A Taste of the Past: Ancient recipes you can make at home!22nd April 2019
by Ursula Janssen
A talented cook and archaeologist, Ursula Janssen (pictured below) runs a fascinating blog about her passion for recreating ancient recipes. After having lived in a number of countries on three continents, she relocated to gorgeous Puglia in Southern Italy with her husband and daughter, and now runs a farm with a vineyard and charming B&B from their charming trullo. Aside from her archaeological work and love of cooking, Ursula writes for various magazines and created this blog post for us about ancient recipes you can make at home.
A culture's food is the essence of its civilisation, a perfect mirror of its society, a projection of its views and values. Roman cuisine is no exception.
Its concepts differ greatly from what we would consider good cooking nowadays, yet it is refined and full of good, fresh ingredients. The main distinction from modern cookery is the idea of combining all main flavours (sweet, sour, salty) in almost each and every dish, a goal that is achieved by using the same ingredients (honey, verjus or vinegar, and garum – the famous salty fish sauce) over and over again which might lead to a certain similarity of tastes. In the wealthy circles of the Roman Empire a good cook was considered someone who could transform ingredients into a dish imitating completely different ingredients, let's say make a chicken look and taste like a fish. But these kinds of show dishes were upper class fancies. I think the average Roman citizen – or slave, to be precise – was as happy as we are today to have good fresh ingredients cooked into a tasty (and recognisable) dish and garnished with a good dash of excellent olive oil. And we may not forget that Roman society was an extremely stratified one – who ate what surely depended on status and, unsurprisingly, dosh. Bread and pulse dishes were the staple food of the masses.
The best known recipes come from the cooking book of Apicius from the 1st century AD which gives an extensive insight into the more refined ways of Ancient Roman cuisine. As all ancient recipes they do not give any hints of the amounts used, which I tend to see as an advantage, enabling us to experiment with tastes and adjust them to our own preferences. I have chosen a couple of recipes of starters that are easy to reproduce and give a good insight into the ancient taste experience. All recipes are for four persons.
Cucurbitas more Alexandrinum – Squash the Alexandrinian way (pictured below left)
Fry a couple of sliced squashes in olive oil and leave them to cool down a little. In a bowl, mix with a handful of chopped dried dates (although I have had good results using dried apricots, too, which give the dish a less sweet and fresher taste – I don't know, though, if Apicius would approve), toasted blanched almonds, fresh mint leaves, and season the salad to taste with garum (fish sauce – you can use Asian fish sauces like nuoc mam as a substitute), ground black pepper, a little cumin, some coriander seeds, a dash of verjuice or vinegar, and olive oil.
In ovis apalis – eggs in pine nut sauce (pictured below right)
Arrange four hardboiled and halved eggs on a plate and cover them with a sauce made from a handful of pestled pine nuts, 1⁄2 teaspoon of honey, a dash of garum (fish sauce) to taste, ground black pepper, caraway, some coriander seeds, verjuice or vinegar, and olive oil, and garnish with spring onions.