Thursday, January 11, 2007
Michelle Styles: Roman Food
When I first started writing about Rome, I became interested in what sort of food they ate. What did the ordinary Roman actually put on his table?
When people think of ancient Rome and its food, they tend to think of the excesses. -- the orgies, the lying down to eat and the strange foods. Petronius's satirical creation, the very vulgar Trimalchio with his over the top feast which included all manner of decadent items from dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seeds to young sow stuffed with sausages. It was the Roman philosopher who said that Romans ate to vomit and vomited to eat. And then there is the cookbook of Apicius, a sort of very upmarket cook of his day -- like Gordon Ramsay in the UK. When first reads these references, it is easy to come to the conclusion that Romans were always decadent and there food probably tasted awful.
People forget that the Romans were sometimes laughing at themselves or being fascinated by celebrity culture or simply making a philosophical point. The vast majority of Romans ate simple foods. And until the late Roman Republic, it was considered a scandalous to pay too much attention to your food.
With the exception of later food stuffs introduced from the New World, Romans had access to the same ingredients that we do today, and many Western European and Middle Eastern dishes (or their prototypes) were cooked then. It was basically the Mediterranean diet without things like tomatoes, peppers, maize and chillies. Things like lentils, falfels, flat bread, porridge and even pasta were known to the Romans. Items for cutting out pasta and for rolling it have been found in Etruscan tombs. But it is thought the pasta was probably baked like lasagna rather than boiled.
In Italy, some of the dishes still retain their Roman names. For example in 79 AD, Pliny mentions tordilion or polenta and greens. The polenta would have been made with corn ( roughly crushed wheat). Corn in Britain even today does not simply refer to sweet corn or maize. In Fortitune, near Naples, the dish is called tordiglione and still served on fast days. They also call cakes Sisimegle instead of the more general Italian -- torta. Sesaminus was a specific type of cake during Roman times -- a sort of sesame wafer made with sesame seeds, spelt flour and honey -- very crumbly but very good.
The Romans loved strong flavours, and they used herbs such as lovage. Lovage tastes like celery, and if you don't particularly like the texture of celery, you can add lovage to stews and soups to give the celery flavour. It also works great in salads and is very easy to grow in the herb garden.
One item -- fish sauce-- was a great delicacy during Roman times. Liquamen or garum was much prized and features in many of Apicius's recipes.There was several different grades of fish sauce, and many towns did make their fortunes on the back of fish sauce. Many containers for garum have been found, but it is thought to have been a luxury item much as say Worcestershire sauce is today.Most ordinary recipes call for salt.
The Romans also used a great deal of cheese in their recipes -- both in sauces, and in doughs. Cheese graters are often found on archaeological sites. In Lystrata, there is an intriguing reference to a sexual position known as a lioness on a cheese grater.
Because there was no potatoes or rice, bread was very popular and served in a variety of different loaves. Most bread was cooked outside the home in special communal ovens or bought from the baker.
Hopefully, you can see that Roman food was not all dormice and lark's tongues. If this has piqued your interest in Roman cookery -- you could try Roman Cookery by Mark Grant ISBN:1 8979397 as he has made accessible some Roman recipes for modern kitchens, along with their ancient references. I found it very useful when I was writing A Noble Captive.