My first post for the great publication, Zester Daily, was released today. Go on over and read all about The Secret to Umami’s Magic by yours truly!
Our trip to Moonfire Orchard left us with a wonderful selection of heirloom apples that I have been experimenting with. One of the recipes that I’ve been developing that is a real keeper is one for Ancient Roman Pork and Apples. It is an ancient recipe that balances sweet, sour, salty and bitter. And yes, it uses garum or liquamen so the umami factor for this one is through the roof! The recipe is from Apicius (4.3.4) and called Minutal Matianum in the original Latin.
One of the interesting things about the recipe is that the pork is twice cooked. Yes, this is one of the way that Romans prepared pork leftovers – by cooking them with leeks and apples with herbs, spices, garum, honey, vinegar and the grape syrup known as defruitum. The way I’ve been making it, it has a sweet and sour flavor that is reminiscent of an Alsatian Sauerkraut with Apples that is an old family favorite. But like most ancient recipes, the ingredients have no amounts associated with them, so a large amount of variation in flavor is possible. if you want it sweeter than I’ve written it – make it so! The original recipe and a simple translation follows. After that are my notes and my adaptation of the recipe.
ADICIES IN CACCABUM OLEUM, LIQUAMEN, COCTURAM, CONCIDES PORRUM, CORIANDRUM, ESICIA MINUTA. SPATULAM PORCINAM COCTAM TESSELLATIM CONCIDES CUM SUA SIBI TERGILLA. FACIES UT SIMUL COQUANTUR. MEDIA COCTURA MALA MATIANA PURGATA INTRINSECS CONCISA TESSELLATIM MITTES. DUM COQUITUR, TERES PIPER, CUMINUM, CORIANDRUM VIRIDEM VEL SEMEM, MENTAM, LASERIS RADICEM, SUFFUNDES ACETUM, MEL, LIQUAMEN, DEFRITUM MODICE ET IUS DE SUO SIBI, ACETO MODICO TEMPERABIS. FACIES UT FERVEAT. CUM FERBUERIT, TRACTAM CONFRINGES ET EX EA OBLIGAS, PIPER ASPARGES ET INFERES.
Put in a sauce pan oil, broth finely chopped leeks, coriander, small tid-bits, cooked pork shoulder, cut into long strips including the skin, have everything equally half done. Add Matian apples cleaned, the core removed, slice lengthwise and cook them together: meanwhile crush pepper, cumin, green coriander, or seeds, mint, laser root, moistened with vinegar, honey and garum and a little reduced must, add to this the broth of the above morsels, vinegar to taste, boil, skim, bind strain over the morsels sprinkle with pepper and serve.
One thing to keep in mind is that unless you cook Ancient Roman recipes frequently and have defruitum on hand, you will have to make it in advance. This simply requires boiling down grape juice until it becomes a syrup. Making defruitum is simple to do, but time consuming. Depending how much you are making, it can take a while and has to be done on low heat to avoid burning the syrup. I recently made a batch and boiled down 64 oz of juice to about 16-20 oz of defruitum. Although most recipes for defruitum say that it is boiled down by half, this is based on crushing fresh grapes and letting them sit in skins for a day or two before straining and reducing. I think that the crushing and sitting may change the consistency a bit when compared to the bottled 100% grape juice that I used. I went by the consistency which is lightly thickened and robustly flavored NOT a true syrup like sapa. I suggest making the defruitum a few days in advance of trying the Ancient Roman Pork with Apples recipe.
Also, as it is a, ‘what to do with leftovers’ dish, the pork has to be cooked in advance. If you don’t have a pound of pork leftover from your last feast, you can boil the meat in enough water to cover in the morning, let it cool and make this recipe at night. I’ve taken to adding some crushed peppercorns to the water to flavor the meat and it is a delicious touch.
For this recipe I used very large Gold Rush apples which have a powerful, complex flavor. It also keeps its shape during cooking, so the apples do not break down into applesauce. So, flavor is important when choosing apples, but form and ability to withstand cooking is also important.
This recipe also calls for garum or liquamen the fish sauce of the ancients. If you have a vat on hand (as I do) harvest some and use. If not, use some Asian fish sauce as an alternative.
Lastly, asafoetida has been substituted for laser root (silphion). Silphion is thought to be a now extinct member of the Ferula genus. Asafoetida, although offering a more crude onion-garlic flavor, is a the best substitute.
Ancient Roman Pork With Apples
1 pound pork shoulder or tenderloin, roasted or boiled and sliced lengthwise into strips
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
1/8 pound ground pork or beef
1½ tablespoons garum or fish sauce
3 leeks, cleaned and sliced in long thin strips, separated into white and green parts
3 teaspoons cumin seed, partially crushed
3 teaspoons coriander seed, partially crushed
4-5 long-pepper catkins, crushed
Handful of fresh mint leaves
1 small bunch, cilantro minced
½ cup beef or chicken broth or liquid from par-boiling the pork
1/3 – ½ cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 large pinches of asafoetida
2 large firm apples, peeled and sliced lengthwise
¼ cup defruitum (reduced grape juice)
1 teaspoon cracked pepper for garnish
- Make defruitum. For this recipe use a white grape juice variety.
- Harvest garum or buy fish sauce
- If necessary cook and cool pork. If you do not have sufficient leftovers from a large pork roast, boil the meat in enough water to cover for 5-7 minutes and then cool in its juice. If boiling the meat, throw some additional crushed peppercorns into the water to season.
- Place butter or oil in a large sauce pan and warm over medium or medium-low heat. Add ground meat and sauté – breaking up the meat into tiny tidbits as you stir. Add about 1 tablespoon of the garum, stir and warm. Add the white parts of the leeks and cover and cook for a few minutes until the vegetables start to wilt.
- Add cumin, coriander seed and long pepper all lightly crushed and stir. Add the mint, cilantro and stir again. Add broth or water from parboiling the pork to moisten the contents of the pan. Then add the vinegar and stir well while the liquid warms. Add the honey, remaining garum, and asafoetida and stir again.
- Add the pork and green part of the leeks, stir and cover to warm. When the pork has warmed, add the apples, stir and cover. After about five minutes add the defruitum and stir again. Cook another five minutes – or until the apples are just done – and remove from the heat. With this amount of liquid, I felt no need to bind the sauce with a roux or corn starch as suggested in th original recipe. If you wish to make a thick sauce, remove the solids from the pot and make a sauce. Otherwise, garnish with cracked pepper and serve. Excellent with barley or millet, or all by itself.
One of the things I like most about this dish is how it changes as you eat it. The combination of vinegar and the sugars from the honey and defruitum fill the room during proparation. When you first eat it (as written) the bitter turns to sweet, then there is that incredible savory of the garum followed by the sharp crack of all tthat pepper to form a perfect symphony of a dish.
Its a bit of work if you don’t have the defruitum on hand, but I hope you give this one a try – its a path back to an ancient Roman meal along the Silk Road. (Words and adaptation of Apician recipe by Laura Kelley. Photo of Ancient Roman Pork with Apples by Laura Kelley).
Deciphering and reinventing ancient recipes is an inexact skill. To some degree, it is more like alchemy than anything else. There is a touch of science in the linguistic, historical or archaeological research; a touch of art in the choosing of ingredients and their relative quantities; and a touch of faith or intuition in what feels right from a culinary point of view. The mark of the cook, chef or the interpreter and the decisions they made along the way is always present in the final dish.
As regular readers of the website know, many, or perhaps most ancient recipes have little or no information about the quantities of ingredients to add. I believe that this is purposeful, to provide general flavor guidelines and allow cooks to decide what sort of dish is being produced from a soup to a braised dish to a roast etc. Sometimes, however, the method is explicit: boil this, then roast, and there is little room for improvisation, although many cooks ignore these instructions when unfamiliar methods are proposed, as with boiling meats.
