As the Romans cooked

Donald got two Roman cookbooks for his last birthday, to add to our collection.  The Classical Cookbook, by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, includes both ancient Greek and ancient Roman recipes; Cooking Apicius, by Grainger, is a selection of modernized recipes from the only extant ancient Roman cooking manual.

I already owned Mark Grant’s Roman Cookery, Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa’s A Taste of Ancient Rome (translated by Anna Herklotz), and Joseph Dommers Vehling’s 1936 translation of the Apicius manual.

I had found Giacosa’s cookbook more useful and authentic than Grant’s.  Both consist of recipes adapted for a modern kitchen, inspired by ancient food, but Giacosa always starts with the original Latin text for a recipe (usually from Apicius, but occasionally from Cato’s or Columella’s treatises on agriculture).  Then she provides a translation, then a modernized recipe.  This way, you can see her thought process in developing the final recipe.

Grant’s cookbook doesn’t always provide such clear antecedents, and I’m not as happy with his ingredient substitutions.  He calls for Cheddar in numerous recipes where ricotta, feta, or a simple goat cheese would probably be more authentic.  The ancient Romans used the milk of sheep and goats, but not cows’ milk.  However, the real fatal flaw is his use of meat stock made from bouillon cubes.  I can’t take any cookbook author who recommends bouillon cubes seriously.*

We did try one recipe from Grant’s cookbook, the one for hydromel, or honey water.  It wasn’t very successful, but I don’t think it’s entirely his fault, as it’s actually one of his most historically authentic recipes, reproducing the exact proportions suggested by Bassus in Country Matters (3:2:1 water/honey/apple juice).  It was far too sweet, even diluted with 3 parts water.  However, as Donald describes on his blog, we were able to salvage it by adding apple cider vinegar.  As I know from wine tasting, sweet drinks aren’t as cloying if they also contain enough acid to balance the sugar.  I’m not sure if the recipe didn’t work because ancient Roman apple juice wasn’t as sweet as modern apple cider, or if the Romans just had a major sweet tooth.  (I should point out that Donald prepared this recipe; he suggested elsewhere on his blog that I may not have been adequately crediting his contributions to our Roman dinners.)

Giacosa’s cookbook tends to suggest ricotta when an ancient recipe calls for cheese, and allows the cook to decide how they’re going to prepare their stock.  The recipes generally sound more authentic, and more likely to taste good.  Donald and I have prepared her pork stew with apples, and globi.  The pork stew is from Apicius, and the globi are a dessert fritter from Cato.  Both were fairly successful, and I’ve written about this meal elsewhere on my blog.

I do think that she’s off with her proportions for the pork stew, not enough herb and spice, and too much defrutum (concentrated wine or grape syrup) for sweetening.  Since the original recipes rarely give quantities of ingredients, it really is up to the cook’s discretion.  However, the Latin text calls for “a bit of defrutum“, which Giacosa interprets to mean 1/2 cup for about 2 pounds of meat and a pound of apples.  Donald and I probably didn’t use the best substitute for defrutum.  We used grape juice concentrate from a winemaking store, which I suspect was too sweet and concentrated.  Even so, defrutum was probably very sweet and syrupy, like expensive balsamic vinegar or the Italian sapa you can sometimes buy from specialty food stores.  1/2 cup is a lot.

Another issue is that, throughout her cookbook, Giacosa suggests substituting the juice of pressed garlic cloves for laser or laser root.  This may have been necessary in 1986 when her book was first published, in Italy.  But it isn’t necessary today for anyone with access to an Indian grocery store (either in their city or online).  Laser originally meant silphium, an aromatic plant that became extinct about 2000 years ago, but by the time the Apicius recipes were being written down, cooks were using asafoetida as a substitute.  You may not even need an Indian grocery to find asafoetida.  I have a bottle I purchased at Whole Foods.

Donald and I haven’t tried any recipes from The Classical Cookbook, but I’ve prepared several dishes from Cooking Apicius:  lamb faggots (the cookbook was published in Britain; the American translation of Giacosa’s cookbook uses the less unfortunate term “meat patties” for the Latin isicia), prawn (shrimp) balls in hydrogarum, toasted pine kernel sauce for roast wild boar or pork (I served it with pan-fried pork chops), offellae Ostian style, offellae Apician style (offellae are chunks of roasted or grilled pork belly), spring cabbage with cumin, parsnips in a cumin honey glaze, sauce for fried gourd (accompanied by fried gourd), and deep-fried honey fritters.  Everything has been quite good, the pork belly recipes in particular having been big hits at dinner parties or potlucks.  If anything, compared to Giacosa, Grainger has an excessively liberal hand with the spicing.  I think she puts in way too much cumin, in particular.  It may be that the cumin I buy is especially fresh and flavorful; or it may be that I just don’t like cumin as much as she does.  Her recipes have a lot of pepper, too, but, judging from our experience with conditum paradoxum, one of the few Apicius recipes to provide quantities, Romans liked their pepper.

