Julius Caesar as a priest of Jupiter, an appointment forced on him by Marius to prevent his taking up a military career as a young man, was also, as part of the vocation, denied delicacies, and remained a moderate and fussy eater. Augustus, for political reasons a fair and generous host, preferred the diet of the common people – coarse bread, whitebait, goat cheese and dried figs – and, too impatient to wait for mealtimes, often snacked. Tiberius seemed to prefer wine to food, enjoyed fish but, as we have seen, did not like surprise deliveries. Caligula gave exotic banquets, which the guests were sometimes too terrified to enjoy, but accepted payment for invitations. Claudius drank himself into a stupor every night and was fatally fond of a particular mushroom. Nero was an extravagant gourmet and spent fortunes on jewelled crystal goblets.
Dormice in honey, peacocks’ tongues, garum, lolling, vomitoria and Petronius’ account of Trimalchio’s Feast – all of which, more anon – it was not only thus. The food consumed by most Romans, most days, for hundreds of years was frugal, coarse and nasty. The excesses, fun and games and much quoted feasts and extraordinary dishes, were only ‘enjoyed’ by a few.
At the beginning, when Rome was a tiny Etruscan village with few resources or outlets, the populus ate figs, olives, oil, barley (with which they made porridge) and hard wheat (which they ground to a paste). They drank goat’s and sheep’s milk and made a simple cheese. But this village was on an important salt road where the locals exchanged their few products for precious salt. Salt underpinned Rome’s position.
It took Romans 200 years to conquer all the various tribes who peopled the Italian peninsula and they didn’t have anything resembling bread till the sixth century after the founding of Rome. André Simon says: ‘The Romans were greater eaters than the Greeks, but not such great talkers. They also loved feasts and banquets, large quantities of food and wine, rare, exotic and costly fare which was sought more for the sake of ostentation than of its gastronomic excellence. It was not always thus: it might even be said that the greatness of Rome was built on porridge and austerity.’ But austerity for the rich and ambitious was replaced by gluttony and swank, despite sumptuary laws, as the Roman armies conquered in Africa and in the East.
The three Punic Wars – the first 264–241 BC and the last 149–146 BC – secured for Rome a vast granary and useful coastline. They ended up with all the Carthaginian territory – North Africa, Sicily (whence the best cooks), Corsica and Spain. They destroyed Carthage but they did not destroy her wheatfields. Nor did they ignore the usefulness of the Phoenicians, Arabs from the Syrian coast, who were indeed the founders of Carthage; through the Phoenicians the early Romans learned about the vines of Persia and the spoils of the East.
Ali Bab, the nineteenth-century French cookbook guru, is moved to quote Flaubert’s Salomé to illustrate the sort of feast the Romans would have learned about after their successive conquests:
Le festin donné dans les jardins d’Hamilcar pour célébrer l’anniversaire de la bataille d’Eryx.
Les cuisines d’Hamilcar n’étant pas suffisantes, le conseil leur avait envoyé des esclaves, de la vaisselle, des lits; et l’on voyait au milieu du jardin, comme sur un champ de bataille quand on brûle les morts, des grands feux clairs où rôtissaient les boeufs. Les pains saupoudrés d’anis alternaient avec les gros fromages plus lourds que des disques et les cratères pleins de vin, et les canthères pleins d’eau auprès des corbeilles en filigrane d’or qui contenaient des fleurs. La joie de pouvoir enfin se gorger à l’aise dilatait tous les yeux; çà et là les chansons commençaient.
D’abord on leur servit des oiseaux à la sauce verte, dans des assiettes d’argile rouge rehaussée de dessins noirs, puis toutes les espèces de coquillages que l’on ramasse sur les côtes puniques, des bouillies de froment, de fève de d’orge et des escargots au cumin, sur des plats d’ambre jaune.
Ensuite les tables furent couvertes de viandes: antilopes avec leurs comes, paons avec leursplumes, moutons entiers cuits au vin doux, gigots de chamelles et de buffles, hérissons au garum, cigales frites et leurs confits. Dans des gamelles en bois de Tamrapanni flottaient, au milieu de saffran, de grands morceaux de graisse. Tout débordait de saumure, de truffes et d’asa foetida. Les pyramides de fruits s’éboulaient sur les gâteaux de miel et l’on n’avait pas oublié quelques-uns de ces petites chiens à gros ventre et à soies rose que l’on engraissait avec du mare d’olives, mets carthaginois, en abomination aux autres peuples.
Flaubert wasn’t exaggerating, too much; it was initially from the Carthaginians that the Romans got the taste for huge, crazy meals.
Meanwhile, it was during the wars against Samnium, finally destroyed by Sulla, that the Romans became aware of real culinary skills; they came across the Greeks.
The Romans were never great sailors, so used the Phoenicians’ knowledge, trading skills and seafaring abilities to widen their booty network. The Phoenicians sailed to China, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka and brought back precious metals and spices – notably pepper, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon (cassia). The Romans got hold of exotic birds like pheasants and flamingos; pretty fruits, like peaches, cherries, apricots and, most likely guavas, mangoes and quinces, as many Roman dishes seem to show a penchant for ‘sweet and sour’; and asparagus, since Pliny wrote that the asparagus from Ravenna each weighed a third of a pound, but remember that the Roman pound was and is only about thirteen ounces. And before the introduction of the heavy asparagus, a forebear of the chunky white Italian, French and now Californian variety, the Romans called the tender tips of all green vegetables asparagus.
As the Roman world expanded, so did the numbers of slaves, prisoners and itinerants who arrived in the city of Rome itself. The authorities had therefore to keep them fed, and quiet. The annona or grain and later bread dole was a fact of life and a topic of politics which obsessed Rome from about 200 BC till the fourth century AD. Rome had been troubled by serious famines and shortages as far back as the sixth century BC; in 123 BC Gaius Gracchus, seeing the cost of living was staggeringly high, allowed all citizens to buy from public granaries at a hugely subsidized price; by 71 BC, free grain was being dispensed to 40,000 male citizens of Rome. In the decades that followed, the number of people receiving grain increased so greatly that Julius Caesar felt he had done terribly well to reduce the dole queue to a mere 150,000. Augustus let the queue creep up again to 320,000 – just under a third of the total estimated population of Rome. At one point food was so short that extravagance just had to be curbed and the Fannian Law was introduced – according to this presumably impossible law, it was an offence to entertain more than three guests to a meal apart from members of the household; except on market days, when five guests were allowed. There were three market days per month. And the same law made it illegal to spend more than two drachmas and a half on provisions, or to serve at any one meal more than one hen – unfattened (they got round this through castration).
