Review: Roman Cookery – Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens, by Mark Grant

Let’s face it – no cookbook collection can possibly considered complete until you have good recipes for baked flamingoes, lark’s tongues, and stuffed dormice.  What modern kitchen is without such vital and everyday ingredients?

Having said that, this cookbook will not complete your cookbook collection in quite that way.  What it will do is provide you with a large number of surprisingly tasty recipes such as might have been eaten by the hoi polloi, if you’ll pardon the expression, of Ancient Rome.  (You probably should pardon the expression, as the Romans were absolutely and thoroughly fascinated by Greek culture, and were quite strongly influenced by it as a result) (Also, did you know that Julius Caesar’s last words were not ‘et tu, Brute’, but ‘Kai su, teknon’, which means ‘You too, my child?’.  I didn’t.  Shakespeare has a great deal to answer for.).

Most Roman cookbooks currently available for the modern reader are based on the work of Apicius (our friend who liked flamingoes), who wrote one of the few cookbooks remaining to us from that time.  Occasionally, they are based on satires of Roman cookery (and gluttony) by Apuleius and Petronius.  These cookbooks tend to the luxurious, not to say demented, end of Roman cooking – not just exotic beasts, but very rich, meat-heavy dishes, elaborate preparations, and much use of garum, a condiment made by  fermenting fish and salt  in the sun for weeks on end.  Garum must surely have tasted better than it sounds, but it’s still hard to imagine why anyone would want to eat it.

Mark Grant has taken the view that if you really do want to cook lark’s tongues, there are plenty of other cookbooks out there that can tell you how.  Instead of looking to Apicius for inspiration, he has turned to humbler works on agriculture and on medicine, and to the annotations made by roman scholars in works of classical Greek literature, which apparently include recipes.  The result is a surprisingly useable cookbook, with recipes that center around bread, legumes and things to eat with them – pickles, pastes and purées.  There are a few meat recipes, but most of what’s in the book is vegetarian, and there are a fair number of vegan recipes to play with too (not so many among the desserts, however, as honey was the sweetener of the day).  There are also a few sweets, mostly revolving around honey, dried fruits and seeds.  On the whole, the recipes are surprisingly light and healthy.

A translation and source for the text is provided for each recipe, along with a more modern version of the recipe containing full quantities and instructions (like most recipes before the 19th centuries, the Roman ones are light on both amounts and instructions, and in many cases the recipes are also fragmentary), and Grant also talks a bit about the sorts of places people ate, what they ate with, and how to know what ingredients they are talking about when this is unclear.  He is very conscientious about telling you what, if any, substitutes he has made, and also likes to tell you what various Roman writers had to say about different kinds of foods and when to eat them.  This extra information makes me very happy indeed.

The book starts with the basic sauces, including a variation on garum involving anchovies, salt, oregano, reduced grape juice, and a technique that does not make me immediately think of food poisoning.  There is also a piquant pear sauce, a very tasty spiced sauce of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and the aforementioned reduced grape juice.  We then move on through the day, starting with breakfasts (a series of porridges, sweet and savoury, pyramid cakes, and rose honey, which is delicious but almost the consistency of water).

To my mind, the book really hits its stride at lunch – I’ve made a couple of the breads, the sesame biscuits (which are more like a sesame and honey toffee), and quite a lot of the pâtés and purees – there is a wonderful roasted garlic puree with coriander and feta cheese, a pale green olive and celery pâté which is so much nicer than I’d expect either of those ingredients to be, and a whole series of herb, nut and cheese pâtés that are clearly the ancestors of modern pesto, but more tangy.  I made a whole collection of these for a Roman-themed feast, and liked them so much that I’ve made a number of them since for lunches and snacks.

In passing, this brings me to another point – the ingredients.  Ancient Rome didn’t have any new world ingredients – tomatoes and chillis were of course unavailable, but there was also no citrus fruit, and very little sugar (which was largely used medicinally).  I’m sure there are other missing ingredients, but they were the ones I noticed most.  The recipes depend heavily on olive oil, red wine, garlic, vinegar and honey, and other common ingredients are wheat, barley, lentils, cheese,  olives, figs, grapes, apples, pears, quinces, sesame seeds, pine nuts, broad beans, leeks, chickpeas, vine leaves, turnips, and occasionally carrots and parsnips.  Herbs and seasonings are mint, oregano, savory, rue, fennel, thyme, celery, coriander, mustard, salt, pepper, garum, rosewater and grape juice.  Occasionally, you get basil, but in this pre-tomato era, it’s much less prevalent.  You often find sweet flavours used together with tangy or salty ones, and everything except the breads is very strongly flavoured, in whichever direction it’s going.  The flavours overall remind me a bit of Persian and Middle Eastern cooking, though the sweets are far less sweet – the Romans didn’t go for very syrupy sweets, it appears.

I haven’t tried so many of the dinner recipes, largely because I don’t do dinner parties, and tend to stick to things that people can eat with minimal cutlery when I am doing feasts, but now that I’m looking at this book again, I can see there are a number I want to try!  The butter beans in herb sauce sound lovely, as does the baked plaice with feta, wine, raisins, vinegar, and spices.  I want to try pretty much all the legume recipes, and I really must make curd cheese again.

The thing I like most about this cookbook is that the recipes really work and are interesting and tasty in their own right – not just exotic for the sake of being odd.  You can actually eat a normal meal cooked from this book, which is a rare thing in a historical cookbook, and you don’t have to be a particularly adventurous eater to enjoy the food.  (You probably do need to like garlic and vinegar, though.)

I did have one difficulty cooking from this book, however, and that was access to a lot of the herbs and seasonings.  Grant is pretty good about giving substitutes for things that are hard to find in England, but herbs like rue and savory are just not available in Australia… and that’s before you get onto the really weird stuff like spikenard!  Having said that, I certainly did have access to enough ingredients to make most of the recipes as they should be made.

But really, this is a lovely book, and so much fun to cook from!  It’s informative and interesting, giving you a sense of the history and the place of foods in Ancient Rome, and some very tasty recipes to try.  It’s making me want to do another Roman feast, in fact, which is quite convenient, as it turns out… but I’ll tell you all about that in another post!

You can buy Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens at The Book Depository (don’t forget to enter the voucher code MAY11 for a 10% discount if you buy it before June 5), or from Amazon.

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6 responses to “Review: Roman Cookery – Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens, by Mark Grant

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  3. If you’re curious about garum, I can tell you that it’s mostly just salty . . . properly made, it doesn’t have a strong fish taste, though it retains a fishy scent. It was a luxury item, however, so most Romans just used salt for savoriness, just like we do!

    • I’d heard as much (especially re salt being used by most people instead). Have you made garum then? It’s not a project I’ve felt motivated to try, but I was highly amused by Heston Blumenthal’s attempts to make or mimic it…

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