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Ancient Roman Lentils with chestnuts: Italian food before tomatoes

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Time: late 4th or early 5th century AD | Place: Rome | Language: Latin | Author: Apicius (probably not a real person though) | Book title: De re culinaria

 

We often think of spices as related to flavor and as a nice addition to food, but spices in the ancient world were more essential. Spices were traded between distant places and enabled cooks to preserve (and often mask the spoiled tasted of) food without refrigeration. Way before “globalization” as we know it, the Apicius cookbook from the Roman Empire indicates a wide-reaching spice trade in the ancient world. Because fresh produce and meats spoiled quickly, the cookbook includes instructions for how to preserve fruits in honey, how to pickle fish, and, disturbingly, how to mask the smell of chicken that has gone bad (we respectfully decided to pass on that recipe).

This desire to keep ingredients fresh might be the reason why the Romans were inventive with their condiments and spices. One hallmark of the Roman table was garum, a fermented fish sauce used on almost anything to add a salty, umami flavor. Roman meals were also flavored with a huge array of spices – some native to Italy, like mint and fennel, and some imported from as far away as India.

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Fresco from Pompeii of two cooks gutting a fawn, Getty collection, 50 – 75 CE

This variety of spices might be surprising, but in 30 BCE, the Roman conquest of Egypt expanded Roman trade networks to include the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the west coast of India. Cargoes from the East could be unloaded at Egyptian ports and transported overland to the Nile, where they were reloaded on boats and brought up to the Mediterranean. Though this was still a long and expensive journey, it was much faster and cheaper than bringing goods overland, and proved to be a great investment for merchants in the Roman world.

At first glance, the recipes in the Apicius cookbook aren’t what we would expect Italian food to look like. The recipes are quite different from stereotypically Italian food: tomatoes didn’t actually reach Europe until the sixteenth century, so there was no pizza, caprese, or tomato-based pasta dish in ancient Rome. It’s also unlikely that a single man named Apicius actually wrote these recipes. The cookbook was probably created in the late 4th century CE, but the collection seems to have been named after a famous gourmand who lived about three hundred years earlier. Legend has it that he was so devoted to his luxurious diet that when he learned he was running low on money, he killed himself rather than resort to a more modest table. Even with this namesake, the recipes in the collection aren’t over-the-top dishes. Instead, they range from staple foods to relatively attainable delicacies, such as shellfish and complex sauces. We can imagine that cooks used these recipes for families who weren’t part of the lower strata of Roman society, but also weren’t as rich as the emperors, nor as flashy as Apicius himself.

The Apicius manuscript (ca. 900 AD) of the monastery of Fulda in Germany, which was acquired in 1929 by the New York Academy of Medicine

The Apicius manuscript (ca. 900 AD) of the monastery of Fulda in Germany

The spices combinations used here reflect the extent of Roman trading networks – including pepper and cumin from India, the now extinct silphium (or laser) from North Africa, and mint and pennyroyal from Italy.

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  • Pepper – India
  • Cumin – Eastern Mediterranean and India
  • Coriander seed – possibly from Greece or the Near East
  • Mint – native to Italy
  • Rue – Balkans
  • Laser root (=silphium) – North Africa
  • Pennyroyal – native to Italy

*Introduction and recipe translation by Caroline Wazer*

 

From the archive to the kitchen:

A lentil recipe with no lentils?! Although the title refers to lentils, the recipe itself does not mention the lentils, nor when they should be added or how they should be cooked. Since there are many other Apicius fans online now, we read some forums and discussions by people who had already tried out the recipes We ended up cooking green lentils in water separately and adding them to the cooked chestnuts at the end. This was also when we mixed in more mint and the extra olive oil, which gave the whole dish a fresh, spicy, and flavorful body.

Herbs and spices: Pennyroyal, rue, laser root – this recipe calls for some ingredients that weren’t easy to find. We ended up using more mint instead of combining mint and pennyroyal (the pennyroyal has a minty flavor anyway), and substituted rue with fresh tarragon leaves (rue is actually toxic in large amounts, so we decided not to mess with it). Laser root was a prestigious spice in Roman kitchens, used to create a bitter flavor admired by cooks of the time. It was an incredibly expensive wild plant that grew in North Africa, and vanished in the time of the Empire. Romans continued to write about it, and it is mentioned in Apicius’s book, but they usually used substitutes. Historians say that they probably used Asafoetida, a spice that can now be found as a powder in Indian spice shops or online.

What is Liquamen? Apicius’s recipes frequently call for liquamen, a liquid created from garum. We substituted this with regular fish sauce that can be found today in most Chinese and Vietnamese shops.

 

The recipe (our additions and comments in parentheses):

Ingredients (amounts were our decision):

  • 12 oz green lentils, soaked, cooked until soft, and then strained
  • 10 oz chestnuts (the recipe calls for chestnuts that you peel and then cook. We used the peeled and cooked chestnuts that are sold today in vacuum bags.
  • 1 tsp of each: salt, black pepper, cumin seed, coriander seed, asafoetida
  • ½ cup fresh mint leaves
  • a couple of tarragon leaves
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  1. Take a new pan and put in it carefully peeled chestnuts. Add water (we added just enough to cover the chestnuts) and soda (“soda” in this context refers to salt, so we added ½ tsp of salt).
  2. When it is cooking put in a mortar pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, mint, rue (tarragon), laser root (asafoetida) pennyroyal (we omitted it), and mint, and pound them.
  3. Pour in vinegar, honey, liquamen, (fish sauce) flavour with vinegar, and pour it over the cooked chestnuts.
  4. Add oil (2 tbsp olive oil), bring it to heat. When it is simmering well, pound it with a stick (we used a spoon) as you pound in a mortar (crush it a bit). Taste it, if anything lacking, add it (this is when we added more mint leaves to give it a fresh taste).
  5. When you have put it in the serving dish add green oil (2 tbsp olive oil).

For further reading:

Our leftovers from this post:

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