Ancient Roman Pork Kebabs, Apicius 8.1.9

I’ve written elsewhere (here, here, and here) about my attempts to cook ancient Roman food.  Until now, I’ve followed adaptations of ancient recipes worked out for use in modern kitchens, with quantities and preparation notes.  But I was making grilled pork kebabs as one menu item for a dinner party with friends and I wanted to try something new for the dipping sauce, something I hadn’t tried before.

Donald always appreciates ancient Roman food, and there are four sauce recipes in Sally Grainger’s Cooking Apicius that would have been appropriate.  I’d already tried two of them, though (I liked one but not the other, possibly because of all the tinkering I had to do with the recipe due to not being able to acquire all the ingredients here in the US).  And of the others, one calls for myrtle berries, which we can’t get (we bought a myrtle plant that we’ve been babying along and carefully moving inside each winter, but still no flowers or berries), and the other for hard-boiled eggs, which I don’t like.

Also, I’ve been going to the trouble of growing rue and pennyroyal from seed so that I have them on hand for the recipes that require them, and I wanted to use some of the fresh rue.  So I went back to Grocock and Grainger’s straight-up translation of the Apicius cookery manual to see what I could find.

8.1.9.  Another sauce for boar:  pound pepper, lovage, oregano, celery seed, laser root, cumin, fennel seed, rue, liquamen, wine, passum.  Bring it to heat; when it is simmering, thicken with starch.  Pour the sauce into and over the boar and serve.

Sounds promising.  I was using ambiguously labeled “pork kebab meat” from our meat CSA, not wild boar, but it was free-range pork.  And the Romans often cooked food over charcoal (many of the more convenient methods not having been invented yet).  Laser is silphium, but that was already extinct by the time most of these recipes were being written down, so they were using asafetida instead.  Liquamen is fish sauce, and ancient Roman fish sauce was pretty close to modern Thai or Vietnamese.  Passum was a sweet wine made from dried grapes.  I always use Passito di Pantelleria, which is probably the best modern approximation (Wikipedia says so, anyway).  The one made by Cantine Pellegrino is available at a local wine and spirits retailer (this is the modern, fancy term for liquor store).

I didn’t follow the instructions exactly.  Partly because I wanted to marinate the pork in the mixture before grilling it, as well as using it as a dipping sauce.  Here’s my recipe:

1 tsp. lovage seed
1 tsp. celery seed
1/2 tsp. cumin seed
1/2 tsp. fennel seed
1/4 tsp. ground asafetida
1 tsp. peppercorns
1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh lovage
1 tsp. minced fresh oregano
1 tsp. minced fresh rue
3/4 c. dry white Italian wine
1/4 c. Passito di Pantelleria
2 tbsp. Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 1/4 lb. pork kebab meat (I wouldn’t be so vague about where on the animal the meat came from, except that I don’t know. Legs, maybe? Loin? Anything you’d use for grilling, frying, or roasting (rather than braising or stewing), cut into approximately 2-inch chunks, is probably fine.)

In a small skillet over moderately low heat, toast lovage seed, celery seed, cumin seed, fennel seed, and ground asafetida until fragrant, while stirring. Cool slightly, then grind with the peppercorns in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Add wine, Passito, fish sauce, and fresh herbs. Divide mixture into 2 equal portions. Reserve half of the mixture to use as a dipping sauce. To the other half, add the olive oil. Marinate the pork kebabs in the mixture that contains olive oil for 2-24 hours (In the fridge, of course. Ancient Romans didn’t have fridges, but the ancient text says nothing about marinating in this mixture, either.)

Thread the pork kebabs onto skewers and grill to desired doneness. You could broil them instead, if it were raining or too cold to grill. I’m not giving precise instructions here based on what I did, because I was trying to grill-roast a whole chicken at the same time (that’s another possible blog post), and my grilling of the pork didn’t receive the close attention it deserved. My kebabs were cooked through more than I like (medium-well rather than medium-rare, though if you’re still afraid of trichinosis this may be more to your liking (ancient Romans were probably afraid of trichinosis, too)), and not seared enough on the outside because I was using briquettes instead of hardwood charcoal to get the chicken right. Also, the pork got cold before we got around to eating it, because the chicken took longer. But the hickory wood chunks I was using to flavor the chicken gave the pork a nice, smoky flavor.

Serve the grilled pork with the dipping sauce.

If you compare this to the original Apicius recipe, you’ll see I didn’t bother heating the sauce once it had been assembled, and didn’t bother thickening it, either.  I could have, though cornstarch isn’t strictly authentic, as the ancient Romans didn’t have corn.  You could use wheat starch, often available in Asian grocery stores near the rice flour, if you were striving for verisimilitude.

Of course, you’re going to have trouble duplicating this recipe if you don’t grow your own lovage and rue, as they’re not easy to find.  I have seen fresh lovage, still growing in little pots, at the Lexington farmers’ market here in Massachusetts.  You could substitute celery leaves for the fresh lovage, or just leave it out.  I used organic lovage seeds sold for planting rather than culinary purposes, and lovage seeds are not too difficult to find.  If you haven’t just spent the last several months growing your own fresh rue, you’re probably out of luck, though some friends of mine who used to live in Park Slope, in Brooklyn, told me they’ve seen it at the farmers’ market there on occasion.  Before we had rue, we would substitute fresh fenugreek leaves in ancient recipes that called for it (fresh fenugreek is available at well-stocked Indian grocery stores), or dandelion leaves.  Rue is quite bitter, so you’ll get some of the correct flavor that way.  You’d probably want to use a tablespoon of either of these substitutes, as neither is as astoundingly bitter as rue.  Rue also has some interesting flavor notes that you might describe as citrusy, though, so I don’t think any substitute will be quite right.

If you want to use rue, keep in mind that it’s, um, mildly toxic.  And should probably not be consumed by pregnant women or those attempting to become pregnant.  It had medicinal as well as culinary uses, and one of those medicinal uses was as an herbal abortifacient.  I’m pretty sure that a teaspoon mixed into a cup of liquid and shared among 3 or more people as a marinade and dipping sauce is not going to hurt anybody or their unborn child.  But I have no real knowledge on the subject.  I informed all our dinner guests of the potential toxicity issue, and you should do the same.

How did it turn out?  Everyone seemed to enjoy the pork kebabs and dipping sauce.  There are a lot of different flavors in there, but they seem to meld well together.  Donald wants me to try the sauce again, this time using rue in one batch and a rue substitute in the other, to see if there’s any noticeable difference (Donald’s blog post on the dipping sauce is here).  Maybe he’s wondering if growing fresh rue is worth the effort.  It’s supposed to be a perennial herb, though, so I think we’ll have fresh rue as long as we remember to water it from time to time.

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