Another uncertainty is the surety of the cook with ingredients and their equivalency with modern ingredients. For example, in most Roman texts, the word “pepper” is used in a generic sense. It could mean black pepper, white pepper or long pepper (Piper longum). In antiquity, long pepper was the most expensive and the most sharply flavored of the three, white pepper was gentle in flavor and intermediate in price and black pepper was the people’s pepper: relatively cheap and strongly, but crudely flavored. The choice of the type of pepper depended upon the flavor desired for the dish, and the size of the diner’s purse. Today, most cooks unfortunately interpret this ingredient to be black pepper and thus limit the variation potentially associated with the dish.
One of the ingredients (or famiy of ingredients) in ancient Roman cookery that remains somewhat elusive for modern cooks is oenogarum. That is wine mixed with the fish sauce garum or liquamen that is derived from fish digested with salt and its own intestinal enzymes. Contrary to what many would expect, the garum or liquamen doesn’t bear a particularly strong fish or salt taste. Rather it enhances the flavor of other foods with its high glutamic acid content. (To read more about garum and my attempts to make it see this post and this post and check out the posts listed under the rubric Roman Cookoff.) All this said, there are only rough descriptions of how to produce garum or liquamen in ancient manuscripts. The type and amount of fish vary extensively as do the amount and type of salt and the digestion time. Modern attempts to recreate garum or liquamen by myself and others (notably by historic cook Sally Grainger) are all equal parts research, opinion and intuition. When all is said and done, we are all only approximating the Roman sauces, not really reconstructing them.
In ancient Roman recipes, oenogarum is used in two different culinary circumstances: 1.) In the kitchen to flavor foods and construct sauces, and 2.) As a condiment or dipping sauce at the table. As an ingredient to sauces, oenogarum is mixed with many herbs and spices from lovage and pennyroyal to long pepper and crushed cloves depending upon the food item to be enhanced. At the table, the ingredients tended to be more limited and sometime included a dash of vinegar, honey or a sweet and thick fruit or wine syrup.
Many problems surround the reconstruction of these sauces, but the biggest issue is we really have no idea what Roman wine was like. Was it strong? Was it sweeter or more sour than wines of today, and what quality was used in the kitchen for the construction of sauces? From Pliny the Elder (NH 14.8) we know that a cup of Falernian wine would catch fire from a candle flame drawn too close. From this we can assume that at least this variety was much stronger than our wines today. We also know that some sweet wines were thoroughly enjoyed, especially some sweet white wines.
The ability to age was a desirable trait in Roman wines, with mature examples from older vintages fetching higher prices than that from the current vintage, regardless of its overall quality. Roman law codified the distinction between “old” and “new” as whether wine had aged for at least a year. Falernian was particularly valued for its aging ability, said to need at least 10 years to mature but being at its best between 15 and 20 years. The white wine from Surrentine was said to need at least 25 years.
In the manner of Greek wine, Roman wine was often flavored with herbs and spices and was sometimes stored in resin-coated containers, giving it a flavor similar to modern retsina. Additionally, honey or must was added to some wines, such as Mulsum to enhance and sweeten their flavor before serving. Romans were particularly interested in a wine’s bouquet or aroma. One technique used to enhance the bouquet was to plant herbs such as lavender and thyme in the vineyards, believing that their flavors would pass through the ground and into the grapes. Another widespread practice was the storage of amphorae in a smoke chamber called a fumarium to add smokiness to a wine’s flavor.
The finest wine was reserved for the upper classes of Rome. Below that was posca, a mixture of water and sour wine that had not yet turned into vinegar. Posca’s use as soldiers’ rations was codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis and amounted to around a liter per day. Still lower in quality was lora, which was made by soaking the pomace of grape skins already pressed twice in water for a day, and then pressing a third time. Cato and Varro recommended lora for their slaves. Both posca and lora were the most commonly available wine for the general Roman populace and probably would have been for the most part red wines.
With all this uncertainty about garum and liquamen and an additional amount of uncertainty about Roman wine, one approach is to start anew in the recreation of oenogarum. This is exactly what I’ve done with a little help from vintner, David Mahaffey, the genius behind Heron Valley Vineyard’s Olivia Brion wines. I requested David’s help, because who better than a master vintner to help
concoct a modern oenogarum.
Working with my garum and his own Olivia Brion 2009 Syrah, David came up with a formula pleasing to his modern expert palate. He chose the silky and concentrated syrah because he was cooking a wild boar shot on the vineyard grounds and thought that the red would work better with that meat. He writes, “After a little experimentation, I decided that the right proportional volume of syrah to garum was 225ml wine to 50ml garum–that seemed to have the right fruit to savory balance.” I find David’s choice interesting because many historical cooks use a 1:1 ratio, that for me, at least, is much too heavy on the garum. David’s ratio of about 4.5:1 (wine:garum) works extremely well from a culinary point of view as a sauce to prep dishes with in the kitchen.
I also find David’s choice of his syrah interesting from a historical point of view as well. Pliny the Elder wrote about the wines of Vienne (which today would be called Côte-Rôtie), where the Allobroges made famous and prized wine from a dark-skinned grape variety that was at that time new to the Roman world (NH 14.3). It has been speculated that it could be today’s Syrah, although some have argued that the description of the wine would also fit Dureza grapes. So good on you David!
I used David’s oenogarum formula with a less expensive but good Shiraz to cook Mushrooms al la Apicius (7.8.15) to accompany a Roman lamb dish my husband served up that evening. The Apician recipe calls for the mushrooms (or, specifically morels) to be cooked quickly in garum and pepper and then drained. I used oenogarum and long pepper to make a nice side dish that worked very well with the lamb. The oenogarum enhanced the flavor of the mushrooms with a hint of the shiraz and also was the sole source of salt for the dish, and the long pepper added just enough peppery spiciness that worked wonderfully with the mushrooms (morels were not available locally for love or money so I used meaty, portobello caps). Mushrooms prepared thus could also be used in an egg dish like a kuku or an omelet, or mixed with other vegetables for another great presentation. One new oenogarum potion down, many more to go.
A Roman Mushroom Dish
(based on Apicius (7.8.15))
1 pound Portobello Mushroom caps
1.5 cups good Shiraz (or Syrah)
1/3 cup garum or liquamen
4-5 long pepper catkins, crushed or ground
Clean thoroughly and slice the mushrooms into bite-sized morsels and set aside. Mix wine and garum and mix well but gently.
In a large saute pan, warm the oenogarum and long pepper over medium-low flame until it is hot. Do not let it come to a boil. When hot, add the mushrooms. Cook uncovered until mushrooms have given off their own water and have become tender. Remove from flame and drain the mushrooms. If desired, catch the liquid from the pan and use it to flavor another dish for the same meal. Works very nicely with grain dishes such as barley. Enjoy!
(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Homemade Garum and Mushrooms with Oenogarum and Long Pepper by Laura Kelley. Photo of Long Pepper from Wikimedia Commons; Photo of Roman Wine by Deana Sidney and Photo of Olivia Brion Pinot Noir borrowed from the Olivia Brion website. Special thanks to David Mahaffey for beginning to help solve the ancient puzzle that is oenogarum.)
This post recounts the results of an experiment that took place recently between me and my husband. In the Apician cookbook there are two recipes very close together that can be used for either cucumbers or melons:
PEPPER, PENNYROYAL, HONEY OR CONDENSED MUST, BROTH AND VINEGAR; ONCE IN A WHILE ONE ADDS SILPHIUM. (Apicius III.6.3 (for cucumbers) and III.7.1 (for melons))
Ingredients are listed, but no amounts are offered. My husband, who is also a good cook, wanted to join me in the cookoff. So I proposed using our different takes on the cucumber-melon Apician recipe to demonstrate the role of variation in Roman cooking. We cooked our dishes separately, and did not compare notes until after the experiment was over. Interestingly, we came up with radically different dishes based on the same ancient recipe. The results follow:
Apician Cucumbers by Laura Kelley
This is a slightly sour starter salad or condiment in a large meal that has the unusual flavor of red wine must and vinegar as the main flavors. The pennyroyal sweetens the mixture just a bit and the asafetida adds a bit of depth. The garum of course is the umami factor for this unusual combination of flavors.
