Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Pork and Fruit Minutal

We've finally hit a recipe with an ingredient list the length of our collective arms, making this the perfect opportunity to test the theory that the Romans liked to over-season everything.  We've also finally hit a recipe with that infamous fish-sauce garum, or more accurately liquamen - there are differences between the two which I'll go into in a later post.

I was browsing through Sally Grainger's Cooking Apicius, as I am wont to do these days, and spotted her Pork and Apricot Minutal.  This sounded so delicious that I immediately went in search of the original recipe, which is as follows:

Put some oil, wine, liquamen (fish sauce), diced cooked pork shoulder, and finely chopped onions in a saucepan.  When the onions are done, grind some pepper, cumin, mint, and dill, and add to the pan with honey, passum (raisin wine), a splash of vinegar, the juices from the cooked meat, and more liquamen.  Remove the seeds from some fruit and add this fruit to the pan.  Bring the mixture to the boil, and when cooked, skim the fat from the top, bind everything together, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.  - Apicius, 3.6

This differs somewhat from Grainger's take on the minutal.  I have decided to stick to the original recipe's ingredients and methods whilst using Grainger's ever-useful measurements.  I have also, as you can see from the last post, used tracta from Cooking Apicius as the thickening agent for this dish.  Without further ado, let's start this hearty stew.

Pork and Fruit Minutal


  • 500g Pork Belly
  • 1 Medium Onion
  • Several Scallions/Spring Onions
  • 300ml Water
  • 375ml White Wine
  • 2 tbsp Fish Sauce (nam pla)
  • 50ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 tsp Cumin Seeds
  • 1/2 tsp Black Peppercorns
  • A Few Sprigs of Fresh Mint
  • A Few Sprigs of Fresh Dill
  • 1 tbsp Set Honey
  • 2 tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • 1.5 tbsp Raisin Wine
  • A Handful of Dried Figs and Apricots.
  • 3 Tracta Discs


  • Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  • Rub the pork belly with olive oil (not from the 50ml of olive oil) and salt, and cook in the oven for approximately half an hour or until done.  When finished, leave to cool.
  • Add the water, wine, fish sauce, and olive oil to a saucepan, then bring to the boil.  I advise giving it a taste, just because it's so deliciously unusual.  When it is boiling, add the onions and the pork, and reduce to a simmer.

  • Whilst the onions are cooking, toast and grind the cumin seed and the black peppercorns.  You know that they're toasting once the cumin starts giving off its distinctive smell.  Don't overdo it!  Chop the mint and the dill up together also.
  • Add the above to the pan alongside the honey, vinegar, raisin wine, and a splash of fish sauce.  Give it a stir, bring to the boil briefly, and let it simmer once more.
  • Add in the roughly chopped dried apricots and figs.
  • Take three of the tracta sheets you fought so hard to make, and watch that hard work turn to nothing as you break the tracta up into fine pieces.

  • Add the tracta to the pan whilst stirring.  Stir for maybe 5 minutes and watch the minutal thicken.  Taste for flavour, season if necessary, and serve with a loaf of freshly baked bread.


  • My liquamen was simply a shop bought nam pla or fish sauce.  You'll find it alongside the Asian food.  If yours is too dark or too salty then you can adjust the salt levels by mixing it with white grape juice reduced to half of its original volume.
  • The passum was a nightmare to find.  Grainger likens it to a modern raisin wine, but says that a dessert wine such as a Muscat, which I have used, will work too.
  • Tracta are a nightmare to make - if you can't be bothered, add some cornflour instead.


There are not enough adjectives in the English language to describe the beauty of this minutal.  The acid from the vinegar and the sweetness from the different wines made it almost tingle in  the mouth.  The delicate flavours of the dill were surprisingly distinctive, and the mint provided a subtle background to the meaty, savoury aspects of the dish.  Because the figs and apricots were only briefly stewed they retained a lot of their fruity flavour, and it was nice to alternate between bites of pork and bites of fruit.  The texture was, thanks to the onions and tracta, quite creamy, which meant that it clung well to the bread I ate the dish with.

To those who say that the Romans overseasoned everything I say try this dish - I have never before seen ingredients compliment each other so well as they do in this recipe.  The flavours are at once homely and exotic, leading to a profoundly satisfying meal which I will serve for years to come.

Monday, 29 October 2012


"Is this it?" - that's what you'll all be thinking right now.  "We've gone from lovely, fruity, succulent ham to thin sheets of dried dough."  But before you delete Pass the Garum from your bookmarks and unlike the Facebook page, I want you to hear me out.  These sheets of dried dough, or tracta as our friend Cato calls them, are vital to several recipes:

  • Tracta were used in the off-puttingly named placenta, which you'll be glad to hear has nothing to do with the modern meaning of the word.  Placenta was constructed out of layers of a honey-cheese mixture separated by layers of tracta - it helps to imagine the way in which a lasagne is constructed (but there the resemblance to lasagne must end).  This was then used in religious ceremonies, which we'll learn more about more when we actually make placenta.
  • The other use for tracta was in thickening stews, making them that little bit heartier and more filling.  This is what we'll be using ours for initially, so let's make some.  

