in culina Grumionis

Culinary Adventures in Ancient Rome


My sister recently lent me The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher, which, besides featuring the most poetic food writing I’ve ever read, has a lovely little chapter on Ancient Roman eating habits. As much as I’d love to simply post the book’s full text for you to read, I will try to remain concise:

Fisher mentions Lucius Licinius Lucullus, a general and politician from the late Republic: Besides being a prolifically successful military leader, conqueror of the eastern Roman territories, quaestor in 89-88, consul in 74 B.C. and governor of Cilicia (a region in Asia Minor) during the Third Mithridatic War, Lucullus was most famously a lover of food. 

Lucullus, perhaps the truest epicure as we now think of one, was undoubtedly the most refined. He set the pace. Other Romans, like Trimalchio’s vulgar prototype, might give banquets whose success depended upon the leaping of three naked virgins from a great crusted tart. It was Lucullus who gave his carefully chosen guests the exquisite compliment of letting them watch their next course die!

Unlike Apicius, who was driven to suicide after running out of money to pay for his parties, Lucullus was well-funded by the spoils of his military victories. While he was not staging grand conquests or carrying out his legislative duties, he lived a busy lifestyle as a generous patron of arts, sciences, and social entertaining. 

At his dinner parties, guests were assigned to different rooms, where they were served food and surrounded by decor of a quality dependent on their social status/relationship to the host. Less distinguished partygoers dined on relatively inexpensive fare around relatively simple furnishings, while

in the Apollo Room, where only his very intimate or important guests were invited, [Lucullus] spent one thousand dollars for each person. 

Here he entertained most frequently, with the most precious foods laid upon tables now solid ivory, now silver or carved tortoise shell. For ordinary guests goblets of inlaid gold did well enough, but in the Apollo Room glasses hollowed from great gems were used with nonchalance. 

I’m almost sad to say that Lucullus is more well known for the indulgent novelties in his Apollo Room than his academic patronage or military prowess. Tellingly, he is now remembered in the english word “lucullan,” which is used to describe extreme luxury. 

"Fish Pickle"

I hesitated to write about this recipe, because the website where I found it doesn’t cite its sources. Then I figured “to hell with academic integrity!” and decided to go for it anyway. 

The recipe reads as follows:

3 oz, drained and washed, canned tuna or salmon, or unsalted sardines or unsalted anchovies

1 T white wine

1 T vinegar

1 T olive oil

1 small garlic clove, crushed

1/4 t rosemary, ground

1/4 t sage

1 mint leaf, finely chopped

pinch of basil

In a mixing bowl, thoroughly combine all ingredients. 

I used tuna, white wine vinegar, and made a nice tuna salad. Having no absurd flavor combinations to complain about, it went over very well.

Because of the title of the recipe and because the Ancient Romans obviously didn’t can tuna, I wonder whether there’s some way I could pickle some fish myself for a more genuine attempt at this recipe. I’ll look into it, dear readers, and then I’ll get back to you. 

I’m afraid I don’t have any pictures to show you or amusing recipe misinterpretations to tell you about, so this post will be short. Try the fish pickle, everyone!

Musical Accompaniment

Musica Romana

Fictionalized Livy On Feasting and Literary Criticism

"Boy, do you know how Pollio has built up his reputation? Well, he’s rich and has a very large, beautiful house and a surprisingly good cook. He invites a great crowd of literary people to dinner, gives them a perfect meal and afterwards casually picks up the latest volume of his history. He says humbly, ‘Gentlemen, there are a few passages here that I am not quite sure about. I have worked very hard at them but they still need the final polish which I am counting on you to give them. By your leave…’ Then he begins to read. Nobody listens very carefully. Everyone’s belly is stuffed. ‘The cook’s a genius,’ they are all thinking. ‘The mullet with piquant sauce, and those fat stuffed thrushes and the wild-boar with truffles - when did I eat so well last? Not since Pollio’s last reading, I believe. Ah, here comes the slave with the wine again. That excellent Cyprian wine. Pollio’s right: it’s better than any Greek wine on the market.’ Meanwhile Pollio’s voice - and it’s a nice voice to listen to, like a priest’s at an evening sacrifice in summer - goes smoothly on and every now and then asks humbly, ‘Is that all right, do you think?’ And everyone says, thinking of the thrushes again, or perhaps of the little simnel cakes: ‘Admirable. Admirable, Pollio.’"

