Ancient Roman Game Marinade

Venison Osso Bucco

Good taste never goes out of style.  That’s why I used this adapted Ancient Roman game marinade recipe from the ancient Roman book, “On the Subject of Cooking” that is often attributed to Apicius. The recipe made a marinade and gravy for a recent family dinner featuring venison osso bucco. It was a holiday crowd-pleaser and one of the best game dishes I ever prepared. The marinade allowed the affordable osso bucco cuts to be transformed into a tender, delectable main course.

First, a word about the meat. I got the meat shipped from D’Artangnan in NYC. Other great providers that I personally use include Marx Foods. Both are purveyors of great game, meat and other gourmet products. The venison was from New Zealand and it was meaty, beautifully red, moist and delicious. A great start for a great meal.

Portrait of Apicius

Now on to Apicius. Contrary to popular belief, Apicius was not the author of the book that bears his name. Nor was he a chef or a cook or involved with any profession involved with food. Rather, he was an extremely wealthy man who, instead of getting a “proper” profession, spent all of his money on food, the acquisition of ingredients and lavish feasts. According to Pliny, Marcus Gavius Apicius was renown for preparing pigs for the table by feeding them with dried figs and giving them honeyed wine to drink. Among his other favoured foods were flamingo’s tongue, camel heels, roasted ostrich, sow’s womb and nightingale’s tongue. He traveled far and wide to eat and to bring ingredients for meals back to Rome. The 4th Century cookbook bears his name only to invoke his love of food, the lengths he went for it, and the extraordinary amount of money tht he spent on it. Apicius himself had nothing to do with the writing of the book.

On the Subject of Cooking

The text is organized in ten books, most of which, despite their titles, cater largely to the diets and practices of the wealthiest classes, are arranged thus: 1.Epimeles — The Careful Housekeeper; 2.Sarcoptes — The Meat Mincer; 3.Cepuros — The Gardener; 4.Pandecter — Many Ingredients; 5.Ospreon — Pulse; 6.Aeropetes — Birds; 7.Polyteles — The Gourmet; 8.Tetrapus — The Quadruped; 9.Thalassa — The Sea; 10.Halieus — The Fisherman.

The recipe I adapted is from Book 8, Chapter 2 and is named, “Embamma in Cervinam Assam”. It consists of: Pepper, nard leaves, celery seed, onions, green rue, honey, vinegar, broth, dates, raisins and oil. My adaptation follows:

Ancient Roman Marinade for Venison (adapted)

1 cup game or beef stock
1 cup red wine to replace half of beef or game stock (marinade only)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
¼ preserved lemon peel – finely sliced
1 cup pomegranate juice
1/3 cup barberries
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons malt vinegar
6 dates, pitted and finely chopped
4 tablespoon raisins

3-4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon rosemary, finely minced
2 sprigs fresh thyme

The biggest changes are the substitution on souring agents. I replaced nard grass and green rue with a combination of preserved lemon, barberries and pomegranate juice. Additionally, I added a few ingredients that are usually associated with modern game marinades. Specifically, I added a few bay leaves, rosemary and a couple of sprigs of thyme.

Venison Osso Bucco – Prepared

To marinate 12 venison osso bucco with all of the meat submerged, I trebled the solids and quadrupled the liquids for a delicious marinade.  After browning the meat in grapeseed oil, I made a fresh batch of marinade (minus the red wine) to braise in.  After the browning and before the braise I cleaned the pot out and sautéed in unsalted butter a mixture of red onions, carrots and celery in a 2:1:1 ratio.

When the meat was done, I strained the cooking liquid and added a mixture of cornstarch and water to make sumptuous gravy.

I served these with a wild mushroom medley (oyster, chanterelles and porcini) lightly flavored with orange zest, fennel and a dash of red wine.  Other dishes – cooked by other family members – included a brown and wild rice pilaf, and carrots with butter and honey.

All in all it was a delicious meal to bring the family together with ties to our ancient, shared past. (Words and ancient recipe adaptation by Laura Kelley. Photo of Raw Venison Osso Bucco borrowed from Marx Foods; Venison Osso Bucco Prepared by Monkey Business Images @


14 thoughts on “Ancient Roman Game Marinade

  1. I cannot believe you have allowed me to be a part of such culinary history – and made it so easy! Cannot wait for the weekend to try this ever so carefully – OK, have to find some barberries or go without! Thank you so much for this rare recipe from days bygone! [OK, osso bucco has been a fave forever!]!

    • Hi Eha:

      Glad you liked the post! I hope you like the recipe when you make it yourself. I didin’t note in the instructions how long I marinated the osso bucco, becasue I think that is a personal choice. But I let mine marinate covered for about a day and a half in the cold. I moved the meat around every now and then to try to assue even penetration.

