Cooking in Ancient Rome
“Stuff the dormice with minced meat of whole dormice, pounded with pepper, pine kernels, asaphoetida, and liquamen. Sew up, place on a tile, put in the oven, or cook, stuffed, in a small oven.”
-The Roman Cookery Book (translated by Flowers & Rosenbaum)
The recipe above is translated from the oldest , surviving European cookbook “The Art of Cooking” by Apicius, a Roman gourmet. From the famous dormouse recipe above and others like it for sow’s womb, flamingo and sea-urchin, we can see part of what inspired Hollywood to film all those decadent banquet scenes we’ve seen in so many movies.
But that’s not all that Roman cuisine was about. Some of the most ordinary dishes such as French toast, omelettes, custard and cheesecake had their origins in Greek and Roman kitchens. Others, even some of the more exotic ones, aren’t as hard to reproduce as you might think. Perhaps you might not want to try dormice, but how about roast chicken in a ginger marinade or duck with plum sauce or cumin-roasted pork? The results can be as pleasing to the modern palate as it was to the Romans.
If you’re into experimentation, you can work directly from the translated Latin. Roman recipes tend to be lists of ingredients with quantities and sometimes even cooking instructions, left unspecified. The Flowers and Rosenbaum book mentioned above, just gives the translations and doesn’t usually try to interpret them. If you are not an experienced chef though, you might try some of the recipes that have been adapted for the modern kitchen by others. I’ll list some of them in the bibliography. Meantime, here are a few that I’ve adapted for myself:
Take fresh, pitted dates and stuff them with chopped walnuts and/or pine nuts (almonds are good too!) and lightly dust them with cinnamon powder. Cook them for a few minutes in a skillet with heated honey (the Romans rolled them in salt first but I generally omit this step) and serve warm. Alternately, you can put them in an oven pan, drizzle the honey over them and heat them in a moderate oven for 10-15 minutes. Each serving is 5 or 6 dates.
PORK ROAST WITH CUMIN
3-5 lb pork roast
3 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp ginger
3/4 cup stock (pork or chicken)
¼ cup wine
Sprinkle the pork with salt and cumin. Roast in a 350 degree oven 35 minutes per pound. Meantime grind together the coriander, thyme and ginger in a mortar. After an hour, remove the roast, sprinkle with the coriander, thyme, ginger mix. Add the onions to the pan and return to the oven to finish cooking. When the meat is done, take the pan drippings, the wine and the stock and put in a pot. Finely chop one of the onions and add it too. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes or so. Thicken the gravy with flour as needed. Sprinkle a little pepper over slices of pork and serve with the gravy.
HAM IN A PASTRY SHELL
3 lb ham
½ lb dried figs
3 bay leaves
1 lb flour
Put the ham, the dried figs and the bay leaves in a pot with enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for 30-45 minutes or until the ham has absorbed the flavor of the figs. Meantime, make a paste of the flour and oil. Remove the ham from the water, dry, remove and discard the skin. Make criss-cross incisions on the ham and fill them with honey. Coat the ham with the oil and flour paste and bake in a pre-heated medium oven for well over an hour. Serve as it is.
Other recipes sometime make use of ingredients that are a little harder to find but that need not stop you from using them or substitutes. For instance, the liquamen and the asaphoetida from the dormouse recipe above are found in many other Roman recipes as well. Liquamen, which is also sometimes called garum, is a fermented fish sauce. It does not taste as strange as it sounds. It tastes like a mildly fishy soy sauce. You can just use salt instead or go to an Asian market and get the Vietnamese fish sauce Nuoc Mam, which is made today much the same way the Romans did it 2,000 years ago. If you are a real authenticity fanatic though, you can find some of the original recipes for it in several of the books in the bibliography. Asaphoetida, which is an extract from a plant with the unappetizing name “Devil’s Dung” is still used pharmacologically and in Indian cuisine so you can find it specialty Indian markets. It has a rather sour, garlicky taste and is best used in small quantities. You can substitute garlic juice for it.
Despite the fact that the Romans were totally ignorant of many of the food products we today take for granted, such as tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, coffee, peppers, eggplants, and other things, theirs was a rich, cooking tradition that developed over many hundreds of years and borrowed from all of the Mediterranean peoples that they met or conquered. The land abounded with animals and the seas with fish, some of which no longer exist or have disappeared from the modern menu. They may not have known about turkeys, for instance, but the well-to-do Roman could eat chicken, duck, goose, pheasant, crane, partridge, peacock, ostrich, turtle-dove, pigeon, wood-pigeon, thrushes, fig-peckers, and a whole variety of other small birds. Can we say the same? Sometimes, I think it is we moderns with our mechanized, homogenized super-market products that are the ones who are deprived.
Cenabis Bene (Dine Well)
THE ROMAN COOKERY BOOK by Barbara Flower & Elisabeth Rosenbaum, George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd. 1958. Reprinted 1961. Reissued 1974.
A TASTE OF ANCIENT ROME by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, University of Chicago Press. 1992
ROMAN COOKERY REVISED by John Edwards, Hartley & Marks Ltd., 1986
APICIUS: COOKERY & DINING IN IMPERIAL ROME by Joseph Dommers Vehling, Walter M. Hill, Publisher, 1936. Dover Publications Edition 1977