Etcetera Roman Cookbook Table of Contents

Roman Cooking part 1

(Taken from "Food & Cooking in Roman Britain" written by Marian Woodman)

Highly flavoured sauces often containing as many as a dozen ingredients were extensively used to mask the natural flavours of Roman food. The most commonly used seasoning was liquamen, the nearest equivalent today being a very strong fish stock, with anchovies as its main ingredient. This was so popular that it was factory-produced in many towns in the Roman empire.

Silphium, a herb much prized by Roman cooks, came mainly from the former Greek colony of Cyrenaica. To man an ounce of silphium last longer, the Apician cookery book recommends keeping it in a jar of pine-kernels, which would absorb the flavour, much as a vanilla pod is used today in a jar of sugar. However, it seems to have become unobtainable after the first century A.D. and substitute herbs would have been used.

Other herbs often mentioned in Roman recipes include thyme, bay leaf, basil, fennel, hyssop, rue, savoury mint, parsley, pennyroyal and dill, while spices such as ginger, cumin, cardamon, cinnamon and saffron flavoured their many sauces.

Spices were used in large quantities, either to disguise the taste of food which had become rancid through overstoring, or to ensure that the guests were made fully aware of the expense the host had incurred in providing their meal.

One theory about Roman society and its preference for highly flavoured foods is that lead poisoning was prevalent among the aristocracy, due mainly to the use of lead lined pots used for boiling a preservative syrup required by wine merchants. As the symptoms of this complaint include a metallic taste in the mouth and loss of appetite, it would follow that a chronic sufferer would seek to kill this unpleasant taste and stimulate his jaded appetite.

The final collapse of a great empire had a strange connection with one of the most highly prized spices of the time. The barbarians who gathered at the gates of Rome in the fifth century A.D. demanded, amongst other tributes of land, subsidies and military titles, no less than three thousand pounds of pepper.

In The Careful Housekeeper Apicius tells his readers 'How To Make Stale Meat Sweet' by cooking it first in milk, then in water. 'How To Make Bad Honey Good' by mixing one part bad honey with two parts good honey. Many other tips were given for preserving and keeping food fresh which must have been a major problem in the days before refrigerators; perishable food such as fish had to be transported many miles at a time when the horse was fastest method of communication.

Food and cooking are timeless and universal. The Babylonians used the same basic equipment to be found in their modern equivalents today. Colanders and saucepans, strainers and skillets were used in Pompeii and pastry cutters were part of cooking equipment in Gaul in 200 A.D. From excavations in Britain we can deduce that the daily business of preparing and serving food has always been one of the main social activities of mankind. Although the twentieth century housewife would not have found the Roman kitchen 'labour-saving', (but with that we must remember that neither has she the substitute number of slaves), she would nevertheless be able to use many Roman ingredients and utensils with little noticeable difference.

A typical kitchen in Roman Britain in about 200 A.D. would have looked very similar to that shown below. The most recognizable feature is the raised hearth, a masonry construction of table height, on which was placed the charcoal, and over this most of the cooking was done, in vessels supported by iron tripods or grid irons. A fine example of a grid iron from Silchester has been copied in this reconstruction. Wood was also used, as some recipes refers to certain dishes being smoked. Arrangements for providing water for cooking and washing up are sometimes found, and stone or wooden tables for food preparation.

A little about Roman food and Cooking pt.2

Woman cooking a meal


Etcetera Roman Cookbook Table of Contents

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