Grainger doesn’t mess around with trying to substitute garlic for laser; she tells you to get yourself some asafoetida, as you should.  And, unlike both Grant and Giacosa, she acknowledges that the ancient Romans did not have zucchini or butternut squash (both New World vegetables unknown in Rome prior to the 16th century), and that Apician references to cucurbitas were to Old World gourds.  I used opo squash, which is often used today in Indian cooking.  It’s not that unlike zucchini, but if you’re trying for some degree of authenticity, you definitely shouldn’t be using any of the yellow or orange winter squashes.

So, I have to say, Sally Grainger wins the Roman cookbook prize.  Donald and I were so impressed with Cooking Apicius that we decided to purchase Grainger and Grocock’s complete English translation of the Apicius manual (“A Critical Edition with an Introduction and English Translation”), which has the Latin on one side, English on the facing page, and notes and appendices that take up more space than the actual text.

Cooking Apicius does call for ingredients that are not presently easy to find in the United States:  myrtle berries, lovage seed, date syrup, fresh rue and pennyroyal.  If you’re an experienced cook, you can probably figure out appropriate substitutions, or else stick to the recipes that don’t use them.  Lovage seed and rue are the most problematic, as Grainger uses them in so many of the recipes.  I did buy some rue seeds to try growing the fresh herb myself, but in the meantime I’ve been substituting some bitter fresh green–I’ve tried dandelion, and might also try arugula or fenugreek leaves (all of which the Romans would have had).  I’ve tried substituting either celery seed or ajwain seed for lovage, with good results.  Or you could buy lovage seeds intended for planting in your garden.  Make sure they’re organic, not treated with any fungicide or other toxic chemical.  You’ll probably have to pick out the seeds from the bits of twig and leaf, since planting seeds aren’t sorted as carefully as eating seeds.  (This is one of Donald’s tasks when I cook ancient Roman food.)  Also, while I’m confident enough that they’re safe to eat that I’ve fed dishes containing them to friends, they’re probably not really approved for human consumption, so eat them at your own risk.  On that same note, there’s some toxicity associated with rue and pennyroyal, although my reading on the subject suggests that the fresh herb is probably safe to eat.  Just don’t go making yourself herbal teas with the stuff unless you really know what you’re doing, and stay away from the extracts.  (There have been some accidental poisoning deaths from pennyroyal extract in particular.)

When you’re trying to re-enact a historical practice, whether cooking, costuming, or jousting, you always have to make choices about how authentic you’re going to be.  I’ve done all my ancient Roman cooking on my gas stove in my modern American kitchen, but if I wanted to be truly authentic, I’d have to build a reproduction clay oven in my backyard, or at least cook over charcoal in my Weber grill.  Then there are the ingredients.  I can decide to use goats’ milk instead of cows’ milk, and avoid New World ingredients.  But vegetables have changed in 2000 years.  The ancient Romans didn’t have bright orange carrots.  Theirs were white or pale yellow, more like parsnips.  It’s unclear which of the Brassica oleracea they meant by cymae and coliculi–various members of the cabbage family, and we know they didn’t have Brussels sprouts yet, but were they headed cabbages, or something more like kale or collard greens, or even broccoli?  I won’t even get into the whole issue of how wheat has changed over the millennia.

However, if you want a cookbook that strikes a good balance between historical authenticity and ease of preparation, with recipes that taste good, I recommend Sally Grainger’s Cooking Apicius.

*This is not entirely true.  One of the recipes in Cooking Apicius calls for “lamb stock (cube or fresh)”.  I’m willing to forgive Grainger here because lamb stock is a little harder to find than chicken or beef (though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen lamb Oxo cubes here in the US; it would probably be easier for me to buy some bony lamb pieces and make my own stock).  Grant calls for a chicken stock cube in at least one recipe in his cookbook.  That’s simply unacceptable, unless you live in, say, post-war Britain in the 50s.

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4 Responses to As the Romans cooked

  1. Ken Schneyer says:

    Fascinating, and sounds delicious. Is cooking the “real world” topic you & Donald are going to address at our WFC panel?

  2. Kristin says:

    Probably me more than Donald on the cooking! But getting food details right (or at least, not hopelessly wrong) is one of the things I’m particularly interested in. Looking forward to the panel!

  3. Jake says:

    Great post. I found it while looking for comparisons between Giacosa’s “A Taste of Ancient Rome” and Grainger’s new “Cooking Apicius”. I would really enjoy any future posts in which you discuss cooking recipes from either.

  4. Kristin says:

    Thanks for commenting, Jake! I did go back and add links to a couple of earlier posts on cooking ancient Roman recipes; hopefully I’ll have the chance to make and blog about some other recipes soon.

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