Ancient Roman cuisine
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Ancient Roman cuisine changed over the long duration of this ancient civilization. Dietary habits were affected by the influence of Greek culture, the political changes from kingdom to republic to empire, and the empire's enormous expansion, which exposed Romans to many new, provincial culinary habits and cooking methods.
In the beginning, dietary differences between Roman social classes were not very great, but disparities developed with the empire's growth.
Traditionally, a breakfast called ientaculum was served at dawn. In the late morning, Romans ate a small lunch, and in the evening they consumed cena, the main meal of the day. With the influence of Greek culture and the increased importation of foreign foods, cena grew larger in size and more diverse in terms of the foods eaten. This meal gradually shifted to the afternoon, while vesperna, a light supper eaten in the evening was abandoned completely. Prandium, a second breakfast, was introduced around noon.
Among the lower classes of society, these changes were less pronounced as the traditional routines corresponded closely to the daily rhythms of manual labor.
Originally flat, round loaves made of emmer (a cereal grain closely related to wheat) with a bit of salt were eaten; among the upper classes, eggs, cheese, and honey, along with milk and fruit were also consumed. In the Imperial period, around the beginning of the Christian era, bread made of wheat was introduced; with time, more and more wheaten foods began to replace emmer loaves.
The bread was sometimes dipped in wine and eaten with olives, cheese, and grapes. They also ate wild boar, beef, sausages, pork, lamb, duck, goose, chickens, small birds, fish, and shellfish.
Among the members of the upper classes, who did not engage in manual labor, it became customary to schedule all business obligations in the morning. After the prandium, the last responsibilities would be discharged, and a visit would be made to the baths. Around 2 p.m., the cena would begin. This meal could last until late in the night, especially if guests were invited, and would often be followed by comissatio. A round of alcoholic beverages.
In the period of the kings and the early republic, but also in later periods (for the working classes), the cena essentially consisted of a kind of porridge, the puls. The simplest kind would be made from emmer, water, salt and fat. The more sophisticated kind was made with olive oil, with an accompaniment of assorted vegetables when available. The richer classes ate their puls with eggs, cheese, and honey and it was also occasionally served with meat or fish.
Over the course of the Republican period, the cena developed into 2 courses: a main course and a dessert with fruit and seafood (e.g. molluscs, shrimp). By the end of the Republic, it was usual for the meal to be served in 3 parts: one course (gustatio), main course (primae mensae), and dessert (secundae mensae).
From 301 BC, Greek customs started to influence the culture of higher class Romans. Growing wealth led to ever larger and more sophisticated meals. Nutritional value was not regarded as important: on the contrary, the gourmets preferred food with low food energy and nutrients. Easily digestible foods and diuretic stimulants were highly regarded.
The dinner was consumed in a special dining room, which later was to be called triclinium. Here one would lie down on a specially designed couch, the lectus triclinaris. Around the round table, the mensa, three of these lecti were arranged in the shape of a horseshoe, so that slaves could easily serve, and a maximum of three diners would recline at each lectus.
During the kingdom and early republic, the only people allowed a place on a lectus were men. By the late republic and imperial times, and especially among the aristocracy, women were permitted to recline during meals. Traditionally, women would dine sitting upright across from their husbands or fathers in chairs.
More tables for the beverages stood beside the couches. All heads were oriented towards the central table, with left elbows propped on a cushion and feet at the outside of the dinner couch. In this fashion at most nine people could dine together at one table. Further guests had to sit on chairs. Slaves normally stood.
Feet and hands were washed before the cena. The food would be taken with the fingertips and two kinds of spoons, the larger ligula and the smaller cochlear with a needle-thin grip, which was used as a prong when eating snails and molluscs, which performed some of the functions of the modern fork. At the table, larger pieces would be cut up to be served on smaller plates.
After each course the fingers were washed again and napkins (mappae) were customary to wipe one's mouth. Guests could also bring their own mappae to take home the leftovers from the meal or small gifts (the apophoreta). Everything that could not be eaten (e.g. bones and shells) was thrown onto the floor, whence it was swept away by a slave.
In summer, it was popular to eat outside. Many houses in Pompeii had stone couches at a particularly beautiful spot in the garden for just that purpose. People lay down to eat only on formal occasions. If the meal was routine, they ate while seated or even standing.
During a dinner for guests, musicians, acrobats, poets or dancers would perform and dinner conversation played an important role. Dances were unusual, as it was considered improper and would not mix well with table manners, although during the comissatio this habit was often disregarded. To leave the table for bodily functions was considered inappropriate and restraining oneself was considered good manners.