Of course, politics played a huge part in the annona system. Look at today’s welfare system. In the third century AD, Septimius Severus made himself popular with the Roman plebs and with the people of his native Leptis Magna in North Africa, who were suffering from some terrible trade setback, by buying up all the North Africans’ oil for free distribution in Rome. A few years later, Septimius Severus decreed that cooked bread should be distributed instead of grain. Less trouble, less danger of fire, less wastage, less indigestion? Aurelian increased the daily ration to a pound and a half and added pork fat to the list of free goodies, and, in order to use up the wine ponds on his hands paid as taxes in kind from the wine growers, he shoved wine in too . . . When he mooted that all this should be expected permanently by annona takers, a horrified official exclaimed: ‘Before we know where we are, we’ll be giving them chickens and geese as well!’ But as the Empire got into hotter financial waters towards its close, money became tight all round and free distribution stopped, many basic foodstuffs remaining available, but at an exorbitant price.
As to the quantities – at the time of Augustus, it has been estimated it was necessary to import 14 million bushels of grain a year, the produce of several hundred square miles of wheatfields, to feed the poorer of the city of Rome alone. A third came from Egypt and most of the rest from North Africa and Sicily. Transport was efficient and rapid. A Roman cargo ship could cover 160 kilometres a day and camels about thirty-four kilometres a day. Although most import/export merchants dealt with and through the city of Rome, or Ostia, its port at the mouth of the Tiber twenty-five kilometres from Rome, maritime, cart and camel trade routes criss-crossed the Empire. So a rich family in Britain or Germany could order silk from China, a few spices from India, or a peacock.
But the transport of grain for public distribution was subject to the strictest security. The grain was handed over in its country of origin and merchants would take it to Ostia, or, when Ostia silted up, to the neighbouring artificial harbour of Portus. If they put in anywhere on the way it was under the pain of death or deportation. Everyone in Rome knew when the grain ships were due in. If late, there was panic. When they reached port hundreds of barges ferried the grain, checked and weighed, up river to Rome, a journey which took three days.
The Greeks were great bakers. The list of breads and cakes they confected at the bakery, at home, for everyday use and for special occasions is exhaustive but it would seem that the Romans took a leaf from the Greeks’ cookbook and gave bakers a special union status, mid-Republic. When the Romans took an interest in baking in the eighth or seventh century BC, a sort of flat bread was baked at home and in the embers; this new-fangled scone was disapproved of by Cato (who was still used to his pottage) and was calledmaza. And for centuries the purists like Cato forbade the offering of bread as a sacrifice in Roman religious ceremonies, thus echoing the Jewish concept of the impurity of fermented dough (and was it fermented in the early days? probably not).
Cato’s ideal farinaceous sacrifice was the libum, a cake made of cheese and eggs – a pound of flour to two pounds of cheese and an egg, a sort of cheesecake – and note that butter hardly ever appears in Roman cooking. The cheese they would have used would have been a full fat curd cheese, either goat or sheep (probably not cow as there was so little grazing space near Rome). The curds would be pressed in a screw-top mould, according to Columella, who wrote in the first century AD a treatise on matters agricultural. Previously, they’d just put a stone on top. The compressed curds were then moulded in a basket or wooden box (phormos – Greek, forma – Latin), whence the modern French fromage; the English for cheese comes from the Latin caseus, meaning the foodstuff itself. While on cheese, the Romans used to salt, dry, smoke, mature, brine and add chopped herbs, garlic and onions to cheeses. So they must have enjoyed the equivalent of a hard Chavignol goat cheese, a crottin or our ubiqitous Boursin and afeta. Smoked mozzarella is still a great Italian speciality. Pliny, who loved cheeses, gives a long list of local specialities of the Iberian peninsula, Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, among them a huge sheep’s milk wheel from the borders of Tuscany and Liguria; he also talks fondly of the cheeses of the Cevennes and the Auvergne, the ancestors of today’s Roquefort and Cantal.
At the height of the Empire, rich Romans would have eaten cheese or curds for breakfast with milk or wine to drink; a bit like the Dutch and Germans today. Little mention is made of a cheese course at their banquets. And, when the so-called barbarians overran Rome at the end of the Empire in the fifth century AD, they proved to be great cheese lovers and eaters; but it was the Benedictine and Cistercian monks who learned and evolved the secrets of cheese-making and steathily became the new pioneers. They carried on the wine and liqueur production, fish farming, apiculture and all the careful, gentle arts the Romans had enjoyed; altogether too intellectual and finnicky for the barbarians.
Back to bread. At around 168 BC, there was an influx of craftsmen bakers from Greece. Hitherto the rich had used slaves to knead bread in their houses and had even made them wear gloves and masks to knead the dough to avoid sweat and breath getting into the bread. The Greeks had penetrated into Gaul long before the Romans arrived and had established a fine rapport with the Gauls in the bread-making (and wine-making) art. The Gauls realized that yeast from beer was a good raising agent and therefore the Greeks and the Gauls formed a good baking team. By 31 BC during the reign of Augustus there were 329 bakeries in Rome run by Greeks with Gaulish assistants. These immigrant bakers were allowed to form a collegium – a guild – but were subject to enormous regulations when this union became exclusive. If you were the son of a baker you had to become a baker, and you were not allowed to follow any other profession, even if you married outside. A famous baker, Vergilius Eurysaces, had a huge monument erected in his honour after his death, but his son was not allowed to enter the priesthood, the law, or even the army. A baker had to save the Republic or Empire before he could sit in the Senate; if he were to do this, he would resign from the college and make over all his possessions to the college of pistores. And like masons today, they had secret signs, initiatory rites and religious meetings. Interestingly, these bakers were technically well equipped and used horses to run their mills, and not slaves, and cooked the bread in a brick bakehouse. Only men shopped for bread, whether slaves or free.
Eurysaces and his confrères were the equivalent of Poilâne in Paris today; expensive, exclusive with long queues. No women were permitted to enter the bakers’ college but they were admitted to the colleges of greengrocers, clothiers and tavern-keepers. The breads were usually round with tops shaped in all sorts of different ways, often a mushroom shape, like our batch loaf. The incinerated loaves found in Pompeii were shaped like eight-petalled flowers, a shape still to be found in France and Sicily. Such loaves were probably made of fine wheat flour, the siligineus, liked by the patricians; loaves called plebeius were rougher, made of unbolted flour and destined for filling plebeian stomachs (the wholemeal of today? but probably full of stones and weevils too). The Romans also had the equivalent of pain de seigle to eat with oysters, ostrearius.