1-2 large western cucumbers (or multiple smaller Asian ones)
3 teaspoons dried, shredded pennyroyal
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black peppercorns
2 tablespoons beef broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3-4 teaspoons reduced red wine *
4 teaspoons garum
1-2 pinches asafetida (optional)
Prepare the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together in a shallow bowl or cup. If you are sensitive to textures, you may wish to grind the pennyroyal into a powder. Peel, deseed and cut the cucumbers crosswise. Pour dressing over the cucumbers and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. When about to serve, add the asafetida if desired, and mix well. Serve cool, not cold or at room temperature.
* Reduced wine or must is very simple to make. For reduced wine, simply heat wine to a near boil, then turn down the flame to low or medium low and cook very gently – stirring often – until light syrup is formed. For reduced must, use procedure above on commercially available 100% grape juice – unless you live near a vineyard and can get a large amount of fresh must. Best if prepared at least one day before cooking and allowed to fully cool before using. Stores for months if refrigerated in a sterilized, sealed glass jar. 1.5 liters of wine makes about ¼ to 1/3 cup of must. (Reduced wine and must carry a wallop of sweet and sour flavor and should be used cautiously, or they will easily overpower and recipe.)
Apician Melons by Stephen Kelley
This melon recipe is surprisingly sweet given the addition of so much white vinegar. It provides a delicious and remarkable dessert or sweet snack of melons flavored in an unusual way – with sweet pennyroyal and lots of black pepper. Best when served cool or room temperature – but not cold.
½ honeydew melon
3 teaspoons dried, shredded pennyroyal
2½ teaspoons coarsely ground black peppercorns
6 teaspoons white vinegar
6 teaspoons reduced white wine
4 teaspoons garum
Prepare the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together in a shallow bowl or cup. If you are sensitive to textures, you may wish to grind the pennyroyal into a powder. Peel, deseed and dice the melons and mix them together. Pour dressing over the melons and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Serve cool, not cold or at room temperature.
First off, let me say that both dishes were delicious. We were both surprised to see what different dishes we made from the same list of ingredients. As you can see, to some degree, our preconceived notions about what to do with the main ingredient greatly influenced our choices. Working with the cucumber, I went for a more sour, salad-like dish, and my husband went the dessert route becasue he was working with melons.
We both used reduced wine instead of reduced must (which would usually be slightly sweeter) or honey because that is what we had on hand.
We were also impressed by the absence of any fish flavor on the vegetables and fruits despite a fair amount of garum added to each dressing. I am not a big fan of dishes with a strong flavor of alcohol in them and particulary dislike rum cakes and tipsy parsons. That said, however, the rich flavor of reduced wine on the cucumbers and melons was fantastic and I urge you to try it.
Those of you who follow this blog will know that I pay a lot of attention to variation in Asian “recipes” many of which are offered as rudimentary lists of ingredients, just as the Roman recipe above. To sum up some of the posts I’ve written on variation, which are available here and here, I’d note that most of the rest of the world doesn’t care about the uniformity that so many in the west desire.
For example, many recipes in Central or Western Asia are given with the ingredient, “greens”. Most of the time this could be cilantro, parsley, tarragon, dill or even one of the savories – the varying balance of which could drastically change the flavor of a dish. A modern western version of such a recipe would, on the other hand, report the exact amounts of the herbs needed and the form in which to add them. This would lead to a single taste for the recipe, instead of a range of variation. A loss, indeed.
When Asians without formal culinary training are queried about how much of an herb is needed in a recipe, most don’t even understand the question. They shrug and say something like, “however much you wish”.
I find it interesting that many Roman recipes work like many modern Asian ones. We found out in the Mesopotamian cookoff that some dishes – like mersu – could take on many different forms by mixing and matching ingredients according to the diners likes and dislikes, wishes of the cook, their skills, and what they had on hand. Both ancient and modern recipes are part of the legacy of the Silk Road which still influences our world today. (Words by Laura Kelley; Recipes by Stephen and Laura Kelley as noted, and Photographs of the Apician Cucumbers and Melons by Laura Kelley).
For our fourth entry in the Ancient Roman Cookoff, we have none other than Sally Grainger cooking for us. Sally is author of Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today and with historian Andrew Dalby, she is co-author of the The Classical Cookbook and its recently revised edition. For her entry, she chose a patella of mixed meat. The original recipe calls for tidbits of fine meats to be used. In her case, she used, pheasant, chicken, lucanika sausage, pork belly, king prawns and monkfish. Sally layered these meats, along with eggs and spices in between layers of dough or bread, roasted and then cut into pieces for service.
Sally found a number of surprises, including how good it tasted after it was baked together after construction. She writes, “You make an Apician patina like this: pieces of cooked udder, flaked fish, chicken meat, figpeckers, or cooked breast of thrush, and whatever finest qualities things there may be . . .
Dice all these carefully apart from the figpeckers. Beat up raw eggs in oil. Pound pepper, lovage, pour on liquamen, wine, passum; put in pan so that it warms through and thicken with starch. Before this however put all the chopped meat in and bring it to the boil. When this is cooked, take it out with its sauce and ladle it into a dish in alternate layers with whole pepper corns and pine nuts in such a way that, with each layer, you spread out a ‘double layer’ like a lagana (clearly actually ‘a lagana like a ‘double layered (cloak). Fill as many ladles as lagana you put in and put (the mixture) on top. Then pierce one lagana with a reed and put it on top. Sprinkle with pepper. Beforehand you should have thickened the meat mixture with the broken eggs and put it in the pan with the seasonings (Apicius 4.2.14) The kind of bronze pan you aught to have is shown below.
I have cooked this recipe many times before and done so with the firm belief that it was not a forerunner of the lasagne and so it didn’t go back in the oven. In remaking the patina Apician for the cook off It seemed like a good idea to be a little more adventurous and try a number of different way to cook and serve it.
This is quite a perplexing recipe and made more so because the information seems to have been dictated. It is quite common in Apicius to find confusion as to the order in which you work because the cook has forgotten to add a key instruction until the end. There seem to be two ways to tackle the recipe; either treat it as an early version of lasagne and use pasta sheets where lagana are required or, as I do, consider pasta rather anachronistic at this time and use some thing other than pasta: un-leaved bread is the actual translation of lagana in classical Latin. I also note that it is whole-wheat flat breads that the famous Oliveto restaurant in Oakland used when they made this dish for their Roman inspired menu.
It is not just a simple matter of cooked pasta or cooked bread of cause as the structure and finished appearance of the dish rather depends on whether the layered sheets and sauce is returned to the oven and/or left in the dish. If the layering material is pre cooked it might suggest not. This recipe does not state either way but the following recipes in Apicius for an ‘every day patina’ indicates that the very same kind of structured dish is turned out of the vessel onto a ‘discum’ or platter for service (Apicius 4.2.15). Why it should be made in a bronze vessel and then turned out again without being further cooked is some what strange of cause. Another question that is not easy to answer is how is a portion is served to the guest? Is it cut like a cake or are the layers removed individually? I believe the answer to this is connected to the meaning of the ‘double layered cloak’ a most perplexing phrase. I have elsewhere published my thoughts on this issue in my edition of Apicius I came up with a number of scenario’s all of which I shall attempt to duplicate for this cookoff.
I used a simple chapatti recipe for the bread and cook them on a metal bake stone over charcoal. An interesting phenomena associated with chapatti is the ability of the bread to puff up creating a steam pocket as if the bread was leavened. This may be the simple explanation for the double layered cloak. However as they cool they tend to deflate which is less convincing. The wonderful concept of using whatever good things are available also makes the dish very flexible. I have pheasant, chicken, lucanika sausage, king prawns and a firm fleshed fish such as monkfish or shark/tuna As to the sows udder: the ancient practise of consuming this organ either before or soon after the piglets are born is an unfortunate practise. However the majority of a sows belly around the in-active udder is in fact belly pork and this will suffice as an alternative.