After the main course, during a pause, an offering was made to the Lares, the spirits of the house. This offering normally consisted of meat, cake and wine. The cake was usually coloured with saffron.
Foods and ingredients
The ancient Roman diet included many items that are staples of modern Italian cooking. Pliny the Elder discussed more than 30 varieties of olive, 40 kinds of pear, figs (native and imported from Africa and the eastern provinces), and a wide variety of vegetables (Jacques André listed 54 cultivated and 43 wild vegetables in ancient Rome). Some of these vegetables are no longer present in the modern world, while others have undergone significant changes. Carrots of different colors were consumed, but not in orange.
Some foods considered characteristic of modern Italian cuisine were not used. In particular, spinach or aubergine were introduced later from the Arab world, and tomatoes and capsicum peppers appeared in Europe following the discovery of the New World and the Columbian Exchange. There were also few citrus fruits.
Butcher's meat was an uncommon luxury, and seafood, game, and poultry were more common. On his triumph, Caesar gave a public feast to 260,000 humiliores which featured all three of these foods, but no butcher's meat. John E. Stambaugh writes that meat "was scarce except at sacrifices and the dinner parties of the rich." The most popular meat was pork. Beef was uncommon in ancient Rome, being more common in ancient Greece - it is not mentioned by Juvenal or Horace.
Fish were more common than meat. Aquaculture was sophisticated, with large-scale industries devoted to oyster farming. The Romans also engaged in snail farming and oak grub farming. Some fish were greatly esteemed and fetched high prices, such as mullet raised in the fishery at Cosa, and "elaborate means were invented to assure its freshness."
Dormice were consumed, with the fattest of these rodents considered a delicacy. A status symbol among wealthy Romans, some even had dormice weighed in front of dinner guests. A sumptuary law enacted under Marcus Aemilius Scaurus forbade the consumption of dormice, but they continued to be consumed.
Fruit was eaten fresh when in season, and dried or preserved over winter. Popular fruits include apples, pears, figs, grapes, quinces, strawberries, blackberries, currants, damson plums, melons, rose hips and pomegranates. Less common fruits were the more exotic azeroles, medlars, cherries, apricots, both introduced in the first century BC, oranges, lemons, dates and peaches (introduced from Persia in the first century AD).
Although known to the ancient Romans, lemons were not cultivated in Italy until the Principate. The lemon was known and was accurately distinguished from the citron. At least 35 cultivars of pear were grown in Rome, along with three types of apples. Cato described pear culture methods similar to modern techniques.
Many kinds of vegetables were cultivated and consumed. These included celery, garlic, yellow squash, cabbage and other brassicas (such as kale,and broccoli), lettuce, endive, onion, leek, asparagus, radishes, turnips, parsnips, carrots, beets and cucumber. Some vegetables were illustrated in reliefs. The potato, tomato and chili pepper (capsicums) from the New World were not available in ancient Roman times nor were French beans, zucchini (courgettes), and corn (maize i.e. modern source of polenta).
While the precursors of Brussels sprouts, artichokes, sweet peas, rutabaga and possibly cauliflower probably existed in Roman times, the modern cultivated forms we think of were not developed until the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance times. Cabbage was eaten both raw (sometimes dipped in vinegar) and cooked. Cato greatly esteemed cabbage, believing it to be good for the digestion, and believing that if a sick person ate a great deal of cabbage and bathed in his urine, he would recover.
Legumes were limited to dried peas, sweet peas, lupines, lentils and fava beans. The Romans knew several varieties of chickpea, such as venus, ram, and punic. They were both cooked down into a broth and roasted as a snack. The Roman gourmet Apicius gives several recipes for chickpeas. They ate walnuts, almonds, hazel nuts, pine nuts, and sesame seeds, which they sometimes pulverized to thicken spiced, sweet wine sauces for roast meat and fowl.
The Roman colonies provided many foods to Rome; the city received ham from Belgium, oysters from Brittany, garum from Mauritania, wild game from Tunisia, silphium (laser) from Cyrenaica, flowers from Egypt, lettuce from Cappadocia, and fish from Pontus.
Cheese was eaten and its manufacture was well-established by the Roman Empire period. It was part of the standard rations for Roman soldiers and was popular among civilians as well. The Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE) fixed maximum prices for cheese. The manufacture of cheese and its quality and culinary uses are mentioned by a number of Roman authors: Pliny the Elder described cheese's dietary and medicinal uses in Book 28 of Historia Naturalis, and Varro in De Agricultura described the Roman cheesemaking season (spring and summer) and compared soft, new cheeses with drier, aged cheeses. The most extensive description of Roman cheesemaking comes from Columella, from his treatise on Roman agriculture, De Re Rustica.