The Romans had flaky pastry – no doubt copied from the Arab filo pastry – layers of pastry stretched out thin and interlaced with honey, cheese and nuts. Designed to please, these flat, layered cakes were called placenda est; this became placenta, a name we don’t associate with cakes; it is the shape. They liked fritters enormously. Reay Tannahill58 draws a fun analogy of the Romans and their fondness for munching their way round the town at lunchtime – not an important meal: ‘In his discussion of breads ancient and modern, native and foreign, Athenaeus throws out an endless list of names for what must have been the Scotch baps, croissants, Parker House rolls, and churros of the Classical world.’
The wedding cake was a Greek institution. In Rome the cake was given to the bridal couple at the confarreatio (a binding and old-fashioned form of marriage), they then presented it to Jupiter Capitoline in the presence of the grand pontiff and the incumbent priest, the flamen dialis,59 who looked after the flame on which the cake then burned. This sacrifice meant that the woman was placed under the jurisdiction of the man and bore witness to the fact that they were legally wed. Tiberius got rid of the cake-burning custom, but in the eighteenth-century the wedding cake returned with a venegance, a colossal confection to be shared with friends and not burned.
Having established that it took centuries for the staples to be discovered, sorted out and their virtues worked out and for tastes and customs to develop, let’s see who ate what and why.
Augustus was frugal, he hated huge blowouts, so did Martial:
Toranius, if the prospect of a cheerless, solitary dinner
Bores you eat with me – and get thinner.
If you like appetite-whetters,
There’ll be cheap Cappadocian lettuce,
Pungent leeks, and tunny-fish
Nestling in sliced eggs. Next, a black earthenware dish
(Watch out – a finger-scorcher!) of broccoli just taken
From its cool bed, pale beans with pink bacon,
And a sausage sitting in the centre
On a snow-white pudding of polenta.
If you want to try a dessert, I can offer you raisins (my own),
Pears (from Syria), and hot chestnuts (grown
In Naples, city of learning)
Roasted in a slow-burning
Fire. As for the wine, by drinking it you’ll commend it.
When this great feast has ended,
If, as he well might,
Bacchus stirs up his second appetite,
You’ll be reinforced by choice Picenian olives fresh from the trees,
Warm lupins and hot chick-peas . . .
(Martial tr. James Michie, Penguin)
In this one epigram Martial mentions several Roman favourites: lettuce was invariably served during the first course; leeks, tunny fish and eggs would be similar to a ‘salade niçoise’; the pale beans with pink bacon would be like the French country dish ofharicots blancs aux lardons, and the sausage sitting in polenta could appear in any trattoria. The Romans were fond of charcuterie, hams and sausages. Lupins and hot chick-peas were popular and common ‘cocktail’ nibbles, arriving before, after (as here) or during the meal.
Lucullus was apparently an abstemious young man, and a remarkably successful general who defeated two of the more powerful potentates of his time, Mithridates, King of Pontus, and Tigranes, King of Armenia. His campaigns made him fabulously rich and with his new-found wealth he set about procuring delicacies from all over the known world, paying no attention to his pocket, health or, presumably, figure. It was from Pontus, Cappadocia, that he brought back the cherry tree. He sent couriers all over the then known world combing for rare and fine fare – oysters from Colchester, flamingos from the Nile, peacocks from Persia. He paid his carvers thousands of pounds, as it were. He had three villas in the Bay of Naples where he built vivaria – fish tanks – some fed by fresh water, others by salt water. For raising exotic fowl he constructed aviaries, the size of houses to ensure plenty . . . Lucullus had a private dining-room set up in an aviary so that he could enjoy a roast thrush while its friends flew around. As well as the thrushes, nightingales and larks there were cranes, whose eyes were put out before they were fattened, parrots and bustards. Ostriches were eaten but proved very tough even after a severe boiling. (The Emperor Heliogabalus, a real nutter, whose short reign was not mourned, served 600 ostrich heads at a banquet, considering the brains the only digestible part. (He was probably right.) He also fed his dogs foie gras. Why? Why not . . .
Such was the scale on which Lucullus operated that he drove pipes and aqueducts through a chain of mountains in order to source his freshwater ponds. Following the example of Fulvius Lepinus, who started rearing game at Tarquinii, Lucullus, Varro and Petronius added game parks to their estates where fallow deer, antelopes, gazelles and moufflons, imported from abroad, were plumped for their chefs and banquets. Wild boar didn’t become popular till the beginning of the Empire as it was considered a common menace, uprooting the countryside around Rome. Once in fashion, a whole roast wild boar was a must at every smart banquet. Hare was believed to preserve beauty, and the Emperor Septimius Severus ate it every day. Lucullus’ substantial garden in the centre of Rome was coveted by Messalina, and she did characteristically manage to get her hands on it before she met her end, indeed dying there from stab wounds on the orders of the Emperor Claudius, her husband.
Lucullus would spend vast sums on a single meal, and soon others began to follow his ruinous and gluttonous example. Dinner started about four in the afternoon, the ninth hour, and was a lengthy performance in three acts – the gustatio, hors d’oeuvre, thefercula, meaning the ‘dishes which are carried’ (from the kitchen), and the mensae secundae, the dessert courses. The usual layout of the dining area was three sofas arranged in a U shape on which the guest lolled; the open side was used by the servants to fetch and carry the food, often changing the middle table after each course. They used fingers, knives and spoons but did not have forks. They drank from silver or bronze goblets, studded with precious stones if the host was exceedingly rich, and sometimes from glass or crystal; it depended on the taste and means of the host. Ausonius, the prefect-poet, writing in the fourth century AD, waxes extensively and minutely on food and manners of genteel Gallo-Romans; and he describes a wedding feast where doggy-bags were quite the order of the day. Each guest brought a mappa, a big napkin, and bundled up all the goodies he couldn’t manage at the reception. This was expected and catered for.
At the average to posh Roman dinner, the first course consisted of tasty, light dishes, say, fritters of sheep’s brains, little liver sausages, poppy seeds in honey, dressed snails, Lucrine oysters, slices of goose liver, salted sturgeon, asparagus, lettuce, radishes, eggs . . . The ‘carried-on’ course could run to ten dishes. Mucius Lentulus Niger entertained Julius Caesar and gave him ten starters, ten main courses and endless desserts. Ali Bab cites as crazy, show-off dishes of the greedy and competitive: sows’ nipples in tuna brine; camels’ heels (said to have been a favourite of Cleopatra); elephants’ trunks; parrots’ heads; ragout of nightingales’ brains; peacocks’ brains; and a pâté of tiny bird tongues – a pâté which fetched a huge price – not to mention le pore à la Troyenne farci de becs-figues et d’huîtres (Trojan pork with fig-pecker and oyster stuffing).
