Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good Old-Fashioned Cooking

That post on umami, for some reason, got me thinking about Ancient Roman cuisine. Did you ever wonder what they ate in Ancient Rome? Let's discuss.

What they didn't eat

First off, when you think about food in Ancient Rome (or Medieval Europe for that matter), it's important to keep in mind the many products we take for granted today that would have been unknown to them. Not only things like coffee, chocolate, bananas and corn but also tomatoes, potatoes, chilis and cane sugar -- all of these are indigenous to the Americas and would not be introduced to the Old World for centuries.


The staple of the Roman diet was wheat (remember that in the first century BC they started doling out free grain to the poor masses in the city of Rome). In the early days of the Republic, the Romans subsisted on barley and emmer grown on Italian soil. Emmer is one of the most ancient forms of cultivated wheat: compared to modern wheats it's low yield, it's a pain in the neck to remove the grain from it's hull, and it's less suitable for making leavened bread. On the other hand, emmer is flavorful, relatively high in protein and it grows well in poor soil. Today, emmer is only cultivated in a few parts of the world, but it's popularity is on the rise due to interest in different types of whole grains. In Italy, emmer is called farro and it is often encountered in Tuscan cuisine. Early Romans probably made a porridge out of emmer (maybe mixed with other grains like barley or with legumes like lentils or chickpeas) which could be eaten alone or with whatever other food was available.

By the Imperial age, Romans were importing most of their wheat from overseas provinces such as Egypt. Most of this was durum wheat (hard wheat), which is what most pasta is made out of today. This wheat was used to make bread (which could be dipped in olive oil, honey, wine, whatever...), pancakes which could be eaten with honey and dates (doesn't sound too bad), and other pastries. Poor citizens who lived in tenements might have baked their bread in communal ovens, and by the Late Republic there were also commercial bakeries that sold pre-made baked goods. One simple Roman pastry dish was globuli which were balls of cheese curd and semolina (durum flour) fried in olive oil and probably seasoned with honey. The Romans also made a type of proto-lasagna called laganum (one of the main things that distinguishes this from modern pasta is that it is fried rather than boiled). There is a restaurant in the modern city of Pompei (not far from the ruins) called Il Principe where they actually serve laganum and other Ancient Roman dishes.


Eating meat was something of a luxury in Ancient Rome: poorer Romans probably ate very little meat whereas during the decadent late Republic/High Roman Empire the wealthy might impress their guests by serving exotic animals such as peacocks, flamingos, giraffe, lions and who-knows-what-else at their feasts. Beef was rarely eaten since cattle were important work animals, and the majority of beef available for consumption probably came from animals sacrificed in religious ceremonies (the same may apply to lamb). Chickens were also important for production, and thus you were more likely to find other poultry like ducks and geese (raised for their meat) and game birds at the table. The Romans even knew how to make fois gras. Pork, on the other hand, was probably the most common type of meat found in Ancient Rome: the Romans raised pigs and hunted wild boar.

Fish, oysters and other seafood were well liked, but they were probably hard to come by at any distance from the seaside due to issues preserving food. Fish were likely transported live to large cities like Rome where they were sold out of tanks in the marketplace (no doubt at a high price). The Romans also experimented with farming their own fish in private and commercial fisheries (including "goatfish" or red mullets which were held in especially high regard).

The Romans also bred snails (escargot) and rabbits for food, but by far the weirdest animal which they ate regularly and raised for its meat was the edible dormouse (which has a bushy tail and looks more like a squirrel than a mouse). Romans loved their dormice, and one of the most frequently cited recipes in the Apicius cookbook (available from Amazon) is for dormouse stuffed with ground pork and dormouse meat, chopped nuts and breadcrumbs and spiced with salt, pepper, silphium (see spice section below) and broth. Interestingly enough, wild dormice are still hunted in southern Slovenia where they are a seasonal delicacy.


The Romans loved to flavor their food with different spices and seasonings. We all know that salt was a minor luxury in Ancient Rome: the Romans harvested sea salt and had rock salt mines where slaves and convicted criminals toiled. Rome also imported spices from distant lands to feed her people's frenzy for flavah. A surprisingly large number of the spices we are familiar with today could be found in a well-stocked Roman kitchen (although perhaps in a slightly different form): they had black pepper, garlic, parsley, mint, dill, sage, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, saffron, basil, clove, cardamon, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, fennel, celery seed, anis, caraway, sesame seed, poppy.

Even more interesting are the herbs and spices listed in Apicius' recipes that are not widley used today. Here's a list of some of these:

Silphium: one of the Roman's favorite herbs, silphium grew wild in Northern Libya around the city of Cyrene (founded as a Greek colony in the 7th century BC). Silphium was such an important local export that it was featured on the city's coins. Unfortunately, by the late Roman Empire the herb had gone extinct, presumably due to overharvesting and/or overgrazing (it couldn't be domesticated, apparently). Most people's best guess is that silphium was related to the giant fennel plant. The Greeks and Romans liked to use a resin obtained from the plant in their cooking, and after silphium went the way that the dodo later would, they substituted the Indian asafoetida (see below) although everyone agreed it wasn't as good. This is maybe our only clue as to what sillphium tasted like. The ancients also believed the herb had contraceptive properties (all the more reason to eat up!).

Asafoetida (aka Devil's Dung): the gross-out English name comes from the strong, noxious odor given off by the fresh plant which is remotely similar to overripe garlic. Used in cooking, however, asafoetida must be much more appetising. It was popular not only in the Roman world but also in Medieval Europe and, althought it's since fallen by the wayside in Western cooking, it is still widely used today in India and Central Asia. Asafoetida is an alternative to garlic or onion: its resin (used by the Romans in place of silphium) is stronger and more pungent than the powdered form.