- from I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Sorry for the inactivity! There will be a new (or rather, very old) recipe coming soon.

Garum, recreated by Heston Blumenthal


This recipe is from the PBS website, where they’ve posted some modern adaptations of Roman recipes from A Taste of Ancient Rome by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa and The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger. Libum is described as a “sacrificial cake” made for household gods using the following method: 

Libum to be made as follows: 2 pounds cheese well crushed in a mortar; when it is well crushed, add in 1 pound bread-wheat flour or, if you want it to be lighter, just 1/2 a pound, to be mixed with the cheese. Add one egg and mix all together well. Make a loaf of this, with the leaves under it, and cook slowly in a hot fire under a brick.

And the modernized version:

1 cup plain, all purpose flour

8 ounces ricotta cheese

1 egg, beaten

bay leaves

1/2 cup clear honey

Sift the flour into a bowl. Beat the cheese until it’s soft and stir it into the flour along with the egg. Form a soft dough and divide into 4. Mold each one into a bun and place them on a greased baking tray with a fresh bay leaf underneath. Heat the oven to 425° F. Cover the cakes with your brick* and bake for 35-40 minutes until golden-brown. Warm the honey and place the warm cakes in it so that they absorb it. Allow to stand 30 minutes before serving.

*The Romans often covered their food while it was cooking with a domed earthenware cover called a testo. You can use an overturned, shallow clay pot, a metal bowl, or casserole dish as a brick.

The modern version is much more clear and detailed than all the recipes I’ve made so far, so you may be ready to assume that I actually followed the instructions this time. But no! I used dried instead of fresh bay leaves and I drizzled the honey over the cakes instead of soaking them, just to maintain my consistency in taking liberties with source material. 

Here is my dough. Having only three ingredients, it wasn’t too difficult to make. 

Here are my liba, each covering a bay leaf. As a testo I used another one of these aluminum pans. 

And here is a baked and honeyed libum, sitting on top of the Game of Thrones board game (or, The Board Game of Thrones). 

The cakes were densely doughy and would have been very bland without the honey. Though the bay leaves added a nice aroma, they didn’t have a noticeable affect on the taste. Despite these shortcomings, I’d say libum is the most agreeable Ancient Roman food I’ve tried so far - nicely uncomplicated, with no unfamiliar flavor combinations. 

Musical Accompaniment

I’ve been forgetting my musical pairings! To make up for it, here’s a poor-quality recording of a live performance by Synaulia

Laridi Coctura “Attempt” #1

This was my first attempt at a Roman meat recipe, so I chose the least complicated one I could find (one that didn’t call for calf’s brains or pig’s vulva), then interpreted it very loosely

Cover [bacon, salt pork] with water and cook with plenty of dill; sprinkle with a little oil and a trifle of salt.

Essentially, this is a recipe for bacon boiled with dill. However, I had four pork chops in the fridge that needed getting rid of, and I’m no stranger to taking liberties with Apicius’s recipes, so I went ahead and used the directions only as inspiration, figuring a cut of meat from the same animal as bacon would be close enough. And because no one likes boiled meat, I fried my pork in oil after rubbing it with dill (“plenty”), salt (maybe if I put salt on a cut of pork, it will become “salt pork”), and pepper (because I know those Romans liked their pepper).

The end result was very tasty, though not at all the intent of the recipe writer. 

I’ve come to terms with my tendency to stray from my source material. Partly I feel a vengeful sort of disrespect for Apicius and its ambiguous phrasing, but in a more scholarly way, I understand that it was written for professional cooks who were familiar with the culinary conventions of their time, and who were themselves granted license by the lack of detailed directions. As Vehling puts it, “plainly, Apicius was no writer, no editor. He was a cook,” so in the spirit of Apicius’s own cookery, I believe my alterations are justified. 

Ab urbe condita!

Today, April 21st, is the anniversary of the founding of Rome, our favorite ancient city. Coincidentally, it’s also my birthday! The fates wanted me to be a classicist, I suppose.

I deeply regret the lack of posting that has been going on here, so I will try to cook something nice and celebratory tomorrow.