Although the dinner given by Trimalchio, the Syrian freed-man, is a satire and invented by Petronius (The Satyricon), it still remains a perfectly vivid and amusing description of the form of an excessive Roman dinner:
White & black olives
Dormice sprinkled with honey & poppy seeds
Damsons & pomegranate seeds
Fig-peckers in spiced egg yolk
Foods of the Zodiac served on a round plate (over Aries the Ram, chick-peas; over Taurus the Bull, a beefsteak; on the Heavenly Twins, testicles & kidneys; over Cancer the Crab, a crown of myrtle; over Leo the Lion, an African fig; over Virgo the Virgin, a young sow’s udder; over Libra the Scales, a balance with a cheesecake in one pan and a pastry in the other; over Scorpio, a sea scorpion; over Sagittarius the Archer, a sea bream with eyespots; over Capricorn, a lobster; over Aquarius the Water-carrier, a goose; over Pisces the Fishes, two red mullets).
Served with bread from silver oven by a young Egyptian slave who, singing in a sickening voice, mangled a song from the show ‘The Asafoetida Man’ (Petronius’ jibe)
Roasted fattened fowls, sows’ bellies, and hare
Roast whole wild boar with dates, suckled by piglets made of cakes and stuffed with live thrushes
Boiled whole pig stuffed with sausage & black puddings
of the Opimian vintage
one hundred years old
Fruits & cakes
Boned, fattened chickens & goose eggs
Pastries stuffed with raisins & nuts
Quince-apples & pork disguised as fowls & fish
Oysters & scallops
That’s the menu in a list, but one of Petronius’ guest’s description is far less clinical:
Finally we took our places. Boys from Alexandria poured iced water over our hands. Others followed them and attended to our feet, removing any hangnails with great skill. But they were not quiet even during this troublesome operation: they sang away at their work . . . It was more like a musical comedy than a respectable dinner party.
Some extremely elegant hors d’oeuvres were served. The dishes for the first course: an ass of Corinthian bronze with two panniers, white olives on one side and black on the other. Over the ass were two pieces of plate, with Trimalchio’s name and the weight of the silver inscribed on the rims. There were some small iron frames shaped like bridges supporting dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seed. There were steaming hot sausages too, on a silver gridiron with damsons and pomegranate seeds underneath.
Trimalchio arrives, games, swears and shows off, then a tray is brought in with a basket on it:
There sat a wooden hen, its wings spread round in the way hens are when they are broody; two slaves hurried up and as the orchestra played a tune they began searching through the straw and dug out peahen’s eggs, which they distributed to the guests.
Trimalchio: ‘My friends, I gave orders for that bird to sit on some peahens’ eggs. I hope to goodness they are not starting to hatch. However, let’s try them and see if they are still soft.
We took our spoons (weighing at least half a pound each) and cracked the eggs, which were made of rich pastry. To tell the truth, I nearly threw away my share, as the chicken seemed already formed. But I heard a guest who was an old hand say: ‘There should be something good here.’ So I searched the shell with my fingers and found the plumpest little fig-pecker, all covered with yolk and seasoned with pepper.
(For more see The Satyricon by Petronius, Penguin)
Another horror was Aulus Vitellius, Emperor for nine mind-boggling months in AD 69 – he was murdered by his successor Vespasian’s allies. Suetonius has a good tale:
The most infamous of Vitellius’ banquets was the dinner given by his brother to commemorate the Emperor’s arrival in Rome from the provinces. They say that 2,000 of the most costly fish and 7,000 birds were served on that occasion; but Vitellius himself surpassed this with the dedication of a dish he described as ‘the Shield of Minerva, the Guardian of the City’ because of its colossal size: in this dish, he united the livers of wrasse, pheasants’ and peacocks’ brains, flamingos’ tongues, and the roes of moray eels . . . Because he was a man whose gluttony was not only unlimited but also untimely and sordid, he could never control himself even when offering a sacrifice to the gods from robbing the very altars of their pieces of flesh and wheat cakes, almost out of the fires themselves, and then from gulping them down on the spot.
Caligula constantly sought out the novel and bizarre in his entertainments. He invented new sorts of baths where he could soak in special oils; he also devised weird foods – he was said to have laid out loaves and meats of gold, and to have drunk pearls melted in vinegar. His settings were novel too – he had wonderful villas throughout Campania and ships so extravagantly decked out that they boasted baths and fruit trees. (The surviving vessels found at Nemi are proof of such opulence.) Those guests not too keen on sailing could join one of Caligula’s picnics, which took place in a tree house in the branches of an enormous plane tree, large enough to seat fifteen!
Juvenal, Pliny and Martial were perfectly normal eaters and entertainers, and observed sumptuary laws. Juvenal would content himself by dining simply on ‘a plump kid, tenderest of the flock’, with ‘more of milk in him than of blood’, some wild asparagus and ‘lordly eggs warm in their wisps of hay together with the hens that laid them’ (perhaps the most memorable meal I’ve eaten in France lately, at Bardet in Tours, comprised one course of a lightly boiled guinea-fowl egg, served with the finest sea salt; the following course was its mother, also poached but with truffles. Bardet and Juvenal’s chef share the same inclinations towards simplicity and quality). Ordinary plebeian gatherings, whether among family or friends, political colleagues or corporations, were pretty frugal and sober affairs because they mostly did not have enough money to entertain on a lavish scale as ingredients were expensive.
Rome itself was a limited space, there was no refrigeration although they knew how to make ice, but who would have got that? The rich. The ordinary people, who lived in highly inflammable and jerry-built ‘high-rise’ flats, often didn’t dare cook due to fear of fire, the neighbours, smells, maybe even the lack of a burner. Cooking costs money. Hence, the thriving street food business, as in Asia and the Far East today – hot, tasty and cheap.
Did the Romans have spaghetti? No one can agree. Marco Polo did not bring pasta to the West. Going by eighteenth-century Italian translations of Horace’s Satires and Martial’s Epigrams one would assume the Romans ate pasta, as pastillas was translated as ‘little pastas’; but all translations before the fourteenth century translate the word as ‘small, round cakes’. Croquettes is another rendering. Marcus Varro, first century AD, states in his encyclopedia that a pastillum is a bread roll; then, de Cagne, an erudite seventeenth-century Frenchman, came up with the theory that pastillum is a pastry stuffed with meat, a ravioli! It’s possible then that the Romans had the stuffed, malleable, pudgy pastas like ravioli, gnocchi, tortelloni. Long strands of spaghetti would have been hard to eat without forks or chop sticks.
