Ancient Roman Cookoff Entry 1: Pullus Frontonianus by Charles Perry

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.”

Charles Perry

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 . . .


Pullus Frontonianus
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.

Pullus Frontonianus by Charles Perry


The original recipe from my version of Apicius (translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling) reads:


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.

A Roman Banquet

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)


11 thoughts on “Ancient Roman Cookoff Entry 1: Pullus Frontonianus by Charles Perry

  1. Thank you for this interesting discussion, Charles and Laura! I am still experimenting with my garum. I may well try this recipe to become friends tonight, honouring the figure of Froto: scolder of philosophers and emperors, and Roman gourmet.

    • Hi C!

      I read your comment and was immediately called for a flight to Urumqi so I didn’t get to respond in a timely fashion – apologies!

      Looking forward to your entry – please e-mail me when you post so I can put a stub up on this site – I’m sure you’ll do wonderful things with the garum!


  2. Charles and Laura,

    Really interesting article especially for those of us who normally do not dabble in ancient Roman recipes. What happened to the marinade? We’ve seen a trend in the UK for bathing poultry in brine for a period of hours or over night before cooking… would the Romans have done that? It is said to both tenderize and make the chicken more flavourful. For anyone in the UK taking on this recipe, Saba or Italian grape must is available from some of the larger up-market supermarkets but expect to pay the same sort of price as a bottle of wine… as Laura says, it takes a lot of grape juice to make this.

    Fascinating stuff as always on this site.


    • Hi Cid:

      The recipe translation that I have gives no mention of brining. It could be that this wasn’t done for this recipe – or that it was done so commonly for many meats that there was no need to mention it in the recipe. We encountered th latter in the Mesopotamian recipes last year when directions were given to “prepare the water or stock” with no How-to attached. Brining makes things more “flavorful” by adding salt. it does also tenderize by breaking down some of the muscle tissue as well I don’t do it unless working with certain types of game known for toughness – like wild boar.

      In Kashgar now and the Yak I had for dinner last night could have used a little brining. It was delicious but quite tough. More on food from these parts when I return.


  3. Laura – I recently attended Ancient Roman cookery workshop hosted by Sally Grainger at the Museum of London. Red Boat fish sauce (made in California) for example is much more pungent than the Roman Garum’s she said. We tried it and used it in our recipe. Some Brits think it’s too fishy , for me, it’s hardly anything compared to the authentic Japanese fish sauce ishiru.

    • Hi Katy – Lucky you to go to a workshop with Sally!

      I haven’t actually worked with Red Boat, but I looked them up on the internet. Their fish sauce is actually produced in Vietnam and distributed out of California. They use anchovies and salt and ferment about 14 tons of fish per barrel for at least 1 year. Then they only market the “first pressing” or rather draining of the sauce. They must filter the sauce or perhaps even centrifuge it as in a winery, but that wasn’t shown in their videos – it wouldn’t look very “artisanal”.

      As Sally probably explained, the taste of the sauce is related to the species of fish used and the amount of time the digestion takes place. I found that the amount of salt used also has a big influence on flavor as well. There is a difference in viscosity I’ve noticed as well, with my “garum” being a lot thicker than modern Asian fish sauces, or even from Sally’s “garum”. So, salt content and digestion time may also effect viscosity. I don’t have any proof yet, but I think that post-harvest storage also effects the relative chemical content of the garum. It may not have been an accident that garum was stored in opaque clay amphorae. I think it may have helped stabilize the chemistry over time.

      Lastly, with respect to Sally (who knows an awful lot about garum), we really don’t know what Roman garum was like. Those of us who have made it ourselves have all come up with a slightly different concoction.

      For me, the most interesting thing, however, is that its production probably started in Phonecia and was brought to Carthage and was later adopted by the Greeks and Romans. From there is spread into Europe and Eastwards into Asia. So, it was a west-to-east flow of technology on the Silk Road . . .

      • I have to look at these more carefully later. I am in no way working in food area and this workshop isn’t about Garum specifically. It was just an interest for me. Sally is working on a book about fish bones and in fact, one of the chap in my group is also researching on fish bones. There were several interesting things I learned that I’ve not thought of before. For the moment, just one question – are you saying that you think fish sauce origin is in Europe? You believe in one single origin? Rather than different birth?
        The other quesiton is – apparently fish sauce didn’t exist in Spain – that is not from the workshop, just something occurred to me about squid and I googled. It seemed to be a mystery why it never took off in Spain, do you have any thoughts?

  4. Hi Katy:

    Carthage in N. Africa is the earliest point of garum production. They produced it at several sites in North Africa, Sicily and Iberia (Spain). However, the Carthaginians were, of course, Phonecian. So I suspect that it came from the Phonecian homeland (modern Lebanon and more) in the Levant. The Romans took over garum production at all sites after they conquered Carthage. Somehow, the issue that igarum was not innately Roman has fallen out of common knowledge. From the west, it spread east. There are posts on the subject on the site. You can use the sidebar to find them when you have time.

    I don’t know what you mean by fish-sauce didn’t exist in Spain. It did in Carthaginian and Roman Iberia, but all garum production collapsed as did the Roman Empire for reason that are not clear. It may have been simple disorganization that results from the fall of such a great state, or it could be (as I suspect) a lot of poisonings and illnesses that seemed to come from garum, but that actually came from lead used to seal the amphorae and containers it was made and stored in. Or it could have been both.

    I think the next step is for you to read the site posts if you are interested in this subject. Then if you have questions that are not addressed by site content, I will be happy to help.


    • Just briefly to the point about Spain: the question arose when I tasted ishiru – I have no background knowledge of fish sauce, so it was completely personal instinct – about the squid. Random google led me to this site
      I then popped the question to Sally and here is her reply:

      “Hi just looked at your site and it is intersting to see these issues being discussed. I imagine that the Roman culture in Spain was completely overthrown in what came afterwards as the Arabs dont seem to use it. Many of the factories in southern Spain around Cadiz ceased to trade by the 3rd century – possibly because the anchovy and mackerel were over fished. Production in the late empire moved to Portugal and also North Africa. It was still being made in early Muslim/Medieval Palestine and also 4/5th century AD in Britain and parts of Germany/Belgium so its abrupt end in Spain is quite odd. It may have only been made there because of the fish stocks and because the wider Roman market wanted it. I dont know how wide spread comsumption was in greater Spain. Fish sauce may never actually have taken off with the locals so that when the trade died, the early medieval Spanish culture that emerged found they could do without it quite easlly. I know absolutely nothing about early medieval Spain so this is a complete guess…

      The Japanese blogger is not aware that the ancient blood viscera garum is so strongly linked to the modern ishiru so i might comunicate with her.”

        • Hi again Katy!

          Thanks for Sally’s info. I wasn’t aware that production persisted in Britian, Germany Belgium and in N. Africa.

          OK, so on to the Spain issue. I think that the reason it didn’t persist is first the Visigoths and then the Moors. The Northerners dominated Spain from the 4th Century ACE through about the 6th with the Visigoths shaking out as the dominant tribe. They ruled until more or less until Moorish expansion into Spain in the 7th Century ACE., and were pretty much routed by the Moors in the Battle of Toledo in the very early 8th Century. The Moors had their own strongly flavored sauce that offers a blast of umami – namely, murri. So, in short, it is possible in Spain that centuries of domination by foreigners who weren’t garum lovers killed the trade and use.

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