I have made fish sauce myself in the last few years and used my own for this recipe. It has a salt level of c. 15% and a protein of 10% and was made from whole mackerel. Because it has a relatively low salt level I find I can use it quite liberally without the salt overpowering everything else. It is not overly fishy either with complex meaty cheesy overtones.
This recipe makes roughly 12 chapatis like breads.
1 cup wholemeal flour
1 cup plain flour
salt to taste
water to bind
2 tablespoons olive oil
I used a preparation and cooking method derived from chapatti production.
For the Sauce:
500ml white wine
250ml stock made using the meat juices
150ml Muscat de Beaumes de Venise or similar desert wine
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 level coffee spoon roasted and ground lovage seeds
generous fresh ground pepper
60ml olive oil
2 120 gm chicken fillets
1 small pheasant
300 gm belly pork strips
2 lucanika sausages or any high meat content sausage of choice
100gm large prawns
The dough is formed with sufficient water and with oil to make a firm dough which is kneaded lightly and rested. I made some bread on the hearth with a bake stone and charcoal fire while also using a heavy non stick frying pan for others. I divide the dough into 12 balls and covered the remainder while I worked with each one. The pan needs to be heated on medium heat until a small piece of flattened dough takes on a little colour when it cooks rather than staying pale or burning. Take each piece of dough, flatten it and turn it in flour then roll/stretch to a round thin disk about 15-18cm. As each one is prepared it is immediately placed on the dry pan and turned after about 2-3 mins. After turning take a clean tea towel and press gently on one side of the bread and you will find the other side will puff up nicely After a couple of minutes only remove the bread and wrap in a tea towel so that they don’t dry out.
I decided to pre cook all the meats in advance to generate a stock so that the meat flavours will be concentrated. I also feel that this kind of dish was actually designed to use up left over pre cooked meats from previous feast. Roast the pheasant and belly pork, strip the meat and dice. Poach/roast the chicken fillets and retain the cooking liquor. Cook the sausage. Flush out all the roasting tins with the chicken cooking liquor and make up to 250 ml with water. This along with the wine, muscat, lovage, my fish sauce and plenty of pepper was heated and the diced meat put in. After a brief re-boil I added starch – I actually had some wheat starch that a friend had made according to the instruction for making amylum in Pliny HN 18.76 and also Cato 87. This requires grinding as it is in the form of hard crystals. Corn flour is obviously a suitable alternative. I added the raw fish at this point cut into small pieces so that the remaining heat could cook the prawns and monkfish without them becoming too tough. I then added the oil and eggs. I was unsure about numbers but in the end found 4 more than enough. It was gently brought back to heat though not boiled as I didn’t think a curdled mixture was desirable. It did become quite thick but not set or solid. The instructions to ladle the mixture suggest a semi liquid.
There was no possibility of a bronze patella sadly but a large straight sided casserole suited. I also decided to cut the bread to fit the dish. I feel that the bread makes the dish sturdy enough to be turned out and to be free standing. Any attractive layering would not be lost if the bread was left unevenly circular. To my shame I wasn’t able to achieve perfect circles!
The first method was the simplest and involved laying bread and mixture down in alternate layers with the pine nuts and pepper until full. It then of cause becomes necessary to consider why the bronze patella was used at all if it is not to be returned to the oven, if only to keep warm or more likely to further set the egg. As it turns out I did place the dish, covered, in the oven for 20 mins at 160 °C to see what would be the result. The result was quite remarkable. The patina turned out easily and looked quite spectacular Firm to the touch and distinctly wobbly like a mouse. While still hot it could be cut into wedges but they were just too soft to be picked up. However after half an hour to rest, the cake for that is what its looks like, could be cut and the resulting wedge were warm and the bread at the top and bottom remained dry and the fingers stayed clean. It even looked like a very elaborate many layered sandwich and the reed in the top made it almost like a club sandwich! This above all else leads me to the inevitable conclusion that the dish could have been put back in the oven and served in wedges like cake.
The alternative method which has been my preferred method in the past involved dispensing with the bronze patella and layering the sauce and bread as before or in separate individual sandwiches. So you had bread, sauce,bread,bread, sauce, bread, bread, sauce, bread, bread etc. It didn’t look bad and could be cut like the other one but was also readily removed and rolled up like a wrap and eaten while staying clean. My premise has always been that, as lagana was bread, the dish had to be associated with eating with the fingers and keeping them clean. If the finished item was too soft and wet at the time of service the breads main role would have been lost.
I had 10-15 portions to dispense with so shared the finished dish with a group of friends from our village who had not eaten any Roman food before and were nervous but declared it wonderfully. I have always loved that sweet lovage/umami combination in what is a very simple and apparently untypical Roman sauce. In comparison to some Roman sauces this has quite modern and European in flavour. The additional flavour from the meat stock made all the difference and I guess if the sauce was made precisely as instructed without the concentrated caramel meat flavouring it would have been a little less flavoursome. The white fish tended to disappear into the rest of the ingredients but the prawns were distinct as was the belly pork. It’s a hearty meal and one I shall reprise again for my next Roman dinner party. I have a hankering to open my own underground Roman restaurant in my home. When and if I do I shall make sure to use the social media to announce it so watch the web.”
Sally’s interpretations of this patella is intriguing and delicious, but, the recipe lacks so much detail (by today’s standards) that a great deal of interpretation and creativity is allowed. For example, another way to prepare the patina would be to explore a variation on the lagane or “double cloak” idea and to lay down two layers of cut noodles or thin-pancakes cooked by different methods: for example and oven-roasted layer and a fried-layer.
We don’t know what the shape of ancient lagane were, whether they were pancake or chapati like or whether they were sheets of dough that were then cut like noodles. We do know that the Etruscans were eating them and didn’t boil them. Rather they were cooked over coals or fried. Boiled “pasta” may be a Muslim invention – the first written reference to it is at least in Arabic. Modern lagane from central and southern are broad flat noodles like wide tagliatella that are sometimes ruffled and sometimes not. They are made from durum wheat or the finer 0 wheat flour, water and salt. Ancient lagane were probably made from spelt, possibly with farina or semolina added.
Today these are enjoyed in soups with chickpeas and other legumes in Campagnia (as referenced in Horace) or in a mixed-meat ragu in Puglia which could be a descendant of the Apician recipe above (minus the layered construction and with tomatoes and a modern retinue of spices added). In some areas, lagane are cooked in goat’s milk instead of water or broth on Catholic saint’s days. Another way lagane are enjoyed today are fried and layered as a sweet preparation with nuts and sugar, reminiscent of the Central Asian “chuk-chuk”. Noodle dishes of the Silk Road indeed! (Words by Sally Grainger with introduction and commentary by Laura Kelley; photo of Roman Patina borrowed from the internet; Photographs of the Mixed-meat Patella by Sally Grainger.)
Italian abroad, webmistress of La Caffettiera Rosa and friend of Silk Road Gourmet, Caterina G, has tried her hand at an Ancient Roman recipe for the cookoff: Patella with Sardines and Garum. It is another egg-based dish that in Caterina’s hands became something like a frittata flavored with fish and the garum that I sent her from my production run here in the US. She writes:
“A few days ago a gift arrived at my door. It had travelled from the US and through time as well. I was holding in my hand a small bottle of home produced garum. I opened it and was hit in the face by a strong, strong smell. Fishy? Not quite. The manufacturer is Laura Kelley, the talented author and researcher; the recipe source is Roman. Garum is a mysterious historical relict. Fish, in this case mackerel, is piled with salt and left to mature at room temperature for a few weeks, then distilled to an almost clear liquor (read Laura’s post for much more information). Fish sauces are alive and kicking in the Far East, but they are not common any more in the Mediterranean. In Roman times, however, this great-grandfather of nuoc mam was a prized and popular ingredient. Why did we stop using it? It is a mystery. In Italy colatura di alici is still produced with a similar process, but it certainly is no common ingredient.
The legacy in Italy from Rome is huge. At school I have studied Latin for almost eight years. I know Roman history better than any other period – this actually proves my generic ignorance in the subject more than anything else. They made us translate detailed accounts of battles, political treacheries, blood facts, epic legends, and heartbreaking love poems. But there is one topic I don’t remember studying or translating: food. If I have to tell you what I imagine about the food of the Romans, my main source is the comics series of Asterix. I’m not sure about its authenticity, but surely there is a lot of food related scenes in it, and it makes for a funny read.