Once the Empire was nicely under way, territories enlarged and under control, the show offs showing off, it’s interesting to pinpoint the spices, condiments, relishes and, to us, untasteable mixtures the Romans most cared for. The only point of view we can get is the Romans’ – they knew what they wanted and thought they knew what to do with it in a sophisticated manner. The range at their disposal was vast – the Romans had the run of Gaul and they learned much from the Gauls, although Roman writers invariably cite the Gauls as noisy, rough marauders. It was probably merely one tribe, the Arvernii, ancestors of the people of the present-day Auvergne, who lived up to his uncouth, roistering image. The Gauls introduced the Romans to foie gras, oysters, barrels, mattresses (good for lolling on, having over-eaten) and shored up the wine supply at reasonable prices.
Gaulish influence coupled with that of the northern Germanic tribes was considerable – ‘Westphalian’ ham, sausages and, perhaps, black bread. The Romans liked smoking pork, the Greeks never liked this method of cooking/preserving, they simply boiled. And it was the people of north and central Europe who were essentially hunters, and not fancy cooks, with plenty of spindly-legged wild pigs and abundant forests, who must have invented the practical and tasty method of smoking which continues to this day especially in Germany and all countries north. Selling smoked, salted hams to the Romans also made the Germanic tribesmen a fortune. After all, ‘jambon de Bayonne’, ‘Westphalische Schinken’, ‘prosciutto crudo’, etc., are all expensive today. Whether hams came from the north, Gaul or Spain, Martial, Cato and others extolled their deliciousness and noticed that the secret ingredient was acorns. Spanish and Corsican hams are still loved for their acorny flavour. The Romans didn’t much care for beef. It was pork, in all guises, they liked. Galen says it tasted like human flesh. A recommendation? Well, no associations seemed abhorrent to the Roman palate.
A real delicacy of a posh patrician dinner was any dish made of sows’ vulvas and teats. Arguments arose as to whether the vulva of a sow who had aborted her first litter was the tops (Pliny), or whether it was those of a virgin sow. Or, were the teats of a sterile sow better than those of the sow who had just given birth and suckled her young . . . the dotty Emperor Heliogabalus could eat a dish of tits ten days running.
Sausages were popular. The Romans made their own and introduced different kinds from Gaul to extend the charcutiers’ range, and sausage-making hasn’t, it seems, changed much either in Italy or in France for 2,000 years. They had circelli tomacinaeandincisia – small chipolata-type sausages; pendulus, a large slicing sausage using the end of the large intestine, or caecum; hillae, a very thin sausage, like today’s dry mountain sausage; tuccettae, a speciality of Cisalpine Gaul, long and a mixture of pork and beef. Faliscan sausage was like mortadella and the Gauls made something like andouillettes which might be smoked black puddings with milk and blood – a delicacy of the canabae, the settlements of Aeduan charcutiers who set up shop near Roman settlements.
Tripe, omasum, a completely Celtic dish, was a Roman favourite, and was made with onions and garlic, both vegetables exported in large quantities from Gaul. The Gallo-Romans and Romans at home in Rome must have liked offal: pigs’ heads, strings of sausages, black puddings and the Gaulish charcutier, the lardarius, at work are depicted on bas-reliefs found in Narbonne, Bordeaux, Cologne and Reims.
Fatted goose- and duck-liver has been going for a long, long time. The ancient Egyptians were the first to notice the phenomenon, and appreciate the taste and, above all, texture. The Egyptians sent Agesilaus, King of Sparta, fat geese around 400 BC. Athenaeus writing in the third century BC quotes the famous cook Archestratus on foie gras: ‘A liver, or rather the soul of a goose’.
The Greeks were good at cramming geese and the Romans copied. Cato, in the second century BC, explains: ‘To cram hens or geese: shut up young hens beginning to lay, make pellets of moist flour or barley meal, soak in water, and put into the mouth . . . cram twice a day, and give water at noon, but do not place water before them for more than one hour. Feed a goose the same way, except that you let it drink first, and give food and water twice a day’. Columella gives the same advice in the first century AD, and Palladius, in the fourth century AD, says they should be fed on a vegetarian diet and in the warmth and dark till fat and then on rolled, pounded figs for another fifty days.
Pliny agrees that the Romans liked foie gras, the liver of the Gaulish geese (Gaul again), that arrived ‘on foot all the way to Rome from Morini (Picardy); the geese that get tired are advanced to the front rank, and so all the rest drive them on by instinctively pressing forward in their rear’. Pliny goes on about foie gras. ‘Stuffing the bird makes the liver grow to a great size, and also once it has been removed it is made larger by being soaked in milk sweetened with honey.’ Horace thought the ‘enormous liver’, as Juvenal called it, should definitely come from a white, female goose . . .
Figs would have made a poor goose very sick; foie gras is in fact the liver of a severely diabetic bird. The Romans prized iecur ficatum, ‘fig liver’, above all other foie gras, and the Gauls, who loved it then as they do now, forgot about the liver bit, iecur, and went on with the ficatum. In the eighth century this became figido, then fedie et feie in the twelfth century, ending up as foie.
Juvenal says foie gras was served hot. ‘Before the master is put a huge goose’s liver, a capon as big as a goose, and a boar, piping hot.’
At the same dinner, given by the social climber Marcus Varro, the host amused himself by giving his guests of humble origin a paltry menu, while he had the above, followed by truffles! Lucullus loved truffles. Truffles had a special fragrance, grew in a mysterious way, and were therefore highly attractive to the Romans in their quest for expensive, rare, maybe aphrodisiac, and delicious delicacies. The Greeks and Romans didn’t agree on the nature of truffles. Theophrastus, a disciple of Aristotle, thought they were born of autumn claps of thunder and especially lightning; Nicander, 100 years later, thought they were silt modified by internal heat, and Plutarch thought they were mud cooked by lightning.
No one has successfully to this day managed to grow such truffles; experiments are being carried out in the Limousin, in the Périgord, and an Israeli in California thinks he has nearly cracked the problem . . . Martial lets the truffles talk: ‘We truffles that burst through the nurturing soil with our soft heads are of earth’s apples second to mushrooms.’ Galen prescribed truffles to his patients, amongst them admittedly Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, ‘for the truffle is very nourishing, and causes general excitation, conducive to sensual pleasure’. Maybe the truffles of antiquity were not the same as the pungent black truffles of the Périgord and Strasbourg, or the distinctive white truffles of Italy familiar to us, because Pliny describes them as reddish, black or white (the Italian variety?) and Martial’s come bursting through the ground like mushrooms.
The elusiveness of truffles surely lies in the fact that they spore and grow haphazardly underground and have to be sniffed out by pigs or dogs. The Romans probably enjoyed some real truffles – tubera – and also used the word tuber to cover truffles, pungent mushrooms of tubercular shape which sprout up from under the ground and are found around the Mediterranean.
Boletus mushrooms were highly esteemed. Martial again:
To send presents of silver and gold
Or cloaks and togas
but giving some boleti . . .
