What did the ancient Romans eat? Larks' tongues and dormice weren't always on the menu. Michael Bateman on a new book to help modern cooks recreate classic dishes
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Thanks, but no thanks, said fellow students turning down an invitation to an authentic Roman banquet. Sally Grainger - formerly a Hilton chef, now a classics scholar - was quite miffed, as she'd dug deep into her own pocket to prepare this meal for 18 at London University. "They thought I'd poison them," she said. "They assumed the food would be stinking and rotten."

Everything her co-students had ever read about Roman food apparently led them to believe it would be disgusting. It wasn't only references in texts to Roman titbits such as larks' tongues, cocks' combs, jellyfish, sea urchins, camels' hooves, and the wombs of sterile sows. It was the belief that most dishes were heavily seasoned with garum sauce, a pungent and salty liquid made by draining decaying fish in the hot sun.

"It's an absurd notion that Roman food was disgusting," says Sally Grainger. "You only have to look at Roman art, at their architecture, to understand they were extremely sophisticated."

Thus her fellow students (callow youths of 18) missed out, and Sally Grainger went on to recruit more appreciative guests from the maturer echelons of the university. Donning Roman togas they reclined on couches to dine off olive relish with sourdough bread, chickpea and bean salad, patina apiciana (rather like lasagne), cheesecake made from goat's cheese and honey, washing it down with sweetened wine called mulsum.

Sally has successfully prepared quite a few Roman banquets since then: "I bankrupted myself each time". Now she has published the results of her efforts, a book of 50 recipes adapted to the modern table, The Classical Cookbook (British Museum, pounds 14.99). It is a collaboration with Cambridge classics scholar Andrew Dalby, and its eight chapters encompass a span of 1,200 years, from 750 BC (the time of Homer's Odyssey) to AD450 (a supper at the Roman baths).

It is a daring project. Sally Grainger is not the first scholar to attempt to recreate ancient dishes as they might have tasted, but she is the first trained chef to do so. In one respect it shouldn't be too hard, since texts describing food are detailed, from the "Life of Luxury", a poem by the Greek Sicilian Archestratus 350BC, to the late Roman Empire recipe collection under the name Apicius.

The main ingredients are not mystifying (fish, birds, meats, olives, cabbages, grapes, barley for bread, garlic, cheese). We are familiar with the techniques (roasting, stewing, grilling, and much use of pestle and mortar to make sauces). The one snag is that proportions of ingredients are not specified. The modern cook can only guess.

"What is very clear to me is that Roman food was strong-flavoured and very exotic," says Ms Grainger. "Its intensity of flavour must have been like Indian spicing. Pepper features in almost every recipe, even with sweet things."

One of the most prized (and pricey) flavourings with both Greek and Roman cooks was a spice of North African origin, which they knew as silphium. Silphium vanished from the face of the planet, according to contemporary sources, but modern research suggests it is a relative of Indian asafoetida (pronounced as in fetid), the sulphurous and smelly Indian spice hing, otherwise known as Devil's Dung. Asafoetida is sold in some Indian stores in tins and comes as hard lumps of resin. You grate it to use in vegetable dishes to give a savoury, almost meaty flavour. You need to heat it first in a pan, like so many Indian spices, in order to develop its flavour.

Used with a heavy hand, it is truly horrible, as Ms Grainger found when preparing a dish of lentils for a dinner. But she had the presence of mind to use sugar to counter its bitterness (the Romans didn't have culinary sugar, of course).

If silphium was thought exotic, garum was the most common condiment. In vain, Ms Grainger tried to explain to her youthful fellow students that garum is no longer one of the mysteries of the ancient world, for it is now seen to be identical to Vietnamese nam pla (or nuoc mam), a clear salty fish essence like soy sauce. Far from being the product of decay, she says, it is the result of a chemical process called proteolysis. Enzymes in the gut react with the whole salted fish to produce this strongly flavoured brine. The Romans knew it as both garum and liquamen, and there were factories for its manufacture. Even in Roman Britain there was one, close to a little trading post on the Thames, known then as Londinium.

Salty garum and pepper were predominant flavours. And honey, grape juice (defrutum), spiced wine (mulsum), sweet wine (passum) and vinegar. There was a wide range of strong herbs such as lovage (the celery-flavoured leaf) and rue (which is searingly bitter), bay leaves (and bay berries), coriander and cumin leaves, sage, rosemary, parsley.

As a cook herself, Ms Grainger assumes that skillful cooks, then as now, sought to balance salt and bitter notes, as well as sour and sweet. She makes a distinction between Greek cooking and Roman cooking. It was the refined and educated Greeks who created the haute cuisine of their day, aspiring to elevated levels of social behaviour. Food and wine was but part of an evening symposium (literally drinking together) which included discussion, music, plays, poetry, even acrobatics.

Until around 200BC, says Ms Grainger, the Romans had been considered "porridge-eating barbarians." Now Rome absorbed the kitchen skills of the Greeks and further added the concept of conspicuous consumption. So this nouvelle cuisine arrived, and the newly-rich could display their wealth through their food, spices like silphium being very costly.

The chefs of the day may have been slaves, but they could bring great kudos to their masters. In fact, the self-importance of chefs became a merry subject of satire in plays. The comic playwright Plautus features a stage cook ridiculing the efforts of his peers: "I don't season a dinner the way other cooks do. They serve up a whole meadow in their dishes. They treat the guests like grazing cattle, shoving greens at them, then seasoning the greens with more greens. In go fresh coriander, fennel, garlic and alexanders (celery-flavoured leaves) and on the side there's sorrel, cabbage, beet and blite (Swiss chard).

