What did the people of ancient Rome eat? Get the answer in our newest blog article: The cuisine of ancient Rome

The cuisine of ancient Rome

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You don’t fight well on an empty stomach – that’s of course also true in Travian. But what did the people of ancient Rome eat anyway?

Cooking was an art in ancient times, because it took a lot of experience and skill to properly prepare a meal without the help of thermometers and fan-assisted ovens. Many of the popular food products used today, like corn, potatoes and vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers, were unheard of, as they were only imported from America in the 15th century. Pasta recipes weren’t known either, so pizza and noodles were not on the menu in ancient Rome.

The basic food of the Romans was grain, similar to what you grow in Travian. It was mostly eaten as so called “Puls”, which was mash made from spelt or amelcorn. The grains were cooked and refined with a bit of oil and salt or garum. Grain was also eaten in the form of simple flat breads. It was only from the 2nd century BC that bread made from wheat became the main staple.

Legumes were also popular. Fava beans, peas and chick peas, but also lentils were widespread, curd and cheese were also available. This food was complemented by vegetables: cabbage, leek, asparagus, celery, fennel and broccoli were part of many dishes while garlic and onions added seasoning.

Poultry was the meat that was mainly eaten, particularly duck and goose. Chicken was only introduced later and was then seen as the more noble meat. The eggs of those birds were also an important part of the Roman diet. Pork was highly regarded and also served as sausages, while beef was seen as inferior, probably because cattle were used for their milk and their meat was rather chewy and couldn’t be used for roasting.

The dishes got their flavor from spices still widely used today: rosemary, oregano, caraway and cilantro were very popular and pepper was imported from Asia. Herbs less popular today were also used, such as lovage, or almost unknown plants like asafoetida (check your local Asian store) were used as ingredients in Roman cooking.

Honey and grape juice were used as sweeteners and wine and vinegar was added to many dishes. The typical mix of sweet and spicy as well as sweet and sour may well bring Asian cuisine to mind.

GARUM – The universal seasoning in ancient Rome

Garum, also called Liquamen, had a very special place in Roman cooking. It was used as a universal seasoning sauce, similar to soy sauce in the Far East or today’s Maggi sauce. It was used in many recipes instead of salt. The sauce was made from fish and salt and diluted with vinegar, wine or grape juice or added to the dish undiluted.

The Geoponica (http://www.ancientlibrary.com/geoponica/index.html), an extensive ancient compilation on agricultural methods, includes five different ways of making garum. The simplest one would be to cook the fish in salt water for a couple of hours and to then filter it all through a cloth.

Of course this simple method will only produce a very low quality garum. Better results could be achieved by placing the ingredients in amphorae or large basins and leaving them to ferment under the warm sun of the Mediterranean for a few weeks or even months.

Here it was vital not to gut the fish, as the enzymes contained in the entrails would decompose the meat – basically the fish would digest itself. After Plinius the most valuable kinds of garum were produced exclusively from the blood and entrails of mackerels.

Feel free to try it out: 100 parts of fish should be matched by 15 parts of salt. Lightly mash the fish and let the mix simmer in a yogurt maker for three to five days at 40°C, while shaking it once a day (according to Heinrich Wunderlich, http://www.heinrich-wunderlich.de/encyclo/liqua.htm).

To avoid putrefaction (and fish poisoning in the worst case), it is advised to use plenty of salt. For those of you who find this experiment a little too risky, you can also try the Vietnamese fish sauce Nuoc Mam or Thai Nam Pla.

Many ancient Roman recipes are recorded, many more than those of the Teutons and Gauls in fact. The most famous and oldest documented collection may well be the “De re coquinaria” (‘About the art of cooking‘) by Caelius Apicius. We only however know very few of the exotic dishes of the Roman upper classes. Presumably, those resembled the lifestyles of the late Empire that only had very little to do with the lives of the ordinary people. What is known are for example recipes for dormouse, pig udder and the uterus of young sows.

Those wanting to try out the recipes of ancient Rome need to be very happy to try out new things. The recipes are very short, methods and procedures are not explained in detail and measurements are often missing altogether.

A rough translation of a recipe for the preparation of Spanish onions by Apicius is as follows: ‘Mash the Spanish onions and cook them in water before stewing them in oil. As seasoning, add thyme, mint, pepper, oregano, honey, vinegar and, if you like, some garum. Sprinkle with some pepper and serve the dish.’

This looks quite imprecise, but committed cooks and amateur historians have tried out these recipes and come up with some sensible measurements. A modern take on one of Apicius’ recipes looks like this:

In Ovus Apalis – boiled eggs with pine nut sauce

Ingredients:

  • 4 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1 handful of pine nuts
  • black pepper
  • ground cilantro
  • honey
  • wine vinegar
  • garum

Preparation: Cut the eggs open. Crush the pine nuts in a mortar and add honey until you have a thick paste. Season with pepper, cilantro, vinegar and fish sauce.

(Recipe by Terraplana, Gesellschaft für Archäologie im Hessischen Ried e.V. www.terraplana.de)

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