      After marination, I made a fresh batch (minus the wine) to braise in, and the meat was delicious!

  2. Beautiful recipe. YOu have done an amazing job with the dish. I can imagine all those flavors. If you need some nard… I have a lot on hand!! Rue is problematic too… too much is sort of sick-making. I wonder how they got up to eating some of this stuff.??? Both are rather bitter but all the rich flavors would balance it nicely. I love your version and think it is probably better than the original. I look forward to trying it soon.

    • Hi Deana:

      Thanks for the great comments! I really don’t like rue, is what it comes down to. Part of it is the flavor, and part of it is my paranoia about putting too much of the stuff in as you noted. As to nard – I just don’t have to work with it that much, so I don’t keep it around. Pickled tamarind leaves, however, I have those!


  3. Hi Debs: Thanks for the kind invitation. I’d like to participate sometimes – when it is an Asian soup you call for or soup with an ingredient that is a prominent part of an Asian soup. If that is OK with you, then, I’m in.


  4. I never knew about Apicius, I just assumed he was the author. We studied Roman literature for years in school but somehow they never made us play with the most interesting books. This recipe sounds delicious, and your adaptation much more feasible. I’d like to try to add a few juniper berries, a natural with venison to me.

    A little note, just for philology’s sake: osso buco is spelled with just one ‘c’ in Italian, sometimes as one word (ossobuco). It means bone (osso) with a hollow (buco).

    • Hi C:

      I think your addition of juniper berries sounds lovely – let me know how it goes!

      As to spelling, in American English, we have a second c (check out an American dictionary) I don’t know why, but we do and it follows through with other latinate words as well – like buccal (area near cheek) and other such words.

      (P.S. How are you? I hope the funk you wrote about in your last post will not last forever. . . I tried to respond, but it was forcing me to log into facebook instead of leaving a comment like I always have done in the past. – I’m trying to be sociable, our social technology simply isn’t allowing me to be.)

  5. I love this recipe. We eat a lot of venison in South Africa, especially with my daughter being a hunter. Next time I’ll use your recipe and then have a lovely story to accompany it. Thanx for sharing all your knowledge with us.

    • Hi Maureen:

      Please do, and let me know how you like it. I marinated the osso bucco for about a day and a half in the cold garage. Marinate as you see fit, but the flavor really permeated when marinated for that long. If you don’t mind me asking, roughly where in SA are you – Cape, Durban Joberg etc? You do have a paradise of game down there. I would check out Apicius if I were you – lots of delicious recipes for it.


  6. I tried this recipe out last night and it came out really good, even though I didn’t have some of the ingredients because I couldn’t find nard grass, rue, or barberries.

    Is there any way you could do a step by step recipe for the braising? I know it should come out rare, but I wound up over braising it and it came out medium and somewhat tough.

    • Hi Ed: Welcome to the site.

      I would very much like to oblige, but have to have a few conditions and qualifiers in place first. Firstly, for all types of cooking, the amount of cooking time depends greatly on the type and cut of meat, how old it is, how moist it is, and how it was marinated (and how long) or otherwise tenderized, how much of it there is and the type of cooking pot and method, and the temperature one cooks at. Secondly, there are several different ways to braise. The first and classic braise which I used (with a variation) in this recipe is to brown the meat and then cook it in liquid or marinade in the same pot. In the case of this recipe, the browning of the venison was preceded by a clean pot before the liquid was added, because the “browning” left over in the pan was a bit too black for my taste – and I wanted to emphasize the fruity flavors in the marinade.

      A second type of braise, seen a lot lately is the oven braise in which meat is browned on the stovetop and then transferred to an oven with liquid added to complete the braise. Depending on the temperature of the oven, this can result in a slow braise which leads to tender, delectable meat. (This can also be done on a stovetop, one just need to be vigilant about the temperature and cooking speed of the meat).

      I honestly think the best thing you can do is repeat the recipe and cook it for less time than you did the first time. Don’t be afraid to taste or poke and prod the meat a little bit to check its consistency. To educate yourself, read about braising in the Joy of Cooking or Larousse Gastronomique or some other classic book. Also troll the internet for recipes for braised meat and see how long they cooked it for (keeping in mind the qualifiers listed above). Generally, the longer one marinates, the less one has to cook. This is particularly true for marinades with lots of citrus or any marinade on fish.

      If you still want some further guidance from me – let me know the info I need from above, and I will try to come up with a best guess piece of advice.

  7. Hi, I adapted it a bit. Oh god how good it was. I was really surprised. I had a bach leg, quite a large piece. Marinated for 24 hours and baked in the onev in this plastic bag.
    I replaced barberries with goji berries and added some lemon pepper. This was a crowd pleaser.
    Baked at 225 celcius for 1.5 h superb!

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