I always wanted to live in Ancient Rome, so I started by recreating these ancient recipes in my own kitchen
There was a lot more to Ancient Roman food than exotic dishes served by slaves. Lavish feasts were commonplace among the rich, but ordinary people ate ordinary meals, not very different from what we eat today.
The Romans dined on roast pork in spicy sauces, snacked on cheese with dates and nuts, ate omelettes with mushrooms, and enjoyed desserts like cheesecake and figs in custard.
Apicius, a popular Roman chef, produced an ancient cookbook that can still be used today, allowing any of us to throw together a meal very much like what was eaten by Rome's ordinary people—the plebeians. If you're feeling adventurous in the kitchen, you can also reproduce the more exotic offerings that once graced the table of emperors.
Preparing an Ancient Roman Meal
You don't have to prepare and cook a giraffe or a flamingo to have an Ancient Roman meal. Here are some simple recipes that are almost authentic.
I've made all of these dishes in my kitchen and can vouch for their simplicity. Today we'll be looking at:
- Ova spongia ex lacte (eggs with honey)
- Dormouse (marinated chicken drumsticks)
- Thynnus (tuna)
- Isiciaomentata (hamburgers)
- Globuli (sweet fried curd cheese)
- Libum (cheesecake)
Roman Ingredients and Substitutions
Roman food was heavily reliant on fish sauce for its success. Wine, honey, vinegar, oil, and fish sauce are combined to create a balance of sweet, sour, and salty.
This is a very sweet cooking wine, reduced to one-third its volume by boiling, mixed with honey.
- Substitute: Use Marsala wine or a sweet sherry wine. You could also just add honey to grape juice.
This is a thick fruit syrup, sort of like a Roman marmalade.
A salty, pungent sauce made by fermenting fish guts, tails, heads, and other small, whole fish in salt for several days out in the sun. Factories, salsamentarii, churned out massive amounts, or you could make your own in the courtyard. It was really popular.
- You can use a bit of Worcestershire sauce or buy a bottle of fish sauce from an Asian supermarket—either nuoc mam or nam plah.
- Look for a sauce of a light amber colour and the words nhi or thuong hang on the label. These terms indicate that the condiment came from the first extraction of liquid from the fermented fish. Grades of fish sauces are similar to that of olive oils. The first extraction is of the highest quality.
This is "any kind of culinary liquid, depending upon the occasion." It may be interpreted as brine or another word for light fish sauce.
- Substitute: Use a pinch of salt in white wine if you have no fish sauce.
For any recipes that call for "pepper," use nutmeg or allspice.
- Allspice, Fructus Pimentae, has a pleasing, clove-like aroma and can be exchanged for "pepper" in many ancient Roman recipes. It's a handy little spice used by modern cooks for stews, sauces, and flavouring pickled vegetables.
- It takes its name from its aroma—which smells like a combination of spices— especially cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. In much of the world, allspice is called pimento because the Spanish mistook the fruit for black pepper, which they called pimienta. (This is especially confusing since the Spanish had already called chillies pimientos.)
Ova Spongia ex Lacte (Eggs With Honey)
Do you remember ova spongia ex lacte from school days? Here's the full recipe from Apicius's De Re Coquinaria.
- 3 tablespoon honey
- 4 eggs
- 275ml milk
- 25g butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Good pinch of black pepper
- Beat together the eggs, milk, and oil.
- Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan and heat. When this is sizzling, add the omelette mixture.
- Whisk with a fork until the mix starts to solidify (this will make for a lighter omelette).
- When thoroughly cooked on one side, turn the omelette over and cook on the other side. Fold in half and turn out onto a plate.
- Warm the honey and pour over the omelette. Fold this over once more and cut into thick slices.
- Sprinkle with black pepper and serve.
Dormouse (Marinated Chicken Drumsticks)
In Ancient Roman times, the dormouse was a delicacy, but these days it's one of the greatest threats to native British woodland.
These rodents strip bark from trees, destroy fruit crops, and, incidentally, chew through the electrical wiring in homes.