One common belief about Roman food is that it was decadent. Images of wealthy Roman patrizi, leaning on sofas and eating pigs stuffed with birds stuffed with fish stuffed with grapes, served by naked beautiful slaves, come to mind. I thought Apicius was one of the main promoters of this image, but it is probably more down to Asterix, I have to say. I finally took the chance to read the book (translated, imperial Latin is not my forte any more) and I found it to be refined, surely, but with very few involved and truly decadent dishes. Not to say that it was not interesting, mind you. It was. Some combinations are surprisingly modern, closer to Middle East cooking than Italian one, with its mix of sweet and savoury.
To test garum, I chose a recipe that sounded weird and exotic and decadent as much as I could. I settled for patella de apua, or depending on the transcription, patina de apua fricta (book IV, recipe 147). A literal translation could be sardine dish, fried or not. Whether the fish is fried, or the dish, is not clear. There is no indication of frying in the recipe itself however. The main ingredients are apua, or sardines, and eggs. This is the original recipe, as translated by Vehling (the full book is available here on Project Gutenberg):
SARDINE LOAF (OR OMELETTE) IS MADE IN THIS MANNER CLEAN THE SARDINES [of skin and bones]; BREAK [and beat] EGGS AND MIX WITH [half of the] FISH; ADD TO THIS SOME STOCK, WINE AND OIL, AND FINISH [the composition] BY HEATING IT. WHEN DONE TO A POINT, ADD [the remaining part of the] SARDINES TO IT, LET IT STAND A WHILE [over a slow fire to congeal] CAREFULLY TURN OVER [dish it up] MASK WITH A WARM WINE SAUCE, SPRINKLE WITH PEPPER AND SERVE. (see translation notes for additional details).
From the procedure it is not quite clear what this dish is: it could be anything from a sort of souffle to a frittata. As much as the ingredient combination sounded unusual to me, I found out that several modern versions exist egg dishes with fresh sardines or anchovies. Most Italian versions include some cheese like pecorino or parmigiano, with parsley and garlic to add aroma. Some spanish tortilla recipes sound quite similar to Apicius: many have a layer of beaten eggs, the fish is added on top after a while, more eggs are used to cover it, and the tortilla is turned at last.
I went with what I knew. I made a frittata, adding the fish in two times although that sounded a bit weird. Sardines are a good, sustainable source of fish. Although bones are not an issue in the sardines I buy in Italy, I found the bones in the Cornish ones available here to be more abundant, thicker and harder to get rid of, should you want to. This is the only caveat I feel I should add to the recipe: if you are squeamish about fish bones, this recipe is not for you. From a taste point of view, though, it was a total success. It does not taste weird, it does taste complex and delicious and slightly unusual. The eggs and the fish are distinctively sweet, and the wine and garum sauce I made up, trying to recreate the elusive oenogarum, added a savoury and acidic note that stroke an amazing balance, overall. The garum tastes of fish, but not much. The aroma is so intense it is quite difficult to describe it. It is more aromatic, indeed, that the Far East equivalent I have tried so far, although I’ve yet to try a high quality one. It is also quite salty and very potent. Initially I thought the oenogarum to be too strong and salty: with the eggs, it was not.
If you are curious about what other people made of garum, there are several entries at Laura’s. If you want to try some of these recipes without having garum, I’d probably use a mixture of nuoc mam and melter salted anchovies in oil: go for the best you can buy. There are also plenty of recipes in Apicius that don’t really include garum, or where it can convincingly be replaced by salt.
Frittata of sardines
Ingredients (for two)
3 large fresh sardines (350 gr, about)
1/2 teaspoon garum
1 tablespoon dry white wine
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons olive oil
For the oenogarum (wine sauce)
150 ml white wine
4-5 pepper corns, whole
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon garum
For the wine sauce: bring wine, bay leaf and pepper to the boil. Boil until reduced to more than half of the initial volume, add the garum and turn off the heat.
Clean the sardines into fillets (you can keep the skin if you like it). Beat eggs, wine, pepper, a dash of garum, a tablespoon of oil and water to a mixture. Add some salt, sparingly. Mix in half of the sardine fillets. In a smallish non-stick pan add a tablespoon of oil, then the egg mixture. Cook for a few minutes until the bottom is almost set. Add the remaining sardines, cover and cook gently for a further five minutes. When the top is solid, slide to a dish, turn and put back on the fire for another couple of minutes.
To serve, drizzle the frittata with the wine sauce (taste before adding all of it, you may find it is too salty and you don’t need it all) and add some freshly ground white pepper.”
Caterina found that actually reading Apicius and setting about cooking some of the dishes from it changed her view of what Ancient Roman food was like. She had grown up thinking that all of the dishes with complex and decadent and was happily surprised to see some straight-forward dishes like the Patella she cooked for the Ancient Roman cookoff. She writes that she found, “The eggs and the fish are distinctively sweet, and the wine and garum sauce I made up, trying to recreate the elusive oenogarum, added a savoury and acidic note that stroke an amazing balance, overall. The garum tastes of fish, but not much. The aroma is so intense it is quite difficult to describe it. It is more aromatic, indeed, that the Far East equivalent I have tried so far, although I’ve yet to try a high quality one. It is also quite salty and very potent. Initially I thought the oenogarum to be too strong and salty: with the eggs, it was not.”
Check out her post to read more about Caterina’s experience cooking Ancient Roman food with garum. (Words by Laura Kelley unless indicated. Photo of Patella with Sardines and Garum by Caterina G.)
Friend of Silk Road Gourmet, Ms. Deana Sidney, of Lost Past Remembered has cooked several recipes with the garum I sent her.
From her magical kitchen come two sauces for chicken or fowl and a cold patina of asparagus and grouse (or figpecker, should you have one on hand) that use the garum I produced in the backyard last year.
Please check out her post, recipes and stories about one of Rome’s baddest Emperors – Heliogabalus. Deana writes, “the green sauces for the chicken are not unlike a more complex pesto that would become ubiquitous in Italian cuisine a millennium or so later. The Romans loved sauces and I loved the many recipes for the sauces so much, I just couldn’t stop at one so made two, both are fabulous.”
The patina which is made with eggs and not sheets or dough or “noodles” like those used in lasagna is a lot like a modern quiche. The eggs are flavored with a mixture of wine and garum called oenogarum – with delicious results.
Also, be in awe of Deana’s beautifully composed photos like the one above – with fresh azalea blossoms strewn across the spring table. And lastly, look forward to more dishes using garum in the Roman cookoff in the days and weeks ahead. Deana writes: “The green sauces for the chicken are not unlike a more complex pesto that would become ubiquitous in Italian cuisine a milennium or so later. The Romans loved sauces and I loved the many recipes for the sauces so much, I just couldn’t stop at one so made 2, both are fabulous. Although I could only guess at the proportions, one turned out slightly sweet and the other slightly tangy. They are delicious with salmon.
The asparagus ‘quiche’ is brilliantly flavored and accessorized with meat ( I did take the liberty of substituting grouse meat for ‘figpeckers’ but duck breast would work well as would chicken tenders if you wanted a milder flavor) and reminded me of the subtle beauty of the Japanese custard dish, chawan mushi (that I wrote about HERE).
Just a note for ingredients. As you may have surmised, herbs like lovage and rue are not on supermarket shelves. I sent for mine (and they arrived in 4 days) from a wonderful resource I found last year when I needed hyssop and pennyroyal for medieval recipes. The Grower’s Exchange in Virginia has a remarkable selection of unusual herbs and beautiful plants. The arrive in perfect condition and after 3 deliveries I can say that with confidence. Hyssop is one of my favorite discoveries and tastes like many sweet herbs all in one plant, pennyroyal is an incredibly sweet mint that is wonderful and lovage is a good-sized perennial that looks like giant parsley and tastes like celery… you only need a bit to flavor a dish. Rue is interesting, bitter and bad for you in large quantities (like pennyroyal). It has been used for thousands of years in cooking and as a medicine for everything from insect repellant to eye wash.