"They pour a pound of silphium (asafoetida) into it and smash mustard seed on top, stuff so fierce it makes their own eyes water before they've finished grinding it. When they cook a dinner they aren't flavouring it with seasonings, but with night-owls that are going to eat out your intestines. No wonder people round here die young when they pack all this green stuff inside them, vegetables that are frightening to talk about, let alone eat. If the cows won't eat it, you can be sure people will."

Sally Grainger lives in one of the more remote outposts of the former Roman empire, not so far from Hadrian's Wall, which the Romans built to keep out the Picts. But she doesn't only explore classical food.

She actually lives in Jarrow which, before the hunger march of the 1930s, was infinitely more famous as home of the Venerable Bede, the seventh- century theologian and historian. Her husband is project director of the Bede Museum (of Medieval History in Northumbria) and Ms Grainger helps him as a volunteer cook, baking medieval bread with barm from home-made medieval beer (a book of medieval recipes cannot be far away).

Her book makes fascinating reading but, joking apart, would you really want to eat the dishes? Ms Grainger is indignant. There are some very nice dishes, she says - roasts, casseroles and salads - but you may prefer to experiment with relishes, snacks and a dessert. Here are a few examples.


The olive tree had been under cultivation in Greece for 1,000 years, if not longer, when the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed; classical civilisation is almost unimaginable without it. At classical Greek banquets olives were served in brine, and sometimes, no doubt, they were served as relishes similar to this.

Serves 4

120g/4oz black olives

120g/4oz green olives

60ml/4 tablespoons red wine vinegar

60ml/4 tablespoons olive oil

1 heaped teaspoon chopped fennel leaf or finely diced fennel root

2 teaspoons chopped fresh coriander

2 teaspoons dried or chopped fresh rue

2 heaped teaspoons dried or 3 teaspoons chopped fresh mint

Chop the olives roughly and pour on the vinegar and olive oil. Prepare the herbs, chopping them finely if fresh, and add to the mixture. Place the olive relish in a sealable container and pour a little olive oil over the top.

At this stage it can be eaten, as Cato firmly says, but I think it improves with a few days' marinating. It is so delicious that I have rarely kept it for longer. Try it with pitta bread, accompanied by a sharp sheep's cheese such as feta.


Serves 6

2 heads (20 cloves) garlic

225g/8oz pecorino romano cheese

1 large handful of coriander leaves

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rue (or dried if necessary)

2 heaped teaspoons chopped fresh celery leaf

1 teaspoon salt

15ml/1 tablespoon olive oil

Peel and roughly chop the garlic. Grate the cheese. Roughly chop the herbs. If you are grinding by hand, start with the garlic and salt; break it down to a smooth pulp, then add the cheese and herbs. When you have a smooth mixture add the liquids and mix well. Gather the mixture together and chill. If you are using a food processor to make the garlic cheese, add all the solid ingredients and process until the mixture is smooth in texture, then add the liquids. Serve the cheese smeared onto crusty bread as a snack.


This is the most influential of all Roman recipes. The idea was brought back to Rome by soldiers who had served in Lucanica, in the "heel" of Italy, probably around Cato's time. Peppery, spicy, smoked sausages are still made in many parts of the world, from Palestine to Brazil, under names that can be traced back to Lucanica. In Brazil, for example, they are called linguica. Recipes change with time, and modern versions (even the Italian ones) contain few of the original ingredients.

Lucanicae were traditionally smoked above the fireplace and not otherwise cooked. This is no longer possible in the home, but we can still give them a smoky flavour before grilling them. If you have an open fireplace, they can be suspended from the mantelpiece for a few hours while you burn wood. Alternatively you can use your barbecue: sprinkle wood chips over the coals and suspend the sausages at least 30cm/12in above the fire for an hour.

Serves 6

450g/1lb belly pork, minced (ground)

30g/2 tablespoons pine kernels

20 black peppercorns

1 teaspoon chopped fresh or dried rue

2 teaspoons dried savory

1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

30 bay berries (if available)

2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley

45ml/3 tablespoons fish sauce

sausage skins

Combine all the filling ingredients and mix well: use a food processor if available. If you have fresh skins, they will be preserved in salt and will need to be washed. You will need about six 30cm/ 12in lengths. Tie a knot in the end of each one. Put a 1cm/12in) plain tube in a piping bag and half-fill with the mixture; do not put too much in at a time or it will be difficult to squeeze. Take the open end of the skin, pull it over the tube and push it down repeatedly until the majority of the skin sits like a collar half-way down the tube. Grip this with your finger and thumb and slowly release the skin as you squeeze the bag.

Stop squeezing well before the skin has run out, leaving 5-7.5cm/2-3in of skin to allow for shrinkage. It will take some practice before you get this procedure right. When you have used up all the meat, twist each length of sausage into four even segments. If you are able to smoke them, drape them over a coat-hanger or similar item and suspend them in the smoke. Otherwise cut them into individual sausages and grill them under a medium heat.

Sausage skins can be bought freshly made from animal gut; synthetic skins are also available. An independent butcher, who makes his own sausages, will be able to help. You will need the chipolata-size skin. There is no need for an elaborate sausage-stuffing machine: a piping bag and a 1cm/12in) icing tube are quite adequate.


Serves 4

120g/4oz plain flour

225g/8oz ricotta cheese

1 egg, beaten

bay leaves

120g/4oz clear honey

Sift the flour into a bowl. Beat the cheese until it is soft and stir it into the flour along with the egg. Form a soft dough and divide into four. Mould each one into a bun and place them on a greased baking tray with a fresh bay leaf underneath. Heat the oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7.

Cover the cakes with your "brick" and bake them for 35 to 40 minutes until they are golden brown. Warm the honey and place the warm cakes in it so that they absorb it. Allow to stand for 30 minutes before serving. !