Food In The Ancient World, by John M Wilkins & Shaun Hill

Thin pickings at what could have been a feast of ancient cuisine
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The Independent Culture

Though dotted with nutritious titbits, this survey of classical gastronomy does not form a tempting feast. Most of the book was written by John Wilkins, a classics professor at the University of Exeter, whose wealth of knowledge is marred by a fustily academic prose style. Sales of the book will benefit from the appearance on the title-page of culinary star Shaun Hill, formerly chef-patron at the Merchant House in Ludlow and now an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter.

Unfortunately, his contributions, which aim to draw parallels between ancient and modern cuisine, are disappointingly sketchy and occasionally dubious. Oddly antagonistic to porridge, Hill maintains the dish is "little eaten by choice" other than in Scotland.

Yet this could have been a work of considerable interest. It is remarkable how little our view of food has changed. We learn that Alexander the Great was pestered by his mum to eat more cake, and that the poor in ancient Rome were more likely to eat takeaway food. The well-fed Roman legionnaire has a latter-day equivalent in the British squaddie, whose battlefield provisions amount to 4,000 calories a day.

Plato was scathing about commercial bakeries. The Roman agricultural writer Marcus Terentius Varro anticipated the farm shop with his suggestion that a farmer should consider opening a wayside inn. A work entitled On the Thinning Diet by the Greek physician Galen could easily be a modern best-seller.

In some respects, our tastes have changed. The "vegetables, chick-peas, beans, apples and figs" regarded by the Greek gastronome Archestratus as "signs of poverty" are now advocated by all. Apicius, best known of classical food writers, devoted an entire book to "the glory of the rissole".

The haggis was so highly prized in ancient Greece that it played a central role in the Prometheus myth. When Prometheus turned an ox into two dishes and invited Zeus and the first man to tuck in, Zeus picked the larger: bones wrapped in fat. Man was left with the meat-filled stomach. Understandably miffed, Zeus punished man by first removing fire and then, when Prometheus restored the flame, by creating woman.

The shortcomings of this book are scarcely assisted by shoddy editing. It was Richard Mabey not Richard Maybe who wrote Food for Free, and James Bond preferred his Martini "shaken, not stirred" rather than vice versa.