Long Pepper: often used by the Romans in place of black pepper, long pepper is a close relative with a similar flavor only with a bit of a spicy kick. Long Pepper remained popular in Europe until the arrival of chili peppers.

Rue: an intensely bitter herb whose use in cooking has mostly fallen out of favor. Rue was common in Roman cuisine, used for example in the rustic dish moretum which was a spread made out of fresh garlic, aged cheese (probably "pecorino" made from sheep's milk) and different herbs. Today rue is most widely used in Ethiopia.

Spikenard/Fleabane: an herb with a pleasant fragrance and an aromatic, bitter, astringent taste which is related to valerian (an herbal sedative). In later days it seems to have been more commonly used for perfumes and incense and as a herbal remedy.

Savory: an herb still used in European cuisine today, especially to flavor bean dishes. Savory is similar to thyme and to the Indian spice ajwain. It is often included in herbes de provence.

Lovage: an herb still found in Southern and Central European cooking. It is aromatic and works well for pickling (like dill) and in beef stock and potato dishes.

Fenugreek: largely abandoned in Western cooking, where some characterize its flavor as bitter and "goaty," fenugreek is still used in countries like Iran and India.

Pennyroyal: a bitter, pungent and less agreeable member of the mint family, pennyroyal is also somewhat toxic and has been used as an abortifacient.

The Romans had some weird ideas about how to flavor their food. A lot of dishes were served in a syrupy sweet-and-sour sauce. The sweet element could be comprised of honey, fig syrup, or a grape juice/sweet wine reduction, and the sour component was probably vinegar. Add to that some garum (see below, some people believe that brine also featured heavily in Roman cooking) and some of those bitter herbs and funky spices and you have a dish that modern gourmets would likely find inedible.

A good example of this is the sauce for boiled or roasted game found in Apicius which calls for "8 scruples of pepper, rue, lovage, celery seed, juniper, thyme, dry mint; 6 scruples of fleabane; pulverize, put together in a vessel with sufficient honey and use with vinegar and garum." There is a lot going on in that sauce. Two possible explanations for why the Romans cooked like this are that (a) it was considered a mark of refinement among the upper classes to serve dishes that were so heavily seasoned as to disguise the natural flavor of the meat and (b) heavy sauces and spices could cover up the fact that meat was beginning to turn.

Garum was one of the Romans' favorite condiments, and it is by far the most misunderstood mainstay of the Roman pantry. It is made from fermented fish (usually anchovies or mackerel). When I first heard about garum in high school or college I remember being like "eww, gross." But when I looked it up more recently -- curious about whether anyone's ever tried to recreate it and maybe wanting to try it out myself -- I discovered that garum is basically the same thing as Southeast Asian fish sauce (something I have in my pantry anyway). Much like soy sauce, fish sauce is splashed into food in order to add salt and umami to a dish (now we see the connection to the umami post!), but I'd say it has a much richer flavor profile. On its own it does have a slightly funky odor, but this quickly disappears onces its stirred into a pot of curry or a bowl of soup. Meanwhile Worcestshire sauce, which also contains anchovies, is often pointed to as garum's successor in Anglo-American cuisine.


The Romans drank a lot of wine, but they were also wusses about it: they normally diluted their wine with water or flavored it with honey (muslum, traditionally served as an aperitif and extremely popular) or a mixture of honey and spices (conditum). Poor Romans could have gotten drunk on a mixture of water and crappy wine that was basically a step away from vinegar: I guess this was the ancient equivalent of Mad Dog or Thunderbird.

They had both red and white wine in Rome; normally the wine came out cloudy and would be strained. Many advances in the art of viticulture were made during this time: wine was transported and preserved in clay jugs where pitch, resin, saltwater and olive oil were among the substances employed to prolong freshness (flavoring could also be added to mask the fact that wine had past its prime). Fine wines were aged in large jugs sealed with cork and cement. The Romans also planted vineyards throughout their empire introducing varieties of grapes to Spain, Southern France and even Britain.

Aged wines tended to fetch a higher price, and the most highly-prized variety was the full-bodied Falerno which was grown in the mountains between Rome and Naples (where wine is still produced today). Wine was the strongest drink around in Roman times as the process for distilling liquors would not be discovered in Europe until the 1200s.

Images: fresco of "still life with eggs and thrushes" taken from Villa Giulia Felice in Pompeii and Pompeian fresco depicting the goddess Flora are both on display in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy; photo of Slovenian dormouse dish by Borut Peterlin found on; photo of silver didrachym from Cyrene c.300 BC located at Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow Scotland found at scran website; image of garum mosaic from the house of A. Umricius Scaurus in Pompeii found on times online; wine servers mosaic from Roman Tunisia found on tunisia online.


Amanda Fliger said...

"frenzy for flavah"--love it. I was excited to read this post when you told me about it and it did not disappoint.

nola32 said...

as i mentioned when you told me you were writing this, this all makes me think of that bbc show i saw with the 2 comedians had to live for a week on roman fare. i like that they thought that the fish sauce stuff was the foulest thing they'd ever tasted.
i'd also like to mention that the chef who was preparring all of the food for them had a really hard time because of the lack of actual recipes that have survived. as you know, most of what we have are just lists of ingredients with no guide as to how much of each thing was actually used. even this professional chef had a hard time figuring out how to make the combos of ingredients pallatable to the moderns. oh yeah, and they totally ate the doormice (and thought that they weren't that bad).

Meeg said...

I think there's also questions about how to translate some of the ingredients, I wonder what kind of notes that annotated version of the cookbook has.

And I totally want to go to Slovenia around dormouse season now.