Friday, 19 October 2012

Cooking Apicius

Review of Sally Grainger's Cooking Apicius, (Totnes, 2006) - This can be bought on Amazon.

Perhaps the name most often associated with Roman cooking is Apicius, the Roman gourmand who dined with emperors and set sail in search of the finest of foods (or so the stories go).1 Our only surviving Roman recipe book, known variously as Apicius and de re coquinaria, is attributed to this lover of luxury, but as Sally Grainger argues, this is not the case.

Grainger's book, Cooking Apicius, is not a translation of the aforementioned Roman recipe book - she does this elsewhere.  Rather, Grainger has assembled some of the best and most readily accessible recipes from that volume, omitting the overly lavish and the downright complicated.  As mentioned elsewhere, Roman recipes are often very vague and include neither measurements nor timings; here the author has, through experimentation, arrived at what she considers to be the quantities and methods most likely to work.  Some of these recipes require rather unusual ingredients such as liquamen (a variety of Roman fish sauce), defrutum (a grape must syrup), asafoetida (a resin found in Afghanistan and India), and rue, the bitter herb which we saw in the moretum recipe.  Grainger provides excellent information on procuring or making these ingredients for yourself.

My favourite bit about the book is the introduction Grainger gives on Roman cooking, and on the Apicius of the title.  She argues very convincingly that this was not the same Apicius as the gourmand mentioned above.  Roman food writers liked to talk about the origin, status, and quality of foods - they remain detached from the actual preparation, something suited to slaves and freedmen.  Grainger believes that the Apicius collection was compiled over time by cooks in the elite households - it is a text for fellow cooks.  Because the person called Apicius was renowned as a gourmand, so his name came to represent fine dining, and became attached to the recipe collection he is incorrectly assumed to have written.

This is a book I am looking to delve into, and I cannot wait to see what recipes it has in store for me.


1)  Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 1.7


  1. Replies
    1. The author has been recreating Roman recipes for almost 20 years and has worked alongside her husband to produce the most recent translation of Apicius, so I'd say very. She gives very good advice when it comes to some of the more quirky ingredients, and suggests alternatives when necessary.