Pliny, who in his Natural History gives precise descriptions of edible and poisonous mushrooms, writes rather bossily:
Among those foods which are eaten thoughtlessly, I would justly place mushrooms. Although their flavour is excellent, mushrooms have fallen into disgrace by a shocking instance of murder: they were the means by which the Emperor Tiberius Claudius was poisoned by his wife Agrippina; and by doing this she gave to the world and to herself another poison, one worse than all the others: her own son, Nero. . .
The mushroom Agrippina gave Claudius was the ‘fly agaric’, which looks like the most prized mushroom of classical times, the ‘royal agaric’; the fly agaric is now commonly known as Caesar’s Mushroom.
Millions of oyster shells litter Roman sites; the Romans imported them from Gaul, England having already started her own beds. The expert was Mucianus, an oyster taster, quoted by Pliny as being able to differentiate between the ten different sorts available in the fish forum – from the Sea of Marmora to the Armorican coast, including Tripolitan, Aeolian, Istrian, Latian and Asturian. Catiline’s grandfather was famous for his fish ponds, piscinae, and he raised his gilthead bream from Lake Lucrino on oysters, opened for them day and night, which he bred in the elaborate oyster beds he had constructed. His oysters were chosen from Tarentum or Brindisi. He sold the surplus and made a fortune. The fish ponds constructed by medieval monks after the barbarian invasions were basedon Roman design; it could not be beaten.
Soon after the conquest of Gaul 58–52 BC, oyster farming became one of the biggest industries. Natural oyster beds from all Gaulish coasts provided excellent specimens. The Greeks had appreciated the Gaulish oysters long before the Romans arrived. The Greek, Strabo, praises the oysters of the Etang de Berre, near Marseilles. Pliny talks about the oysters of the Médoc, then, in the fourth century, Ausonius provides fascinating oyster information. Whereas Caesar had divided Gaul into three nations, Ausonius, the prefect-poet, divides the country geographically according to the quality of its oysters! First comes the Médoc, whence the author, who came originally from Lyons and was of Greek descent, his family having been in Gaul before the Romans. Next comes Provence, including Marseilles, the Etang de Berre and Port-Vendres, whose oysters he considered on a par with those from Baiae near Naples and Lake Lucrino; still in the second category came the Saintogne and Calvados areas. Third, came Armorican oysters from the country of the Picts, La Vendée, and then Scotland and, a long way behind, Byzantium!
Certain fish were greatly revered, among them the red mullet, especially for the brains. One weighing four and a half pounds was auctioned by Tiberius; the bidding between Apicius and another rich, greedy fellow was competitive and in the end the greedy fellow won and paid 30,000 sesterces (about £4,000 today!). Domitian’s turbot was so enormous that the Senate was convened to deliberate the best way to serve it. Gaius Hirrius was the first to invent separate fish ponds for rearing morays. He contributed 6,000 morays to the banquets at which Julius Caesar celebrated his Triumphs, but as a loan, since he was unwilling to exchange them for a price or indeed for any other kind of payment. When he sold his smallish country seat, he received 4,000,000 sesterces, largely on the strength of his fish ponds. It was after this that a passion for individual fish began to seize certain people. At Bacolo, in the district of Baiae, the orator Hortensius kept a fish pond in which there was a moray he so prized that it is widely believed he shed tears at its death. In the same country house, Antonia, the wife of Drusus, put earrings on a moray she loved, and some people longed to see Bacolo because of its famous fish.
Tuna, grey mullet and the abundant fish of the Mediterranean were beaten like game into the lagoon of Berre by dolphins. River fish especially from Gaul, sea anemones, still a Niçoise favourite, and salmon from the northern rivers were not to be sneezed at.
Snails and dormice were enthusiastically collected, bred and fed. It was Fulvius Lippinus who began breeding snails in the district of Tarquinii (Trachina) around 50 BC. He sorted them into four batches and gave them each their own vivarium – the white snails from Reate, the Illyrian snails famed for their size, the African snails known for fertility and the African sun snails known simply for quality. Lippinus fattened them with must and spelt; Apicius has a recipe for milk-fed snails. Indeed, Marcus Varro wrote that snail rearing became such a mania that a banquet snail shell could contain twenty pints.
Dormice, our fieldmice, were bred in hutches for some eighteen centuries from the Greeks to the Middle Ages. The Romans also kept them in jars and fed them on acorns, figs, walnuts and chestnuts, and when they were à point they cooked these delectable titbits in honey.
In AD 162 the Lex Faunia forbade the fattening of hens, to save grain, but the Romans got around this snag by castrating cockerels, thus inventing the capon – they grew to twice their size and put on a lot of weight like a eunuch. Spayed hens became fattened pullets.
The Romans, who were good at central heating and plumbing, also had steam-heated incubators for eggs. Hens were not just for consumption but for sacrifice too. The chicken, a relation of the Asian mound-bird, only reached Greece in the fifth century BC, wending its way from Malaysia to domestication in the valley of the Indus, then to Persia and thence to King Croesus in Greece. Horace thought a fowl drowned to death in wine had a particularly good taste. The Romans ate all domestic fowl we eat (save turkey, it hadn’t arrived), and birds we don’t – swans, ostriches, crane, bittern, stork, robins, sparrows, fig-peckers and thrushes (vide Trimalcio’s feast), oriole, even seagulls and pelicans . . .
The only cookbook of any length extant is a fourth-century compilation, purportedly the recipes of one Apicius, a first-century gourmet, who committed suicide because he estimated he did not have enough money left to keep his gastronomic life alive.ThisApicius was a contemporary of Tiberius. But there could have been four Apiciuses, each from a different century; let’s assume the book, De Re Coquinaria, is from the first-century AD Apicius undoubtedly with bits added along the way. And it’s only from these or other miscellaneous recipes that we can make a stab at guessing what Roman food tasted like and what sort of texture it had.
As Rome began its earliest days as a salt crossroads, they knew salt was crucial to life – Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt, hence ‘salary’. There being no refrigeration, any meats or fish if not eaten fresh were salted. Spices imported from the East were inordinately precious and it seems that the more spice, herbs and pickle you could possibly stuff into a single dish the happier the host and more impressed the guests.
Pepper was the king spice. Most of Apicius’ sauce recipes begin with a liberal dose of pepper. A sweet sauce for eels might consist of ground pepper, lovage, oregano, mint, onion, honey, boiled wine and fish stock. Pepper was also sprinkled or poached with pears, apples and quinces, and this was still a common practice in the Middle Ages; we sometimes pepper strawberries, and a Moroccan tajine of lamb, prunes and cinnamon is heavily peppered – reminiscent of Roman sweet-sour dishes which would suggest many dishes were adopted from the Far and Middle East and Greece. Pepper gives piquancy, a sensation, but not an aromatic or exotic taste or smell; nevertheless and despite its price it was used willy-nilly, and was quite indispensable to Roman gastronomy.
