As I was browsing through some of my late mother’s memorabilia on Roman times — she taught classics at George Washington University for years — I came across an interesting set of recipes attributed to M. Gavius Apicius, said to have lived in the time of the emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37).
Tiberius, stepson of Augustus Caesar, was reputedly a nasty fellow and some of the contemporary Roman cuisine seems to reflect that. (More on that in a moment.)
Apicius himself was reputed to have spent a fortune (one hundred million sesterces!) on food and, when facing starvation due to his eventual impecuniousness, drank a vial of poison. But before that he had written two cookbooks and established himself as the Mario Batali of his day.
According to an author named Ruth Taylor, who compiled the recipes from a translation of Apicius, “the recipes are likely to have been used only by experienced cooks, as they give little indication of quantities, and the ingredients are often listed without any indication of how they are to be used.”
If you want to whip up some of these dishes at home, she suggests, use your “common sense and imagination.” Indeed.
Here, then, are the makings of a three-course Roman meal, ala Apicius. We’ll spare you the stuffed giraffe necks and braised flamingo tongues that were part of his repertoire, though we did include a porpoise dish to display the range of his culinary talents — keeping in mind that the tomatoes, pasta, and other staples that we associate with Italian food today were unknown to the Romans of that era.
M. Gavius Apicius’ Mouth-Watering Recipes
Clean spelt-grits and boil with liquamen and the finely chopped white part of a leek. When cooked remove. Chop suet and sliced meat and mix all together. Pound pepper, lovage, and three eggs; mix all this in the mortar, with pine kernels and peppercorns. Pour in liquamen. Stuff sausage-skin, boil, and grill lightly or serve simply boiled.
Sala Cattabia (Bread Salad)
Pepper, mint, celery, dried pennyroyal, cheese, pine kernels, honey, vinegar, liquamen, yolks of eggs, fresh water. (Pound, mix.) Have ready some pieces of bread soaked in water mixed with vinegar. Squeeze out the moisture, and arrange in a mould, followed by layers of cow’s milk cheese, cucumbers, alternating with pine-kernels.
Add finely chopped capers…alternating with (previously cooked) chicken liver. Pour on the dressing, place over cold water (to cool) and serve.
Isicia de Thursionis (Rissoles of Porpoise)
Remove skin and bones of the fish, and chop finely. Pound pepper, lovage, oregano, parsley, coriander, cumin, rue-berries, dried mint, and the porpoise. Shape into rissoles. Put wine, liquamen, and oil (into a pan) and cook.
When cooked arrange in a shallow pan. Make the following sauce for it: take pepper, lovage, savory, onion, wine, liquamen, and oil. Put in the pan and cook. Bind with eggs, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.
Primae Mensae (Main Courses):
Pullus Farsilis (Stuffed Chicken)
Draw the chicken from the neck. Pound pepper, lovage, ginger, chopped meat, boiled spelt-grits; pound a brain cooked in stock, break eggs into it, and work all of this into a smooth mixture. Blend with liquamen and a little oil, add whole peppercorns and plenty of pine-kernels. Stuff with this mixture the chicken, leaving a little room.
Petasomen ex Musteis (Shoulder of Pork with Sweet Wine Cakes)
Boil the shoulder of pork with two lb of barley and 25 dried figs. When it is done remove the meat from the bone, brown its fat on a glowing hot brazier and sprinkle with honey — or better — put it in the oven and rub with honey.
When it is browned, put in a sauce of passum, pepper, a sprig of rue, and wine. When the pepper sauce is mixed, pour half of it on the shoulder of pork, and the other half over pieces of sweet wine cake. When these are saturated pour the rest of the liquid over the meat.
Leporem Farsum (Stuffed Hare)
(The stuffing): Whole pine-kernels, almonds, chopped nuts or beech-nuts, whole peppercorns, the chopped giblets of the hare, bind with eggs. Then wrap the hare in pig’s omentum and roast in the oven.
Make the following sauce: Rue, sufficient pepper, onion, savory, dates, liquamen, caroenum or spiced wine; let this boil together long enough for it to thicken, and pour over the hare, which is served in the liquamen-pepper sauce.
Secundae Mensae (Desserts):
Tyropatinam (Milk and Egg Sweet)
Take milk, measure it against the pan, mix the milk with honey as if for milk-food, add five eggs to a pint or three eggs to 1/2 pint. Work the eggs with the milk into a smooth mixture. Strain into an earthenware pot and cook over a low fire. When it is set, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.
Gustum de Praecoquis (Stew of Apricots)
Take small apricots, clean, stone, and plunge in cold water, then arrange in a shallow pan. Pound pepper, dried mint, moisten with liquamen, add honey, passum, wine, and vinegar. Pour in the pan over the apricots, add a little oil, and cook over a low fire. When it is boiling, thicken with cornflour. Sprinkle with pepper and serve.
And don’t forget to wash it down with plenty of vinum!
Some Cooks’ Notes:
If you’ve been paying attention, you may be wondering what the heck liquamen is.
Taylor defines it as a “liquid frequently used in place of salt, made by boiling small fish or fish trimmings (guts) in strong brine, and adding defrutum, the must (or grape juice) reduced to one-third its volume. Liquamen is often used interchangeably with garum, a similar fish sauce.
And passum? That’s a “very new, very sweet, wine used in cooking.”
Other useful terms:
Omentum: the caul (of the pig), the membrane enclosing the bowels.
Caroenum: must (or wine) reduced to two-thirds its volume.
Where to Find Ancient Roman Cuisine in Rome:
It’s not easy, possibly because most diners just want to eat pizza, or, alternatively, that chefs throw their toques up in despair over trying to figure out how much liquamen to use when stuffing a hare.
But here are a few places to try:
Mensa di Bacco (Via Principe Amedeo, 75A/B)
Ask for the special menu “La Cena Apiciana” (Apicius’ Dinner); it includes Sala cattabia, among other Apicius favorites.
Hostaria Antica Roma (Via Appia Antica, 87)
This hostaria along the ancient Appian Way, situated on a columbarium dating from the days of Augustus Caesar, features chicken Oxizomum, a dish with roots in the 1st century AD (CE).
Caupona (Via Masseria Curatro, 2, Pompeii)
Caupona is located in the volcanic time capsule city of Pompeii, which you can visit as a (long) day trip from Rome. Built to resemble a tablinium, the dining hall of ancient Roman houses, its menu features recipes from De Coquinaria, one of Apicius’ cookbooks.
Coming soon: The Medieval Feast!
Can’t wait to taste the delicacies, especially the porpoise and hare, will bring the vining.
Apparently the Romans loved pepper on everything. Some interesting recipes here, but I’m holding off for the famous Medieval dinner!
— Patricia Koren; email@example.com
Reply: Pepper and liquamen; they doused them on just about everything. The Medieval Dinner: Stay tuned for further announcements!