Ancient Roman Cookoff Entry 4: Mixed Meat Patella by Sally Grainger

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.

Ancient Roman Patina

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.

Bread for Patina a la Sally Grainger

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.

The Bread

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
4 eggs
60ml olive oil

The Filling
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
100gm monkfish

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.

Mixed Meat Patella by Sally GraingerGrainger

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.

Mixed Meat Patella – sliced

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.)

Ancient Roman Cookoff Entry 3: Patella with Sardines and Garum by Caterina G

Patella of Sardines and Garum

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.

Sardines – chopped

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)
2 eggs
white pepper
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.)