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Apicius And Roman Cuisine


Al Dente
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I took Latin in high school and for one of my projects I cooked a seven course Roman feast. It was really interesting to look through those ancient recipes. I remember having fun trying the recipes, including mashed peas with honey, some sort of unleavened bread, baked fish, and stewed pears. I was happy with the way everything turned out, but some of the spice combinations were very odd, and I don’t remember people eating very much of what I cooked! (I did get an A on the project though…)

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Did you make garum? I always found descriptions of the garum-making process both fascinating and repulsive-- leaving salted anchovies in a bucket in the sun to ferment and decompose, and then using the liquid to season everything. I suppose it must have been something like nuoc mam or nam pla is used --as a sort of background flavor. Looking through _The Silver Spoon_ cookbook, the "bible" of Italian cuisine, I am struck by how many recipes call for salted anchovies. A vestige of their Roman, garum-using heritage, perhaps?

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Did you make garum? I always found descriptions of the garum-making process both fascinating and repulsive-- leaving salted anchovies in a bucket in the sun to ferment and decompose, and then using the liquid to season everything. I suppose it must have been something like nuoc mam or nam pla is used --as a sort of background flavor. Looking through _The Silver Spoon_ cookbook, the "bible" of Italian cuisine, I am struck by how many recipes call for salted anchovies. A vestige of their Roman, garum-using heritage, perhaps?

No, I did not make garum (ick). I tried to pick the most mundane recipes actually. If I couldnt convince my classmates to eat stewed pears, I doubt I would have had any luck with fermented anchovies! :)

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I noticed that several of the recipes called for asafoetida, which I think no longer is available. Carcinogenic I think. I also understand that it has a very strong odor.

Its odour is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers; otherwise the aroma, which is nauseating in quantities, will contaminate other spices stored nearby.
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I noticed that several of the recipes called for asafoetida, which I think no longer is available.  Carcinogenic I think.  I also understand that it has a very strong odor.

Have some in my pantry right now (in a plastic bag). Its odor is unmistakable. Common in Indian cooking I believe. I acquired mine at an Indian supply store in NoVa. I hope it's not a carcinogen :) .
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Have some in my pantry right now (in a plastic bag).  Its odor is unmistakable.  Common in Indian cooking I believe.  I acquired mine at an Indian supply store in NoVa.  I hope it's not a carcinogen :) .

Doesn't look like it is. Says here that it is an antidote for flatulance.

Edited by mdt
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You may be thinking of sassafras root, which is carcinogenic.

I am completely engrossed with Roman cuisine and started my culinary career making Roman banquets for my fellow fourth year Latin students.

The best book I have read is a new(last year) book by Patrick Faas called Around the Roman Table. It is not a recipe book but gives a really comprehensive picture of habits and methods.Reading it reaaly enhanced my trip to Pompei and Heculenium last winter.

The spelt mentioned in the recipes is available at MOMs. I still make Roman banquets,now for my teenager's Latin classes.

Everybody needs a hobby.

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I am completely engrossed with Roman cuisine and started my culinary career making Roman banquets for my fellow fourth year Latin students.

The best book I have read is a new(last year) book by Patrick Faas called Around the Roman Table. It is not a recipe book but gives a really comprehensive picture of habits and methods.Reading it reaaly enhanced my trip to Pompei and Heculenium last winter.

The spelt mentioned in the recipes is available at MOMs. I still make Roman banquets,now for my teenager's Latin classes.

Everybody needs a hobby.

Just read Around the Roman Table. Really interesting stuff. I think it's an interesting culinary challenge to take Apicius's rather vague descriptions and try and turn it into something that will work for the modern palate. I just picked up some fish sauce and I'm working on a generic "ancient Roman spice mix" this week (celery seed in place of lovage, garlic powder in place of silphium*, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, and...? or...?). Sprinkle on grilled meats, whisk with wine, honey, garum, etc. I'd love to find some pictures of actual modern attempts at some of the tamer dishes (the zoo foiled my last attempt to acquire flamingo tongues).

*I tried to find silphium at the grocery store. It should have been right between the dodo eggs and wooly mammoth steaks, but they must have had it on special recently or something.

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Just read Around the Roman Table. Really interesting stuff. I think it's an interesting culinary challenge to take Apicius's rather vague descriptions and try and turn it into something that will work for the modern palate. I just picked up some fish sauce and I'm working on a generic "ancient Roman spice mix" this week (celery seed in place of lovage, garlic powder in place of silphium*, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, and...? or...?). Sprinkle on grilled meats, whisk with wine, honey, garum, etc. I'd love to find some pictures of actual modern attempts at some of the tamer dishes (the zoo foiled my last attempt to acquire flamingo tongues).

*I tried to find silphium at the grocery store. It should have been right between the dodo eggs and wooly mammoth steaks, but they must have had it on special recently or something.

You can grow the lovage easily if you have a garden and they did use it a lot. Rue is often called for but I never use it. I have grown it in the past and, while pretty, the smell is nauseating! I can't imagine using it for food! Is't supposed to repell bugs and smells it! I'm not sure how well most of the food actually translates(so to speak).I made some of the bread recipes from the Around The Roman Table and they were dense but interesting
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*I tried to find silphium at the grocery store. It should have been right between the dodo eggs and wooly mammoth steaks, but they must have had it on special recently or something.

Asafoetida has been used as a (lower-grade) culinary substitute for silphium since the time of Alexander the Great, whose troops noticed the similarity while campaigning in Persia, and for this reason was dubbed silphion medikon by the ancient Greeks (reference, although she mistakenly places Alexander in AD instead of BC). Any decent Indian grocery should be able to supply you with some of this stinky pungent resin (aka "hing"), still essential to Vedic cooking.

As with most pre-modern recipes, you'll probably have to dramatically attenuate the amounts to account for the time that an ancient spice would have spent in transit. In silphium's case, it might have only taken a few months to get from Libya to Rome. If you believe Dioscorides, even in Cyrene the resin would have been quite mild. (ref).

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