A dormouse is hard to come by these days, so in this recipe, I marinate chicken drumsticks overnight and call them dormouse (Gliris).
However, it's listed as an invasive threat, so no one would mind if you cooked a few.
Apicius's Version: 'Pound with pepper, caraway, cumin, bay leaves, dates, honey, vinegar, wine, liquamen and olive oil, then roast.'
- 8 chicken drumsticks
- 1 cup plain all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 2 teaspoons caraway seeds
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika powder
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 bay leaves
- A little vegetable oil
- Crush the cumin seeds using a mortar and pestle or equivalent.
- Put the flour in a plastic bag with the crushed cumin, bay leaves, caraway, and paprika.
- Lightly dab some vegetable oil on the drumsticks and toss them in the bag with the flour.
- Drop the honey into the bag. Give it a swirl around and leave the bag in the fridge overnight so the flavours sink in.
- Place the drumsticks in a lightly oiled baking pan and bake for 20-30 mins or until a skewer pushed into the thickest part releases only clear juice.
I based this recipe on Patrick Faas's Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome.
What the Romans called the ingredients: Ius in cordula assa: piper, ligustcum, mentam, cepam, aceti modicum et oleum.
What we call the ingredients: sauce for roast tuna: pepper, lovage, mint, onion, a little vinegar and oil.
- 2 large tuna steaks and ingredients for the vinaigrette
- 3 tablespoons strong vinegar
- 2 tablespoons garum (or vinegar mixed with a little anchovy paste)
- One cup olive oil
- 4 finely chopped shallots
- 1 teaspoon pepper (Allspice)
- 1 teaspoon lovage seeds (or celery seeds)
- 1 bunch fresh mint
- olives to garnish
- Brush your tuna fillets with oil, pepper, and salt.
- Grill them on one side over a hot barbecue.
- Turn them and brush the roasted side with the vinaigrette. Repeat.
- Don't let tuna overcook; the flesh should be pink inside.
- Serve with the remains of the vinaigrette.
- Garnish with a few olives.
Isicia Omentata (Hamburgers)
- 500g minced meat
- 1 French roll, soaked in white wine (you can use non-alcoholic cider or water if serving to kids)
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
- 50ml Liquamen (can use a little white wine with a pinch of salt or orange juice for kids)
- some pine nuts and green peppercorns (go easy if serving to kids)
- a little Caroenum (optional)
- Mix minced meat with the soaked French roll. Grind up the pine nuts and peppercorns, mix into the meat.
- Form small balls with your hands. Put them in a little packet of foil and add a splash of Caroenum. Close the packet.
- Bake for 10-15 mins.
Globuli (Sweet Fried Curd Cheese)
Curd cheese is similar to cream cheese but with a lower fat content and a light flavour, colour, and texture.
I use ricotta or sometimes bocconcini for this delightful sweet food.
- 500g (about 1lb) curd cheese
- 1 cup semolina
- olive oil
- Drain the curd cheese. Use a sieve or colander, let it hang in cheesecloth, or squash excess moisture out.
- Mix with the semolina into a loose dough and let it sit for a few hours. (Have a sip of Vino Caroenum while you wait).
- With wet hands, form the mixture into dumplings.
- Quickly fry dumplings in olive oil for a few minutes.
- Drain and roll in honey.
Libum (Ancient Roman Cheesecake)
Libum was a sacrificial cake offered to the household spirits, but the Romans ate it as well!
The following recipe is from the book De Agri Cultura by Cato, who was a consul, statesman, and soldier. I'm sure he got the recipe from his cook.
- 1/2 cup plain all-purpose flour
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 1 egg, beaten
- bay leaves
- 1/2 cup clear honey
- Sift the flour in a mixing bowl.
- Beat the cheese until soft, stir into the flour.
- Add the beaten egg to the flour/cheese mixture, forming a soft dough.
- Divide the dough into four and shape each piece into a bun.
- Place on a greased baking tray with a fresh bay leaf underneath.