The recipes (written in capitals) that follow are taken verbatim from Apicius. After that are my versions.
Sauce for Fowl 1
PEPPER, LOVAGE, PARSLEY, CELERY SEED, RUE, PINE NUTS, DATES, HONEY, VINEGAR, BROTH, MUSTARD AND A LITTLE OIL.
1 date, seeded
3 T broth
½ t pepper
2 t chopped lovage
2 t chopped rue
2 T toasted pine nuts
½ t powdered mustard
2 t honey
1 T garum or fish sauce
½ t celery seed
¼ c chopped parsley
3 T vinegar
1 to 2 T oil to taste
Warm the broth and soak the date in it till softened. Puree in a blender with the stock. Add the herbs and nuts and spices, puree. Add the vinegar and oil and blend.
Sauce for Fowl 2
PEPPER, LOVAGE, PARSLEY, DRY MINT, FENNEL BLOSSOMS  MOISTENED WITH WINE; ADD ROASTED NUTS FROM PONTUS  OR ALMONDS, A LITTLE HONEY, WINE, VINEGAR, AND BROTH TO TASTE. PUT OIL IN A POT, AND HEAT AND STIR THE SAUCE, ADDING GREEN CELERY SEED, CAT-MINT; CARVE THE FOWL AND COVER WITH THE SAUCE.
1 t pepper
2 t lovage
¼ c parsley
2 t mint
½ t fennel pollen
2 T wine
1 T garum or fish sauce
¼ c roasted hazelnuts
1 t honey
2 T vinegar
2 T broth
2 T oil
½ t celery seed
1 t catmint or catnip or pennyroyal, chopped
Put first 8 ingredients into a blender and blend ingredients including the hazelnuts, then toss in the rest and grind.
Perfect Simple Roast Chicken 1-4 pound chicken, trussed
1 T garum or fish sauce
1 t pepper
1 -2 t salt (Thomas Keller recommends liberal salting for a crisp skin… it works)
Preheat oven to 450º. Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Leave on a rack in the fridge for 1 hour, uncovered. Remove then rub the chicken with garum and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Place on the rack in a pan and fill pan ½” full with stock or water (use the drippings for a lovely gravy on the side). Cook for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes.
Allow to rest 15 minutes before carving for crisp skinned but very juicy chicken.
Another Cold Asparagus Dish
COLD ASPARAGUS PIE IS MADE IN THIS MANNER  TAKE WELL CLEANED [cooked] ASPARAGUS, CRUSH IT IN THE MORTAR, DILUTE WITH WATER AND PRESENTLY STRAIN IT THROUGH THE COLANDER. NOW TRIM, PREPARE [i.e. cook or roast] FIGPECKERS  [and hold them in readiness]. 3  SCRUPLES OF PEPPER ARE CRUSHED IN THE MORTAR, ADD BROTH, A GLASS OF WINE, PUT THIS IN A SAUCEPAN WITH 3 OUNCES OF OIL, HEAT THOROUGHLY. MEANWHILE OIL YOUR PIE MOULD, AND WITH 6 EGGS, FLAVORED WITH ŒNOGARUM, AND THE ASPARAGUS PREPARATION AS DESCRIBED ABOVE; THICKEN THE MIXTURE ON THE HOT ASHES. THEREUPON ARRANGE THE FIGPECKERS IN THE MOULD, COVER THEM WITH THIS PURÉE, BAKE THE DISH. [When cold, unmould it] SPRINKLE WITH PEPPER AND SERVE.
Asparagus Custard with Grouse Breast
8 Asparagus cut into stalks and tips
2 T stock
2 T wine
2 T oil + 2 t oil
1 t pepper
1 T garum
Breasts from 1 grouse (you can get Scottish Grouse from D’Artagnan), or a D’Artagnan duck breast or even chicken breast
Steam the asparagus tips for 5 minutes and the stalks for 8. Chop the stalks and puree with 2 T stock.
Warm the oven to 375º. In an ovenproof skillet, warm the pepper, oil, wine and stock for a few minutes. Whisk 4 eggs with the asparagus puree and the garum
Pour into the skillet and heat on the stovetop over medium heat for a few minutes until the eggs are slightly set on the bottom. Put in the oven for 10 minutes.
Salt and pepper the breasts and sauté in 2 t oil for a few moments on each side and remove. Let rest for a few moments. Slice into 3 or 4 slices each and reserve.
After the first 10 minutes, remove the skillet from the oven and lay the reserved asparagus tips and meat into the eggs which should be nearly set. Put back in the over for 5 more minutes or until set. Serve hot or cold.”
(Words except where indicated by Laura Kelley; adapted Roman recipe and photograph of Patina with Asparagus and Grouse and Chicken with Apician Sauce by Deana Sidney).
First up in our Ancient Roman cookoff is an entry by noted scholar, author and food writer, Charles Perry. Charles chose to prepare Pullus Frontonianus which is chicken prepared with a selection of delicious herbs, including dill, leeks, savory and cilantro. To this a touch of garum is added and when cooking is complete, the dish is dressed with grape syrup (defrutum) and black pepper for a savory and sweet treat from the past. Here’s Charles:
The recipe for Pullus Frontonianus (recipe 12, section IX of book 6), reads: “Stiffen [that is, brown], the chicken, add a mixture of liquamen and oil into which you put a bundle of dill, leek, savory and green coriander, and cook. When it is done, take it out, put it on a serving dish, sprinkle generously with defrutum and serve.”
I was puzzled by a few things here. I would have added at least some oil to the pan before searing the chicken, and I got no clear idea how much liquamen to add. I understand that garum and the liquamen called for by the recipe were not identical, but Laura’s garum is much more flavorful than the Southeast Asian fish sauces I’ve used. When making this recipe in the past, I have used three tablespoons of nam pla, but here I thought one tablespoon would make the dish just about as fishy as I could possibly want. So I browned the chicken in the oil and added the liquamen afterward, and I also covered the pan while the chicken cooked to prevent burning. In fact, I also added a tablespoon of water, which had the effect of deglazing the pan.
Since I don’t have access to grape must, for the defrutum I used the Lebanese product dibs ‘inab, also known as grape molasses or mélasse de raisins. In fact I suspect defrutum was quite similar to dibs ‘inab, because recipes don’t say to boil must down fresh, so it must have had the sugar concentration of a molasses (or treacle) to prevent spoilage. Dibs ‘inab has the cooked flavor of a molasses with a pleasant note of ripe grapes.
The resulting dish had a fairly strong fish aroma, but I also thought the effect of the garum similar to that of the chicken or veal stock a modern European chef might add to a sauté. The herbs provided a piquant counterpoint, and the defrutum gave the dish an oddly archaic flavor.
As for the name, in their edition of Apicius, Barbara Flower and Elizabeth Rosenbaum suggested that the Fronto in question was an obscure author of agricultural writings. This seems rather unlikely to me, since there was a much more famous Fronto to hand: the great orator Marcus Cornelius Fronto, whom the Romans considered second only to Cicero.
He was deadly serious about rhetoric, which, as the vehicle of great public issues, was self-evidently the only subject in the universe that truly mattered. When his pupil, the future emperor Marcus Aurelius, started studying philosophy, Fronto sent him a scolding letter: “You seem to me to have, in the fashion of the young, deserted the pursuit of eloquence and to have turned aside to philosophy, in which there is no introductory section to be elaborated and no account of the facts, bringing them together with concision, clarity and skill.”
Philosophy is a trivial pursuit, he informed young Marcus (who is of course mostly remembered today for his philosophical meditations). After a philosophical discussion, Fronto pointed out, you “go away carefree, with nothing to think over, or to write up at night, nothing to recite to your master, nothing to say by heart, no search for words, no adorning of a single synonym, no translation from Greek into our language.” Well, gosh, when you put it that way . . .