To get an idea of its price: in AD 390 Diocletian, in an edict, fixed the price of whole long pepper in the Roman Empire at fifteen denarii a pound (roughly £40), shelled pepper (round pepper?) at four denarii (say £14) and white pepper at seven denarii (£24). What a huge chunk of a medium household’s income! The honestiores, people who didn’t need state aid, certified to the municipia, the authorities, that they were in possession of 5,000 sesterces’ capital, and one Jerome Carcopino (A Rome à l’apogée de l’Empire,Hachette, 1939), worked out that the average middle-class family with enough slaves needed 20,000 sesterces a year to live on! No wonder, if pepper was so expensive, and a Roman pound weight was less than ours.
Foreign monarchs who owed allegiance to the imperial city gave pepper to consuls, senators, generals and indeed any officials. When, in AD 408, Alaric, King of the Visigoths, captured Rome, he demanded 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. They just couldn’t have eaten it all, pepper goes mouldy. Pepper was a status symbol – mouldering gold.
If pepper came first to the cook’s hand, then cinammon, cardamom and nutmeg were bracketed together as condiments used in almost every dish, rather like salt and pepper today. This mixture was used in the preparation of food and also sprinkled over cooked dishes just before they went to the table. Ginger, Indian spikenard, cloves and Indian costum were high on the list of imported spices. An indication of the Roman fever for spices by the first century AD is the fact that they accounted for forty-four out of the eighty-six classifications of goods imported from Asia and the eastern coast of Africa to the Mediterranean. (The others included elephant trainers and eunuchs, parrots and palm oil, cottons and cooks.)
Besides spices the Romans used lots of herbs and fish pickles, many of which we never use and hardly ever see today. Lovage, a green herbal plant that grows anywhere and to quite a size, crops up often and has a taste stronger and more cloying than its cousin, celery. Rue has probably, and not surprisingly, fallen from modern grace; it’s bitter and smells oddly of sicky cheese (a taste they strove for, vide garum below). Its main use nowadays is as an insect-repellent. Brillat Savarin, in his Psychologie du goût, reckons that many of Apicius’ recipes were disgusting to eighteenth-century palates; almost a joke, as they surely are to us, were dishes like ‘stuffed wombs and udders, dormice and boiled ostriches, capons’ testicles with asafoetida, and all stuffed with rue, endless rue’.
Other ‘European’ herbs used by the Romans, in descending order of importance (somebody reckons to have worked it out), are: coriander, cumin, oregano, celery seed, parsley seed, bay leaf, aniseed, fennel, mint, caraway, mustard seed, wormwood, chervil, colewort (rocket), saxifrage (sweet cicely), thyme, sage, pennyroyal, pellitory, elecampane, saffron and mastic . . .
But the oddest condiments are liquamen (garum) and the herb silphium or laser – strong, nasty and expensive and totally craved. Some say that garum shared responsibility for the Roman conquest of Gaul, as its manufacturing and marketing made an appreciable contribution to the prosperity of the trading posts which proliferated, from the time Greek colonists first landed on the shores of Gaul, until a whole chain had sprung up along the Ligurian (Provençal), Volcaen (Languedocian) and Iberian coastlines. The Greeks had a sauce made of fermented shrimps called ‘garon’ (Greek for shrimp), and the Romans, in all walks of life, had an insatiable mania for it. Some Roman amphoras were recovered from shipwrecks in the Golfe de Lion containing crystallized deposits of the sauce and bearing the manufacturers’ seals, showing there was a garum trade as early as the fifth century BC.
Phocaean, not Phoenician, Massilia (Marseilles) was an important import-export centre, and, after all, it was the people of Massilia who invited the Romans into Provence in 181 BC, providing a jumping-off-point for the entire country. Each manufacturing port had its secret recipe, and so popular was garum that the sauce was factory-produced. Pompeii, Leptis Magna and Antipolis (Antibes) were famous for a mean garum, but Bithynia on the coast of the Black Sea seems to have been the one. The Carthage and Cadiz brands were highly esteemed. The grandest was ‘garum sociorum’, ‘garum of the allies’, perhaps so-called because the decomposing mackerel, anchovy or (rarely) red mullet and shrimp intestines were in fact self-digesting due to the action of the fish’s own intestinal microbes.
A recipe from Apicius:
It’s best to take large or small sprats, or failing them take anchovies, or horse-mackerel, or mackerel, make a mixture of all and put into a baking trough. Take two pints of salt to the peck of fish and mix well to have the fish impregnated with salt. Leave it for one night, and then put it into an earthenware vessel which you place open in the sun for two or three months, stirring with a stick at intervals, then take it, cover it with a lid and store away. Some people add old wine, two pints to a pint of fish.
When the mixture had completely decomposed, carefully calculated amounts of concentrated decoctions of herbs were added; then, a fine strainer was plunged into the vessel to collect the syrupy, pale yellow, pungent, salty, fishy and, most distinctively, cheesy liquid. This was then left to mature. The residue or alec, something akin to marc, the residue of pressed grapes, was not thrown away but kept for the poor people to season their bland porridges; just as the most intense sauces in the world’s repetoire – the soys of China, the curries of India and the chilli mixtures of South America – are designed, fundamentally, to perk up piles of cheap and bulky carbohydrates which both dilute and absorb the sauce. It is, however, hard to imagine what garum added to meaty dishes.
Some favoured ‘sanguine garum’ made of tuna blood – even stronger than the ordinary garum! The freshwater catfish found in marshes which weren’t much good for eating (having thick skin and lots of bones) were pounded up and turned into a garum calledmuria. Garum diluted with water, hydrogarum, livened up the daily diet of the Roman soldier. Garum diluted with wine would be used to make the famous Byzantine sauce ‘oenogarum’, and diluted with oil it became ‘oleogarum’, and with vinegar ‘oxygarum’. Today the nearest we can get to garum is perhaps the ‘nuoc man’ of Vietnam, ‘tuk trey’ from Cambodia or ‘nam pla’ from Thailand, all made from putrefying fish and yet there are no records of bacterial infection caused by eating any of these things. Indeed, Laotians put a few drops of ‘nuoc man’ into babies’ bottles. Garum made the fortunes of the Greek and Roman trading posts and the Provençal pissaladière, the pisara of the Var and pissala of Nice – both fishy preserves – are its great-grandchildren.
Its price was shattering – the price of caviare is nothing by comparison; the only possible parallel is the essences used in scent-making. In Caesar’s time a congius (about three and a quarter litres) of garum cost 500 sesterces, something like £4,000!