- Heat the oven to 375F/190C. Bake for 35-40 minutes until golden brown.
- Warm the honey, pour into a flat plate, and place the buns on it to rest until the honey is absorbed.
Roman Foods for Kids
Tell the kids they're going to eat like Ancient Roman gladiators and emperors! In addition the hamburgers (I gave substitutions in the recipe if you'll be serving this to children), you can serve them the following foods:
- Pita bread with falafel and feta cheese
- Chopped apples with yogurt and honey
Original Garum Recipe
From Gargilius Martialis, De medicina et de virtute herbarum:
- Use fatty fish, like sardines, and a well-sealed (pitched) container with a 26-35 quart capacity.
- Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor—such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others—making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole; if large, use pieces), and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high.
- Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.
This is why I buy my fish sauce at the supermarket. If you want to try these instructions, best of luck to you! Please let me know how it went.
A Roman Banquet
How can you talk about the food of Ancient Rome without at least one mention of a banquet?
Here's one of the menus from Apicius for a medium-sized banquet.
It tells us a lot about the extent of Roman trade, for the ostrich and flamingo came from Africa, the dates from Judea, and the spices from throughout the Empire.
- Jellyfish and eggs
- Sow's udders stuffed with salted sea urchins
- Patina of brains cooked with milk and eggs
- Boiled tree fungi with peppered fish-fat sauce
- Sea urchins with spices, honey, oil, and egg sauce
- Fallow deer roasted with onion sauce, rue, Jericho dates, raisins, oil, and honey
- Boiled ostrich with sweet sauce
- Turtledove boiled in its feathers
- Roast parrot
- Dormice stuffed with pork and pine kernels
- Ham boiled with figs and bay leaves, rubbed with honey, baked in pastry crust
- Flamingo boiled with dates
- Fricassee of roses with pastry
- Pitted dates stuffed with nuts and pine kernels, fried in honey
- Hot African sweet-wine cakes with honey
In the Words of a Roman
Gaius Petronius (27-66) was the advisor to Emperor Nero in matters of luxury and extravagance. Petronius boasted an official title—arbiter elegantiae. Appropriately, he slept days and partied nights.
Here's an account of a light supper that he attended in the course of his research into the good life:
"After a generous rubdown with oil, we put on dinner clothes. We were taken into the next room where we found three couches drawn up and a table, very luxuriously laid out, awaiting us.
We were invited to take our seats. Immediately, Egyptian slaves came in and poured ice water over our hands. The starters were served. On a large tray stood a donkey made of bronze. On its back were two baskets, one holding green olives, and the other black. On either side were dormice, dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seed. Nearby, on a silver grill, piping hot, lay small sausages.
As for wine, we were fairly swimming in it."
Fast Food of Ancient Rome
An Ancient Roman could also eat at a thermopolium, something like a small wine bar selling warmed wines and the ancient equivalent of fast food.
There were plenty of these hot food shops and taverna, places instantly recognisable to us as the handy corner shop blessed with a liquor license. A tradesman, sandal-seller, or clerk would pick up some hot sausage, bread, cheese, dates and, of course, wine, on the way home.
What do you think of Ancient Roman food?
Questions & Answers
Question: What is the original recipe for preparing dormouse? I tried to find it but I can't, and everybody says the recipe has no flavor.
Answer: The original recipe, if you can call a list of ingredients and some vague instructions a 'recipe,' is from Marcus Gaius Apicius, the 1st-century Roman cook and gourmand. You can get his recipes in the book "Cooking Apicius" by Apicius and Sally Grainger. I don't actually use dormice in my version of the recipe though; I use chicken drumsticks.
Question: Where did you learn about ancient Roman food?
Answer: I learned about ancient Roman food from the 1st-century cook, Marcus Gaius Apicius. His recipes are in the book "Cooking Apicius" by Apicius and Sally Grainger. I wish I'd written that book! I also learned from conversations with Patrick Faas, author of "Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome."
© 2008 Susanna Duffy