Prepared by Charles Perry
1 (4 ½-pound) chicken
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon garum
1 leek, cleaned and sliced crosswise
5-6 sprigs dill, minced
2-3 sprigs fresh savory, minced
4-5 sprigs green coriander, minced
4-6 tablespoons defrutum or dibs ‘inab
Freshly ground pepper
Cut chicken into joints and pat dry. Put the oil in a pan and heat until quite hot, then add the chicken pieces without crowding the pan, and fry, turning often, until browned. Do in several batches if necessary.
Reduce the heat, add the garum, leek, dill, savory and green coriander, cover tightly and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Check around 15 minutes to make sure the liquid has not all boiled away.
To serve, arrange on a dish and sprinkle with defrutum and pepper to taste. Serves 3-4.
The original recipe from my version of Apicius (translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling) reads:
A HALF-COOKED CHICKEN MARINADED IN A PICKLE OF BROTH, MIXED WITH OIL, TO WHICH IS ADDED A BUNCH OF DILL, LEEKS, SATURY AND GREEN CORIANDER. FINISH IT IN THIS BROTH. WHEN DONE, TAKE THE CHICKEN OUT DRESS IT NICELY ON A DISH, POUR OVER THE REDUCED MUST, SPRINKLE WITH PEPPER AND SERVE.
You can see that Charles was faithful to the original recipe without much adaptation, so for those of you who think that most historical dishes are difficult to prepare, this is one to sink your teeth into. There is also a suckling pig à la Fronto, which I have prepared using pork tenderloin and it is also delicious.
As to Fronto, as Charles points out he was a famous orator who was important enough to scold a future Roman Emperor about his studies. But he was also a wealthy citizen who after coming to Rome during the reign of Hadrian amassed a large fortune, erected magnificent buildings and purchased the famous Gardens of Maecenas with its terraces and libraries near the Palatine Hil.
So, he is another famous person from the past exploited for advertising the cookbook named after Apicius. As a wealthy man, Fronto undoubtedly held lavish dinners and banquets and using his name on a couple of dishes in a book written several centuries later helped gain audience and increase interest. Sort of like someone today calling a dish William Jennings Bryan Chicken or Lamb à la Lincoln without historical sources to verify the links.
In regards to the garum, there are three observations that Charles makes that I find interesting, 1.) Garum is much more flavorful than the nam pla he usually uses to prepare the dish, and 2.) There was a strong fish aroma to the dish, but not a strong fish flavor, and 3.) The effect of the garum was to make the dish richer and add depth, sort of like the addition of lamb or veal stock by a modern chef might be.
I do have one interpretation that differs from Charles, and with respect, I’d like to discuss it a bit here. I think that there are no instructions for making defrutum in the Apician recipe, because it is just something that most Roman kitchens made in bulk and would have on hand. Defrutum and must of other juices and wines was a fairly common ingredient in many Roman dishes. If you don’t have access to a Persian or Mediterranean market of any flavor, you can make your own defrutum fairly easily. It is easy, but time consuming. Simply heat juice or wine to a near boil and then reduce to a low flame and cook gently until reduced to a syrup – stirring occasionally. One simply has to be careful not to burn or scorch to juice, or this flavor will carry through to the syrup or molasses. This is best done when working with 100 percent unsweetened juice or wine, and you need a lot of juice to make a small amount of syrup. For example, one large bottle of unsweetened pomegranate juice makes about 1/3 cup of pomegranate syrup. It keeps for a long time once refrigerated.
Well, thanks for Charles for his fantastic kickoff to our Ancient Roman cookoff! A great meal to be enjoyed anytime or for a bit of extra authenticity, crack a volume of Graves or watch I Claudius reruns while cooking and preparing the table.
I am eagerly looking forward to the dishes and presentations by the other participants as well, including a Roman patina by Sally Grainger. With Easter coming up, I am cooking a leg-of-lamb marinated in yogurt and spices Saudi style and an rice dish for tomorrow. Then I am on the road to Kashgar and other places in NW China for a couple of weeks. I will cook my entry for the cookoff when I return. (Words and recipe by Charles Perry; fore-and after matter by Laura Kelley. Photo of Charles Perry borrowed from LA Weekly Blogs; Photo of Pullus Frontonianus by Charles Perry)
During the month of April, I will be holding an Ancient Roman Cookoff to use the garum that I made last year and to consider the effects it has on flavor and the perception of taste. Since this cookoff involves the use of an ingredient of limited quantity, I have invited a few colleagues and friends to join us in this effort. Exploring Ancient Roman food with me will be:
- Charles Perry: Former food correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and writer for Rolling Stone, co-author of Medieval Arab Cookery, and editor of the fantastic Baghdad Cookery Book;
- Deana Sidney: The talented cook and food stylist from Lost Past Remembered.
- Caterina G: The talented cook from La Caffettiera Rosa.
- Sally Grainger: Noted ancient food scholar, co-author of the Classical Cookbook, and author of Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today;
- Ken Albala: Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and author af many books, including Eating Right in the Renaissance and Food in Early Modern Europe. (Ken Albala’s Food Rant);
- Paolo Magnanimi: Talented Chef and Host at Hostaria Antica Roma, a great restaurant in Rome on the old Via Appia with a special Ancient Roman menu; and
- Yours truly, Laura Kelley from The Silk Road Gourmet.
Please stay tuned as we cook Roman recipes from Apicius to The Geoponica and sources in between and write about the food with particular notice of the garum used in the recipes. One of the dishes promised so far includes, Chicken a la Fronto in which chicken is marinated in a pickled broth flavored with dill, leeks and cilantro (sounds a bit similar to Persian sabzi dishes without the citrus) and later dressed in a sauce of garum flavored with wine must and black pepper. Another dish promised is one featuring a Sow’s Womb cooked with a vinegar-flavored broth, black pepper, and the extinct plant Silphium (what will be used – asafoetida?) with some possible additions including mint, celery seed and honey.
Join us as we explore some of the dishes that graced the Ancient Roman table and take a closer culinary look at garum. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Kitchen-in-Pompejanum-–-Aschaffenburg by Stefan Plogmann.)
(For a look at the delicious Mesopotamian dishes cooked in last year’s cookoff – click here)
Here it is, the real deal! Amber-colored culinary gold! The first results from last summer’s backyard garum making! As some of you may remember, back in June of last year I started making garum in my backyard with fresh mackerel and lots of sea salt. I also wrote the “garum diaries” until mid-September which described the first 90 days or so of the initial enzymatic digestion of the fish. I noted the surprising lack of odor despite the process of digestion and blow by blow described the changes in color and consistency in the garum-making vessel.
For the uninitiated, garum is the substance that was produced by the Carthaginians (and likely before by the same people in the Phoenician homelands of the Eastern Mediterranean) It was made from fish and salt and used to add a savory flavor to many foods that was otherwise lacking. it was used on everything from meat and vegetables to desserts and wine depending on how it was prepared and mixed. The Romans took over the lucrative garum production facilities from Carthage after conquest, and much of what we now about garum production comes from them.
I’ve learned a lot over the months and frankly found that a great deal of what is available on the internet on the production of garum is packed with contradictions. Part of this is because scholarly work on garum is still in progress and people who study this issue for a living are still making up their minds about what garum is and isnt.
The most recent understanding of the terminology (provided to me by Sally Grainger) is that: Liquamen refers to the whole-fish sauce made with all the viscera intact and sometimes extra viscera [presumably to speed the digestion process]. The enzymes in the viscera dissolve the fish into a thick sauce which yields a translucent, highly nutritious sauce when it is filtered or diluted. It can be gathered by skimming the top of the ferment, or by letting it drip out of the paste that has been put in a colander. It is extremely fishy, oily, and salty and packs a wallop of flavor. Allec is the solid paste that is left after the liquamen is removed. The Romans would pick this clean of bones, skin, fins and other fishy solids and use it as a paste on bread or as a condiment. Given the taste of the allec I produced, I think it would have probably been mixed with olive oil, butter or animal fat to make it more palatable. By personal choice, I would use butter. I think then it would taste like country caviar – fresh sweet butter on a hunk of brown bread spread with fresh caviar – or allec. The Romans, however, might have used olive oil.