Silphium is a herb, completely unknown to us today, which was another essential in the Roman kitchen. A wild carrot is a theory. It came from the former Greek colony in Cyrene in North Africa, where the economy revolved so entirely around silphium and horses, and life was so narrow as a result, that Antiphanes the dramatist, in the fourth century, made one of his characters moan, ‘I will not sail back to the place from which we were carried away, for I want to say goodbye to all – horses, silphium, chariots, silphium stalks, steeple-chasers, silphium leaves, fevers, and silphium juice!’ Due to overcropping, silphium ran out in Nero’s time, so the Romans had to make do with asafoetida (Persian asa, mastic; Latin foetida, stinking). It’s the sap of a large, umbelliferous plant, extremely bitter, more pungent than garlic with a stench like carrion and, again, expensive. It was rubbed over plates before the food was put on to make the food taste better, by comparison. This habit would indicate that a real problem faced by Roman cooks was the danger of rancidity, so they shrouded the basic raw material in overpowering substances.
So expensive were silphium and asafoetida that Apicius suggests a way of making an ounce of silphium go further, by keeping it in a jar of pine nuts, which it impregnated like a vanilla pod flavours sugar. So when a recipe needed silphium, a few pine nuts could be used. A drop of asafoetida greatly enhances fish dishes today but we don’t know how much the Romans used. Probably a strong dose. Indians have always used asafoetida under the name of hing, and often in such quantities that supplies have to be imported from Afghanistan. The Romans also liked an Indian plant called ‘nard’; it’s related to valerian and smells of decay. All these strange tastes seem to have one ‘quality’ in common; they all stink, are strong and bitter, and preferably evoke a cheesy, decaying whiff.
What did the Romans drink? They didn’t like beer, they drank wine and preferred white wine, usually sweetened with honey. Women were not allowed wine, equated with blood, therefore suggesting figuratively adultery; wine was also thought to be an abortifacient, to bring on monsters; and as intoxication causes a form of delirium which may be prophetic, better the women didn’t have the chance to be better informed. Further, the delirium of drunkenness denoted possession – divine rather than demoniac at this time – and this possession denoted violation, and a violated woman could never be regarded as pure and chaste again. The Romans did not analyse the properties of alcohol and did not, knowingly, have spirits, an Arab invention (al-kuhl, originally meaning a very fine powder of antimony – the kohl as in eye make-up – came by extension to mean any powder obtained by sublimation, i.e., the direct transformation of a solid into vapour, or the reverse). The rich and boozy saw nothing wrong with intoxication amongst the men and many a slave had to guide his master back from a dinner, steering him from urinal to urinal. A host could also organize extra drinking by appointing as his assistant someone whose three names contained a certain number of letters. For instance, the name Gaius Julius Caesar has seventeen letters, which meant drinking his health in seventeen cups of wine, and the capacity of a cup might be anything from one to eleven cyathi, depending on the capacity of the cyathus, the ladle. Suetonius has it that the proverbial sobriety of Augustus allowed him only three cups of wine a meal, which would have meant some litre and a half!
Not until 121 BC did the Italian vineyards take off. Earlier texts speak mainly of Greek wines. So great was the demand for white, or rather, amber wine that red wine was ‘breached’ with sulphur. The Greeks blended their wines; the Romans did not but they did cook some of their wines and flavour them with aromatics – a sort of sweet Dubonnet. The reduced cooked wines became defrutum, carenum and sagra – the latter being the thickest and stickiest and not greatly fermented, and all were sweetened with honey.Mulsum was the sweetest of all, with a ratio of ten litres of honey to thirteen litres of wine. Apicius used all these reduced wines in his cooking, plus a raisin wine called passum made of grapes left to shrivel to half their size on the vine – presumablypassum would have resembled sweet white dessert wines resulting from the noble rot, or botrytis.
The wine from Alba was aged for fifteen years and from Surrentinum for twenty-five years and ended up, according to the Emperor Tiberius, as generosum acetum – vinegar, but magnificent and well-sweetened vinegar! Trimalchio served a 100 year-old Falernian: a joke, but might suggest they had vintages. As well as the Italian wines the Romans drank wine from Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Spain, Provence, Narbonne and Aquitaine. Petronius said that Rome had laid its hands on the world, and it also stored the world, so to speak in its cellars. In fact, the Romans stored their wine at the top of the house near the smoking chimney; they liked this extra bouquet.
The barrel came from Gaul and was associated with beer, so the most common container for wine was the amphora, coated inside with pitch and sealed with clay. The glass bottle’s use spread at the end of the first century BC and with it came the cork stopper.
The Romans proved as thorough in viticulture as in everything. They grafted – perhaps an Etruscan invention – dipping the pruning hook in bear’s blood and wiping it off with beaver skin. No one knows where this ritual originated. From the second centuryBConwards the Romans regulated the viticulture introduced into Mediterranean Gaul by the Greeks and the Gauls provided the ingenuity and talent. For instance, the Gauls went off into the forests to find wild vines which were then grafted on to ‘southern’ stock. Before long, the Gauls in the Allobrogica, now the Dauphiné, succeeded in hardening a vine which was frost-resistant. The cunning chieftains cashed in on their discovery to get Roman citizenship. Why not? – it gave them the right to grow their own vines for themselves in the future. Following this example, the Bituriges Vivisci passim of Bordeaux bred a vine which thrived on the gravelly, wind-swept soils of the Graves, Aquitaine and Médoc. As Tacitus put it, ‘Grave solum coelumque.’ (‘How gloomy is soil and climate.’)
Funnily enough, there was during the Roman Empire a parallel situation to the EC wine gripes of today. The citizens of Rome who grew their wines in Italy and the province of Narbonne made it known in high places that the talents of their Gaulish colleagues, especially the Allobroges and Bituriges, were damaging their own export trade and even home consumption. No wonder the less well-off Romans wanted to buy Gaulish wines, which were reasonable, well made and plentiful.
With such a massive amount of documentation on the Romans, we just can’t be sure what their food and drink tasted like – very odd – but as the French essayist Suarès says: ‘There is no heresy in a dead religion.’ Quite, but we do know that their religious fervour for ostentation, gluttony and ridiculous gastronomic acrobatics went so far that some diners had to tickle their throats with a feather once or several times during the dinner so that: ‘ Vomunt ut edant, edunt ut voment’, as Seneca disapprovingly put it. (‘They vomit to eat and eat to vomit.’) But what a lot the Romans organized, discovered and adapted – imagine if they’d known about the Americas . . . tomatoes, chocolate, maize, coffee, potatoes, the turkey . . . Help!