Roman Cookery – an introduction
Roman Cookery – an introduction
This month History.uk.com would like to introduce you to Eleanor Rudolph who will be presenting a series of articles on Roman Cookery.
Eleanor, who runs the Antiquitas Spice Company, can tell you in her own words how she became involved with historic cookery and how that interest developed into a business:
"Sometimes business ideas spring out of a passion. My business idea sprang out of a combination of two passions — history and gourmet food. For years I have crawled over Roman ruins, scaled Medieval towers and then dined in exquisite little bistros.
Perhaps it was in one of these little bistros overlooking the remains of a once-great civilisation that I began to think, if these people built such amazing palaces then what kind of food were they eating at their banquets?
Well, a few trips to the library answered some of my questions and I soon began trying out Roman and Medieval recipes on my friends. They loved the unusual flavour combinations but what impressed them the most was the delicious relishes I served.
It was these relishes that made me think, hey, if my friends like them perhaps other people will, too.
And that's how my business, Antiquitas, first started. I developed those favourite relishes into the first three Antiquitas products: Medieval Relish, Roman Spiced Relish and Celtic Leek Relish.
Since then I have developed three savoury spreads which are great on a slice of warm, crusty bread – a perfect snack with your flagon of wine!
All my relishes and spreads are made using natural ingredients and the only preservatives we use are olive oil and wine vinegar – just like the Romans!
Sometimes when I am working on a new recipe I imagine the Roman cookery writer, Apicius standing behind me saying, "go on, put a bit more coriander in that…"
In this series of Roman recipes I want to give you an idea of the sort of food ordinary people ate in Roman times.
Forget honey dipped doormice, this is the real world!
When people talk about eating like a Roman they often mention fantastic banquets like Trimalchio's famous banquet where slaves bathed the guest's hands in 100 year old wine and sang to them while serving dormice seasoned with honey and poppies.
This fictional account, written by the Roman writer, Titus Petronius (27-66 ad) was clearly an exaggeration and is as brilliantly satirical now as it was in Petronius' day.
We know wealthy Romans did have extravagant banquets where people ate things that we would find revolting but these banquets were relatively unusual.
It is because they were unusual that writers recorded them and these descriptions of strange foods and styles of dining were preserved for us.
Most people living in the Roman empire would never have experienced a banquet like Trimalchio's or indulged in fantastic dishes like larks' tongue or roasted flamingo.
Archaeological evidence in Pompeii and Herculaneum shows that there were tavernas where an ordinary labourer could stop while on his way home from work and eat a simple dinner of bread and fried mackerel.
For the aspirational Roman, we know there were many cookery books available in Classical times like The Partying Professors by Athenaeus written in the third century AD and The Art of Dining by Clearchus.
There were a number of specialised books like 'Breadmaking' by Chysippus of Tyana and 'On Cakes' by Iatrocles. Sadly, none of these works survived. We only know of their existence because they are mentioned in other written works that have survived.
There is only one cookery book from the Roman period that is preserved in its entirety. It is 'The Art of Cookery' by Apicius.
The Art of Cookery was written during the period of Roman decline in the late fourth or early fifth century AD when many people may have felt nostalgia for the age of Roman Peace under the Ceasars 400 years earlier.
It is not clear who exactly the author of this work actually was. Between the first century BC and the second century AD were three Roman gastrophiles bearing the name Apicius.
The most famous was the wealthy citizen, Marcus Gavius Apicius. He was born in 14AD and committed suicide at the age of 23 because his vast wealth dropped to a level where he felt he could only afford ordinary food and drink.
While the exact origins of De Re Coquinaria's recipes are uncertain, they provide us with the most extensive picture of how wealthier Romans ate and drank.
Many of the recipes seem quite modern and would not appear out of place in a modern, glossy cookbook. Below is a simple but delicious chicken recipe that even Jamie Oliver might like!
(Direct translation from The Art of Cookery:)
Roast the Chicken a little to brown it and then season it with stock, olive oil, bouquet of aniseed, chives, savoury, and green coriander. When the bird is done, remove it (from the pan) and arrange it on a platter which you have soaked in boiled wine. Sprinkle with pepper, and serve.
(Modern recipe taken from the Roman Cookery of Apicius translated and adapted for the Modern Kitchen by John Edwards and published by Rider Press, 1984 )
3lb chicken, cut into parts
2T olive oil
0.5g ground aniseed
0.5g ground coriander or a handful of fresh coriander
30ml olive oil
240ml chicken stock
3g dried chives or handful of fresh chives
120ml white wine
Note: You may want to add more of any of the above ingredients to taste.
Grind the aniseed, savoury and coriander in a mortar. Combine with olive oil, stock, and chives.
Brush chicken with olive oil. Roast for 20 minutes in a 190 degrees Celsius oven to brown the meat.
Add the sauce to the chicken and continue roasting until done, basting the chicken from time to time with the sauce mixed with the chicken juices.
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Eleanor selling relishes