Muria is the sauce made when the fish are gutted and headed and the liquor that emerges is weak in protein and pale in colour. This probably corresponds best with the modern colatura di alici. Lastly, there is haimation which is the liquid that is produced from just from blood and viscera. This is garon haimation in Greek and garum or garum sociorum in Latin. It is black and bloody according to Galen. .
Another thing that my experience making garum taught me that varied from much of the historical information available was the quantity of garum produced and the speed at which it can be harvested. Many of the early writings about garum speak of a basket being dipped into the ferment and the garum flowing into the basket. Or if a barrel or container were used, directions are to puncture the barrel near the base and let the garum flow off. This may be true for large-scale production such as those in vats, but it is not true for the casual backyard producer of garum. With 15 pounds of mackerel and almost nine pounds of salt to start, nothing flows or gushes, it is harvested drip by excruciating drip and then filtered multiple times at the same glacial rate. It takes patience and persistence – but it is worth it.
The slow speed of my garum harvest may be because of the rather high quantity of salt to fish I wound up using as well. Its difficult to say with n=1 production experience.
After having produced garum, I am convinced that the few so-called quick recipes for “garum” in the ether cannot possibly produce the product that took nine months to create in my backyard. These recipes call for the fish and salt to be cooked on the stove top or in a yogurt maker. I’m not sure what these recipes produce – I suspect it is ordinary fish oil – but do I know that a few hours of heat cannot replace nine months of digestion. Because these authors describe the taste as, “not very fishy”, I know it cannot be garum. The garum produced by digestion is fishy, salty, and quite oily and only a few drops (vice teaspoons or tablespoons) would be needed to flavor a dish. Even if adapted from historical (usually Byzantine) sources, these quick recipes produce a product that looks like garum, but doesn’t taste like it. You can’t rush perfection.
Although the production of garum is not smelly, harvesting garum can be, unless steps are taken to minimize the smell. You must cover containers that are used to harvest and filter the garum, wear old clothes and be prepared to do lots of dishes. For the sensitive, I suggest surgical gloves – the odor permeates everything and is very hard to get rid of. Lastly if you share your home with four-legged creatures, you will want to put them out or at least keep them away from the garum – they will be curious, and noisy.
So, what does it look like? Interestingly, my garum is roughly the same color as its last living relative in the west – colatura di alici – the modern Italian fish sauce made from anchovies. The garum is a bit more amber in color (as opposed to the colatura’s reddish brown color) even after five filtrations, but the color is much more similar than that of nuoc mam which comes in a variety of shades of dark brown. The garum is also a bit more viscous than either of the two modern sauces – possibly due to the introduction of water in the modern production process, or possibly due to the different species of fish used. If you are curious about the possible west-to-east flow of fish-sauce production technology in the ancient world, please see this essay.
So, what does it taste like? It is saltier, way more fishy and a bit oiler than either the colatura di alici or the nuoc mam. Garum from mackerel is more powerful as it hits the tongue, has a longer crest of flavor and remains stronger for a longer period of time as it fades. One can taste it in more places in the mouth than the colatura or nuoc mam as well. No matter where you place the garum – the flavor explodes in your mouth. There is also a slight bitterness to the garum that is absent from the colatura or the nuoc mam. Interestingly, the nuoc mam has fructose and hydrolyzed vegetable protein listed as ingredients. These certainly affect the flavor of the sauce – especially the fructose. In short, the colatura and the nuoc mam taste more like each other than like the garum. The nuoc mam has a more complex flavor than the colatura, but since both are made from anchovies, that probably is because of the added ingredients listed above. The colatura claims only anchovies and salt as ingredients. Garum is, without a doubt, umami in a bottle.
A word about umami. Most of us were raised on the ancient Greek notion of four tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. I vividly remember “mapping” these tastes on our tongues in elementary school but placing different substances on different areas of the tongue with a cotton swab. A combination of modern science and some talented tongues have turned this notion on its head, and research conducted largely in the 20th Century has explained umami for us. Sort of like a sixth sense, umami is the “fifth taste” and represents savoriness. It is carried in a number of molecules – most notably in glutamic acid that most of us experience in the form of sodium glutamate. Many foods are rich in glutamic acid – notably ripe tomatoes, celery, cheese, asparagus, meat, fish, and shellfish etc. Of course, cooks and chefs have been combining these ingredients for years to create savory dishes. Most notably the renowned western chef Escoffier used an instinctive knowledge of these ingredients for many of his dishes.
Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese chemist who “discovered” umami worked with kombu a type of seaweed that Japanese cuisine uses in many dishes either as a vegetable or dried and dissolved in broth form with bonito fish flakes as dashi. Ikeda coined the word “umami” from the Japanese “umai” which means delicious, nice or palatable as well as brothy, meaty or savory. Both sets of meanings, as you can see, represent important aspects of umami taste perception.
What I find fascinating about umami is how little we truly understand it. We know it has a flavor of its own – which changes depending how the molecule of glutamic acid is charged - but we suspect that it also changes other flavors to enhance them in a synergistic way. Additionally, it also add a “mouthfullness” to food that adds to the positive perception of food flavor in the mouth.
Getting back to production, we digested the mackerel in salt in the backyard for nine months. In the initial stages, we stirred the batch at least once a week, but as the fall and winter passed, the stirring decreased to only a couple of times a month. To harvest the garum, first skim off any that rests on the top of the vat. I did this with a teaspoon with the same technique as which I use to clarify butter or remove excess fat from the top of a stew or curry.
Next, fill a small colander with ferment pick out the large solids like bones and fins etc. Wipe the outside surface of the colander and place above a receiving vessel. Cover the colander with a plate to reduce odor and set in a place where it will not be disturbed. I suggest placing in a garage or cellar, if left out of doors, local animals will easily remove the plate and make a mess of the ferment.
Every day a little more liquamen will drip out of the ferment. Collect this and set aside. There is no need to refrigerate – garum is so salty it will keep at room temperature nearly indefinitely. However, it may be better to harvest and filter only what you need for short-term purposes as the biochemistry of the liquamen may change over time after it is exposed to light (which is why the Romans stored it in opaque amphorae.
Next comes the filtration. The first filtration I did with commercial grade cheesecloth that was folded over into four layers. This will remove the crude solids. Then I switched to a funnel and commercial coffee filter and filtered the mixture four more times, each time after a period of rest to allow the solids to collect on the surface of the garum.
A word about garum being “clear”. On the internet, the quick recipes for “garum” all mention that the product should be “clear”. This concern is based on the concept of turbidity and is a caution against growing microorganisms instead of facilitating the enzymatic digestion of fish. With the quick production method, this may be an issue, but it is not if you go about it over a series of months. Garum isn’t clear and will never be clear with manual filtration. Even after four passes with coffee filters, if the garum is allowed to sit, a thin layer of scum forms on the top of it. If this is disturbed, the whole solution will become cloudy, only to settle out when left to rest for several hours or overnight. The best that garum will ever be is a beautifully translucent amber. Greater clarity could be achieved with a centrifuge, but that is out of reach for most people, and certainly never occurred to the Carthaginians, Greeks or Romans.
Where do we go from here? We keep on harvesting the garum. First by letting the liquid drip out of the raw ferment and then by performing dilutions with water of the allec that remains from the first harvest. Then comes the fun part. We start making the various mixtures that have been handed down to us from the Romans – using sweet and dry wine must, water, honey and olive oil and a variety of different spices. Then, well then, comes the cooking. So stay tuned. There will be much more to learn about garum in coming months. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Homemade Garum by Laura Kelley; Other images from Wikimedia).
Additional: I will be hosting an ancient Roman cookoff during the month of April to explore the many uses of garum. In this effort, I will be joined by Charles Perry, Ken Albala, Sally Grainger, Napa winemaker David Mahaffey, Roman Restaranteur Paolo Magnanimi and the lovely polymath, Deana Sidney from Lost Past Remembered.