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.)