It’s Christmas time! The true meaning of the holiday is complicated, and always has been, thanks to its mix and match ancient origins (yes, before the birth of Jesus).
Even though that famous nativity scene is the official reason for the holiday, many of the activities and traditions we practice at Christmastime come from much older customs celebrating the winter solstice. Decorated trees, gift giving, holly, mistletoe, caroling, and much more all have ancient, B.C. origins, and were later folded into the Christian celebration.
No ancient holiday influenced Christmas more than the Roman Saturnalia. The actual date of Jesus’s birth is unknown, but in the 4th Century A.D., Pope Julius I declared it to officially be December 25th. Many speculate that this was to Christianize Saturnalia, a holiday that many in Medieval Europe still celebrated despite the fading out of Rome.
Saturnalia was known for gift giving, charity, and above all, feasting and merriment! So to celebrate, I dug into Apicius for some dulcia, or sweets recipes, to make a dessert plate worthy of both a festive Roman noble, and a chef and amateur historian thousands of years later.
If I had to name just one ingredient that was key to the ancient world’s cuisine, it might be fish sauce.
All you need are fish and a lot of salt. An ingenious method of food preservation, its invention too deep in the past to ever know, alongside other legendary foods of yore like bread, beer, and cheese.
From Sumer onwards, almost all civilizations seem to have made the stuff. But it was the Romans who called it “garum” and recorded it into history. Fish sauce could be made at home by poor fishermen families, but there was also a highly expensive market for the very finest vintages of garum. Whatever quality, you can’t make Roman cuisine without it.
We know by now that vegetables made up a huge part of the ancient diet. Across civilizations, the majority of people got most of their calories from grain and veggies alone, and even those few wealthier foils who could afford meat supplemented extensively with plant food.
Food historians know all about the ingredients the ancients ate, but as for exactly how they were prepared, we’re often left in the dark. With the Roman Apicius’s book “On Cookery”, we finally have some recipes that give a little insight. Out of them, I’ve prepared BEETS TWO WAYS, LEEKS AND BEANS, ROAST CABBAGE WITH PORK BELLY, and a GREENS AND FIELD HERBS SALAD.
To a modern cook, these recipes might seem basic. But I would argue they only appear that way. These preparations are simple, yet elegant ways to maximize and feature the flavors of individual plants and ingredients. Old world vegetables and spices, prepared at their finest.
There are many recipes in Apicius’s On Cookery which, while intriguing, I have little desire to taste. The sardine and gelatin omelette for instance, or the fried pork livers and brain sausages that were usually paired with the dish I’m making today.
But that so named “Dish of Scallops” is a recipe that caught my eye long ago when I started reading this stuff. It’s something I’ve always wanted to make and taste ever since. Given its mastery of the Mediterranean, Roman love of shellfish was… well, a given! Herem Apicius presents a delicious, exceedingly refined way to cook some.
Lightly cook scallops or the firm part of oysters. Remove the hard and objectionable parts, and mince the meat very fine. Mix this with cooked spelt, eggs, and season with pepper. Shape into croquettes and wrap in caul. Fry, and underlay a rich fish sauce and serve as a delicious entree.
We’re going to modify the instructions just a bit.
Rome. Probably what most people think of when they think “Ancient World”. In this episode, however, we discover that in terms of the culinary, the Roman Republic and then Empire was most distinguishable as a lens into the diets and cooking of the wider ancient World before it.
Come listen to find out more.
Music for this episode performed by Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. His albums An Ancient Lyre, The Ancient Greek Tortoise Shell Lyre, andThe Ancient Egyptian Harp are available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.