIG [and] MARINATE  PLACE IN A SAUCE PAN [with] OIL, BROTH, WINE AND WATER, TIE A BUNCH OF LEEKS AND CORIANDER; [cook (in the oven)] WHEN HALF DONE COLOR WITH REDUCED MUST. IN THE MORTAR PUT PEPPER, LOVAGE, CARRAWAY, ORIGANY, CELERY SEED, LASER ROOT AND CRUSH THEM, MOISTEN WITH BROTH, ADD THE PIG’S OWN GRAVY AND RAISIN WINE TO TASTE. ADD THIS [to the meat in the sauce pan] ANDLET IT BOIL. WHEN BOILING BIND WITH ROUX. THE PIG, PLACED ON A PLATTER, MASK [with the sauce] SPRINKLE WITH PEPPER AND SERVE. (no 377)
A poem attributed to Virgil describes the simple lunch of a farmer.
“First, lightly digging into the ground with his fingers, he pulls up four heads of garlic with their thick leaves; then he picks slim celery-tops and sturdy rue and the thin stems of trembling coriander. With these collected he sits before the fire and sends the slave-girl for a mortar. He splashes a grass-grown bulb with water, and puts it to the hollow mortar. He seasons with grains of salt, and, after the salt, hard cheese is added; then he mixes in the herbs. With the pestle, his right hand works at the fiery garlic, then he crushes all alike in a mixture. His hand circles. Gradually the ingredients lose their individuality; out of the many colors emerges one (color est e pluribus unus) – neither wholly green (for the white tempers it), nor shining white (since tinged by so many herbs). The work goes on: not jerkily, as before, but more heavily the pestle makes its slow circuits. So he sprinkles in some drops of Athena’s olive oil, adds a little sharp vinegar, and again works his mixture together. Then at length he runs two fingers round the mortar, gathering the whole mixture into a ball, so as to produce the form and name of a finished moretum. Meanwhile busy Scybale has baked a loaf. This he takes, after wiping his hands…” (Moretum 88-120, translation by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, The Classical Cookbook).
Follow Virgil’s method for this salad using the ingredients listed.
2 medium heads of fresh garlic
2 tb celery tops
1/2 small bunch of coriander leaves, finely minced
2-3 dried rue leaves
400 gr feta cheese or romano cheese, hand grated (the poem calls for a hard cheese but moretum is also tasty when made using feta cheese)
2 tb virgin olive oil
3 tb wine vinegar
Honey infused wines generally were served as aperitifs. The recipe is one of the very few in Apicius that include precise quantities.
“The composition of this extraordinary spiced wine is as follows: Place 5.4l of honey in a bronze vessel, having previously added 1.8l of wine. In this way, the wine shall be boiled off in the melting honey. The mixture is heated by a slow fire of dry wood and stirred, to boiling, with a wooden rod (if it begins to boil over add more cold wine to it). Take off the heat and allow to cool and settle. When it is cold, light another fire underneath. This second fire is followed by a third and only then can the mixture be moved away from the hearth. On the following day, skim the surface. Then add 120g of crushed pepper, 4g of mastic, a handful each of saffron leaves and spikenard and five roasted date stones: these previously having been crushed and soaked in wine to soften them. When all this has been done, add 16l of light wine into the vessel. Hot coals are added [to the finished product].”(http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/roman/fetch-recipe.php?rid=roman-conditum-paradoxum)
3/4 bottle of red wine
3/4 cup of honey
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1 small bay leaf
1/4 tsp mastic powder
1 pinch saffron
(I didn’t use dates)
1/4 bottle Vinsanto wine (Domain Sigalas)
*Passum, defritum, caroenum
**Asafoetida was imported from central Asia as a substitute for Libyan silphium, which had been harvested to extinction.
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