Dining in Ancient Rome
Thinking about dining in Ancient Rome conjures up images of the well-heeled reclining on couches and eating until they made themselves sick. That certainly happened at times — like thanksgiving for us — but that doesn’t describe day to day living.
For the most part, Romans followed a Mediterranean diet, which means they ate healthy, at least for the times, hygienic issues aside. Of course, that did depend on your social class — the richer you were, the better your diet. If you were poor, you ate bread made from low quality grains, and a lot more porridge, sometimes livened up with fruit, vegetables or meats if you had a few extra sesterces in your pocket. Still, even the lower classes had options — some low quality meats, vegetables, eggs, bread, cheese, olives, olive oil, beans, and lots of barley.
Romans had an interesting perspective on what you should eat. They differentiated between hard and soft foods — soft foods were better for you, and the softer the better; hard foods were considered crude. Soft foods were those that putrefied quickly, such as oysters and game meats. They say the ideal wild boar meat smelled slightly rotten. Roman cooks aimed to make all food soft, either by cooking the hell out of it or letting it rot a little first.
Dining out was something for the lower classes. Cooking at home was dangerous if you were of limited means. You probably lived in a five or six-story apartment building made of wood, i.e., highly flammable, so it was safer to go out for a hot meal.
Fortunately, all over Rome there were food shops with vats of foods built into the counters — meatballs, lentils, fritters, and the like — that you could eat there or on the go. Not the highest quality mind you, but almost edible.
The wealthy tended to eat at home. The establishments serving food were low grade, as were their clientele. Many doubled as brothels, and prostitution was an important part of their business.
We’re all familiar with the dinner parties of the wealthy with the unending line-up of courses, described as “from egg to apple”, with lots of wine in between. These meals were served in three courses — the Romans invented that concept. Here’s an idea of the foods, and I use the term loosely, that would be served:
For starters, there would probably be an egg dish, shellfish, and olives. Of course, there would be dormice, everyone’s favorite, fried in olive oil and eaten with honeyed wine.
The main course would include multiple dishes to impress the guests. You might have wild boar, giraffe, eel, sow’s udder, milk fed snails, fried flower bulbs (e.g. tulips), foie gras made from fig fattened livers. There would be some nice little songbirds, like sparrows or thrushes, defeathered, then cooked and eaten whole, including the bones. Then there was the more exotic, ostrich, crane, parrot, peacock and flamingo, and for the flamingo you’d look for the tongue. Sow’s vulva was also a nice treat.
Dessert was usually a variety of fruits and nuts, and maybe more shellfish. There were sweet buns flavored with blackcurrants and cakes made with flour, honey, eggs, and a ricotta-like cheese, or with honey, reduced red wine and cinnamon.
Romans were passionate about cuisine, and were constantly on the lookout for new foods, or new ways to charge up the old and familiar. They relied heavily on spices and herbs — dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, garlic, salt, pepper to name a few. Actually, about 142 have been identified.
But the best way to dress up a dish was through sauces. These were used in virtually all recipes, sweet and savory, for both rich and poor, and the most popular was Garum, a fermented fish sauce. Here’s the ancient recipe if you’re interested in making some of your own…
- In a large well-sealed container, put a layer of dried, aromatic herbs, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom;
- Get your hands on some fish. Cut off the filets and other pieces that you would normally and throw them away. Layer the rest over the seasonings (guts, head, etc.)
- Over this, add a layer of salt, two fingers high.
- Repeat these layers until the container is filled.
- Let it rest for seven days in the hot hot sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days.
The resulting gunk was then filtered. Garum was the best quality paste, and what passed through the filters was liquamen, of lower quality but still acceptable. The sludge left at the bottom was a third variety, allec, not so good but good enough for slaves and the really poor.
The most costly garum was garum sociorum, made from mackerel. About 1.8 gallons cost one thousand sesterces, or about 4 oz. of gold. Garum production was an industry in Italy, and Pompeii was a major player in the field up until, well, you know.
Now, I know this sounds and looks disgusting, but some Asian cuisines, Thai or Vietnamese for example, use something similar to garum. The Italians also have an equivalent called colatura d’alici, made from anchovies, that you can find in Italian specialty shops or on Amazon. And if you’ve ever had a Caesar Salad, you’ve had anchovy paste…not much different.
If you lacked culinary creativity, you could always get your hands on a cook book. One of the most popular in the first century was a 10 volume piece with hundreds of recipes written by a leading epicure of his day, Marcus Gavius Apicius — De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking).
However, even with a cook book you needed to know your way around the kitchen. The recipes contain only the barest information. There are no proportions — it was assumed you would know — and the instructions are often somewhat sparse.
I looked up some of the ancient recipes, and some were bizarre, but many are quite normal. You don’t have to eat flamingo tongue to dine like a Roman. If you’re interested in experimenting, here’s the recipe from Apicius for making Parthian chicken. (FYI, Parthia was part of ancient Persia and the nemesis of Rome.)
- 1 medium chicken
- 1/2 tsp lovage (substitute celery or ajwain seeds)
- 1 tsp of caraway seed
- 1/2 to 3/4 tsp of asfoetida powder (substitute 8 finely minced garlic cloves)
- 1 cup medium sweet white wine
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- dash of pepper
- 3 tbsp garum (substitute Thai Nam Pla, Vietnamese Nuoc Nam Mhi, or Italian Colatura D’alici)
There are a number of websites you can go to for other ancient recipes, some of which sound pretty good, even a little enticing, although I haven’t bothered to make them yet. So, if you’ve got the stomach, give them a shot.