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To discover ancient roman food and recipes, we have two great sources: the oldest recipe book “De re coquinaria” written by Apicius and the food remains found during the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. So let’s find out what Italian cuisine looked like during the Roman Empire.
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The oldest recipe book “De re coquinaria” by Apicius
Who was Apicius is not too clear as there were many renowned gastronomers with this name in Ancient Rome. The one mostly referred to is M. Gabius Apicius who lived between 80 BCE and 40 CE.
He was an eccentric Roman patrician who spent all his fortune organizing luscious banquettes. When he realized he had no money left, he killed himself preferring to die instead of lowering the level of his lifestyle.
“De re coquinaria” is a collection of recipes that have been preserved, copied, and studied by our predecessors during all those centuries, and thanks to them we now have the testimony of those recipes.
The oldest copy we have is dated at the end of the 4th century and even if it is not the original, we can be sure that most of the content is authentic.
Food in ancient Rome
“De re coquinaria” is divided into 10 books, each dedicated to different types of ingredients:
- Epimeles: the first book is about preserving fruits and vegetables, olives, and how to store vine. Best practice to store meat for a long time and how to recognize bad honey.
- Sarcoptes — minced meat: in this section, the recipes are very simple and mainly minced meat mixed with herbs and spices.
- Cepuros — vegetables: The third part was dedicated to vegetables, fruits, cheese, and pulses. These were the base of Roman’s meals. Apicius considered them healthy and very tasty.
- Pandecter — general: Here there are very different generic recipes: cakes, cooked fruits, sauces, side dishes.
- Ospreon — Pulses: In this book, we found many recipes about different types of pulses and their flours. They were very good bakers.
- Aeropetes — birds, and poultry: Here, not only we found recipes with poultry but also wild birds like ostriches, cranes, flamingos, peacocks, and parrots. Included in the book were the best sauces to go with each meat.
- Polyteles — gourmet: while this book was called gourmet, it represents the most disgusting ingredients for our times: sterile vaginas, dromedary calluses, rinds, pig and boar legs, goose liver, sow stern, loins, kidneys, hams. This is what the Romans would call delicacies.
- Tetrapus — animals: this book is dedicated to mammals meat, in particular: wild boar, deer, chamois, young goat, lamb, piglet, pig, hare.
- Thalassa — sea: these last two books are dedicated to seafood.
- Halieus — fish: The tenth book in particular talks about fish and sauces to go with their meat.
Looking at the recipes, I could hardly found one that could be served and eaten today. The ingredients they were using and their method of preserving them it is way off from our current taste. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find some similarities.
Roman ketchup: the Garum
Garum was a sauce used in many recipes and it was so common to find during the Roman period that it is not clear how it was made as Apicius took its recipe for granted.
It was a salty paste made with fish intestines which were spiced and fermented.
The taste must be horrendous for us now, but we Italian do use anchovies to flavor our dishes, in particular our salads. We preserve anchovies in salt and often use them to add flavor.
Puntarelle alla Romana for example is a well known Roman salad that uses a seasoning made with anchovies. Have a look at the recipe.
Ingredients during the Roman Empire
To find out more about the ingredients used during the Roman Empire, we can look at the samples of food remains found during the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The eruption of the Vesuvius volcano in 79 CE, buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum preserving the life as it was 2000 years ago. Volcanic ash and debris covered the entire valley under 33 feet/10 meters of earth freezing in time what was a regular day under the Roman Empire.
The excavation uncovered so much information, experts were able to build back different aspects of a regular day. Ashes and pumice preserved not only houses and tools but also organic remains as they left a void in the mud after their decayed.
Shapes of the dead bodies were made by injecting plaster into these voids reproducing the appearance and expression of the people that died suffocated and submerged by ashes.
Pompeii was a rich town with luxurious villas, theaters, SPAs, temples, many shops, and even a brothel. Beautiful mosaics and frescoes throughout their buildings describe their lives. People were healthy with perfect teeth as they followed a typical Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and no sugar.
Food remains found in Pompeii and Herculean
As we know, wine production was already a well-known technique way before the Roman Empire, as well as the olive oil. They were stored in amphorae and transported by ships. The fertile land around the volcano Vesuvio had plenty of wineries and olive trees plantations.
Meals during the Roman Empire were rich in vegetables, herbs, and spices. In the photo below you will see ancient roman food remains of garlic, onion, olives, barley, pomegranate, pin nuts, millet, wheat, and chickpeas.
Possible Roman recipes
Pulses were an important ingredient in their diet, archeologists found plenty of chickpeas, lentils, and fava/broad beans. The recipe of pulses cooked over the open fire, probably resembles how the Romans used to cook them. Simply boiled on a covered clay pot next to the fire.
In the photo below some remains of a home kitchen in Pompeii. Pots and pans very similar to what we use today. Food was cooked over an open fire.
They used flours made from pulses and probably the old recipe of pancake made with chickpeas flour Farinata was already used during those times.
The legend said that survivors from a shipwrecked carrying chickpeas flour discovered this delicacy as the flour mixed with the seawater dried and cooked on the rocks under the sun.
Peas, artichokes, and in particular fava beans and cheese were important ingredients in Roman diets. In a pot found in Pompeii (represented in the picture below) there were remains of a soup made of broad beans and vegetables.
Very similar to this dish is the recipe of the Italian Broad beans minestra. It is not an authentic recipe from Apicius, but all the ingredients are there.
In their diet, we also find a lot of fruits and nuts. In the picture below you find remains of peach stones, dried figs, and walnuts.
Ancient roman bread
Many bread remains were found in Pompeii as its bread was renowned for its superb quality. On a wall was found the writing: “Viator Pompeis panem gustas, Nuceriae bibes”, meaning: “Traveler, eat the bread in Pompeii but drink the vine from Nocera”.
Many different types of bread were made: first quality, second quality, spelled bread, the not very refined one, the bread for the sailors, and finally the one for the poor which was hard and dry.
There were many bakeries in Pompei, all located in Via dell’Abbondanza (Abundance Street), the main street where most shops and restaurants were located.
Restaurants during the Roman Empire
Along the via dell’Abbondanza (Abundance Street) we found many different types of restaurants: large, small, decorated, plain, takeaway, and opulent.
The more basic fast-food type of restaurant was very basic with a simple layout and design. They were front street rooms of private houses were food was served to the public.
We also found more sophisticated restaurants decorated with Carrara marble and frescoes.
Food was kept inside the Dolia, pots walled inside the counter. There were different sizes of Dolia depending on what type of food was stored.
To check payments, small engraved circles were carved on the counter to measure the size of the coins. Very clever, indeed!
It is quite amazing how close to our current times was the cooking and eating habits of the ancient Romans. As their diet was healthy, mainly made of vegetables, fruits, bread, cheese, and seafood, I am sure I would have been happy to live during these ancient times.
Although I am not sure I would have gone to any of the Apicius banquets, not a fan of what he called “delicacy”.
More historic facts
To find out more about food in ancient Rome, you can read the article about Trajan’s market: the first shopping mall in history.
Moving forward in time you can find out more about the development of the Roman markets to the current time in the article: A Historic Walk Through The Charm Of Romans Market
More history about Italian cuisine in the article: Traditional Italian Recipes By Region
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