The ancient Romans were known for their fish sauce, which was distinctive in ancient Roman cuisine. It could be used as a seasoning during cooking, used in place of salt; as a table condiment; or as a sauce. There were four major fish sauce types: garum, liquamen, muria, and allec.
The term garum referred to the best quality of fish sauce, although it was also used generically to refer to fish sauce in general. The composition of garum varied, depending on whether it was made from tunny (tuna), mullet, sea bass, or some combination. Flavored garum existed, including a variety mixed with wine (oenogarum), another mixed with vinegar (oxygarum), and some mixed with water (hydrogarum). Hydrogarum was common among Roman soldiers, although the emperor Elagabalus asserted that he was the first to serve it at public banquets in Rome.
The most esteemed of all garum was garum sociorum, made exclusively from mackerel (scomber); this highly prized sauce was produced at New Carthage fisheries in Spain, and was widely-traded. Pliny wrote in his Natural History that two congii of this sauce cost 1,000 sesterces, and that "scarcely any other liquid except perfume has begun to be more highly valued." Special sorts of fish sauce, made from fish with scales, were made to be sold to Jews who kept Kosher laws; these were known as garum castum, castimoniarum, or castimoniale.
The three other varieties of fish sauce were of lower quality than garum. Liquamen was the generic term for fish sauce used by Apicius, and included both higher-quality and lower-quality conduct. Muria referred to a briny liquid used to pack salted fish during transportation, to pickle olives, and to preserve cheese and meat. It was cheaper than garum or liquamen and was salty. This is the only type of fish sauce attributed in tablets of the Roman fort at Vindolanda, near Hadrian's Wall.
The lowest quality product, allec (also spelled hallec, hallex, or allex) was, unlike the other three varieties, more of a paste than a liquid. Originally made from the sediment or dreg byproduct of garum production, Pliny writes that allec was made from the tiny apua (anchovy) that was otherwise useless. Cato the Elder, known for his frugality, wrote in On Agriculture that he used it to feed his slaves when olives ran out. Gourmet varieties of allec have been attested to, so it appears to have not always been a lower-quality product.
One of many modes of cooking in ancient Rome was the focus, a hearth that was placed in front of the lararium, the household altar which contained small sculptures of the household deity (the lares, or guardian ancestor-spirits, and the penates, who were believed to protect the floor, the larder). In homes where the lararium was built into the wall, the focus was sometimes built of raised brick into four sides, constructed against a baseboard on which a fire was lit. More common was a focus that was rectangular and portable, consisting simply of a moveable hearth with stone or bronze feet. After the development of separate kitchens, the focus began to be used only for religious offerings and for warmth, rather than for cooking.
Portable stoves and ovens were used by the Romans, and some had water pots and grills laid onto them. At Pompeii, most houses had separate kitchens, most fairly small, but a few large; the Villa of the Mysteries covers a nine-by-twelve meter area. A number of kitchens at Pompeii had no roofs, resembling courtyards more than ordinary rooms; this allowed smoke to ventilate. Kitchens that did have roofs must have been extremely smokey, since there were no chimneys, only high windows or holes in the ceiling.
Many Roman kitchens had an oven (furnus or fornax), and some (such as the kitchen of the Villa of the Mysteries) had two. A square or dome-shaped construction of brick or stone, these ovens had a flat floor, often of granite and sometimes lava, which were filled with dry twigs and then lit. On the walls of kitchens were hooks and chains for hanging cooking equipment, including various pots and pans, knives, meat forks, sieves, graters, spits, tongs, cheese-slicers, nutcrackers, jugs for measuring, and pâté moulds.
Wine was normally mixed with water immediately before drinking, since the fermentation was not controlled and the alcohol grade was high. Wine was sometimes adjusted and "improved" by its makers: instructions survive for making white wine from red and vice versa, as well as for rescuing wine that is turning to vinegar. Those instructions as well as detailed descriptions of Roman viticulture date back to 160 BC in the first known text written in Latin prose.
Wine was also variously flavored. For example, there was passum, a strong and sweet raisin wine, for which the earliest known recipe is of Carthaginian origin; mulsum, a freshly made mixture of wine and honey; and conditum, a mixture of wine, hod matured. One specific recipe, Conditum Paradoxum, is for a mixture of wine, honey, pepper, laurel, dates, mastic, and saffron, cooked and stored for later use. Another recipe called for the addition of seawater, pitch and rosin to the wine. A Greek traveler reported that the beverage was apparently an acquired taste. Sour wine mixed with water and herbs (posca) was a popular drink for the lower classes and a staple part of the Roman soldier's ration.
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