The Roman recipe for tracta is as follows:

Soak some groats in water, and after they have sat a while and softened, drain them and put them into a bowl.  After kneading them for some time, gradually add some flour and make a dough.  Make the tracta from this dough, spread them out, and let them dry. - Cato, On Agriculture, 76

It was a recipe in Grainger's Cooking Apicius which required me to make tracta in the first place, so it was to this book that I turned for an interpretation of Cato's recipe.  I didn't use the quantities recommended by Grainger, but her methods, honed by years of experience, worked perfectly.  Before we start, I must warn that this process is equal parts labour intensive and frustrating.  With that in mind, let's begin.



  • 200g of Semolina (the 'groats' in the recipe)
  • 200g of Spelt Flour
  • 150ml of Water


  • Cover the semolina in water (not from the 150ml) and leave to soak for 20 minutes.  When done, drain away as much excess liquid as you can using a sieve (or a fine cloth if you have it).
  • Add the 'groats' to a clean bowl and gradually mix in the flour.
  • Add as much water as is necessary to form a smooth and workable dough.  Our biggest enemy in this recipe is sticky dough.
  • Take half of the dough, roll it into a sausage, and divide it into 8 pieces.  Do the same with the other bit of dough.  Roll these little pieces into balls, cover with flour, and place back in the bowl.  Cover with a damp cloth to prevent them drying out.
  • Flour a LARGE work surface, a rolling pin, and several baking trays and chopping boards.
  • Grab one ball and place it onto the floured work-surface.  Squash it flat with the palm of your hand, then, keeping everything well floured, roll it as flat as it will go without it sticking to the work surface or the rolling pin.  Unfortunately, it will stick to the surface, but persevere.  It also doesn't matter how irregular it looks, as my attempt demonstrates.  Using a fish slice or something similar, gently lift it up and set it onto one of the floured trays.
  • Repeat this for all of the little dough balls and set aside to dry, which can take hours.  I had just finished baking a new loaf of Cato's bread, so I set the tracta into the cooling oven for maybe ten minutes at a time.  It is important that the oven is not switched on as we want to dry these, not cook them.


  • Spelt flour is expensive, so for the dusting I used normal, cheap, plain white flour.
  • The semolina in the dough makes it very squishy and fun to play with.


Yum.  These looked so appetising that I ate them all in one go.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Baked Honey Ham in Pastry with a Fig Sauce

Today is one of those lucky days when meat is on the menu - perhaps we got lucky at the gladiatorial games and won a few coins, or maybe our patron was feeling very generous with his gifts, or it might just be that we walked out of the front door of the farm and saw Porky the Pig standing there looking awfully delicious.  Poor Porky - now you're chopped up and waiting to be cooked.

Today's recipe comes from Apicius, 7.9.1, or recipe number 287 if you want to go by that instead.  I was inspired by Grainger's take on this (Grainger, S., Cooking Apicius, (Totnes, 2006) pp.62-63), and found some of her methods very useful, but I've changed a few of the ingredients.  The recipe in Apicius reads roughly as follows:

Braise the ham with a generous helping of figs and three laurel leaves.  Peel off the skin, chop it into squares, and cover it all with lots of honey.  After, make a dough with flour and oil and wrap the ham up inside.  Bake slowly and serve as soon as it's ready. - Apicius, 7.9.1

There are the usual issues with 'what type of ham should we use?', 'how many figs are needed?', and 'how much dough do we make?', but I'm starting to like the Romans' way of going by feel and using my instincts.  I found that the following worked well:

Baked Honey Ham in Pastry with a Fig Sauce


The Meat
  • 750g Lump of Unsmoked Gammon
  • 8 Dried Figs
  • 3 Bay Leaves
  • 125g Set Honey
The Pastry
  • 250g Spelt Flour
  • 100ml Water
  • A Pinch of Salt
  • A Splash of Extra Virgin Olive Oil


  • Briefly sear the meat in a hot frying pan before adding to a saucepan.  Add cold water, the three bay leaves, and all of the figs.  Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer. This meat needs 20 minutes, with an extra 20 minutes per 500g.  However, I gave mine just 40 minutes in total and it came out perfect.  Remove from the meat from the sauce and leave it to cool.
  • Whilst this is happening we need to make the pastry dough.  Prepare a work surface (I used the kitchen bench) by giving it a clean and sprinkling it with flour.  Take out a rolling pin and dust it with flour too.
  • Mix the flour, salt, oil, and water and knead it until smooth.  Take half of the dough and keep it covered with a moist towel to stop it from drying out.  Place the other half onto the work surface and get ready to roll.
  • This dough has to be VERY thin.  The best way to do this is to roll it at the edges with a rapid backwards and forwards movement.  Once you have a roughly rectangular batch of dough, place it on a floured surface and repeat with the second batch.
  • By this stage the meat should be quite cool - this is important because we're adding honey to it, and it will melt otherwise.  Remove the skin and chop it into little pieces.  Score the meat with a knife on all sides, creating grooves for the honey to seep into.  Now, grab a handful of honey and rub it all over the meat.
  • With the meat honeyed up, lay one sheet of dough out on a baking tray and brush the top side with olive oil.  Place the meat at one end and roll it all up!

  • Brush the outside with olive oil now and wrap the whole bundle with the second bit of dough.  Oil the outside of this so that it goes nice and crispy in the oven.  Place back on the oiled baking tray and into an oven preheated at 180°C.  Cook for 1 hour, adjusting the heat if necessary.
  • For the final 15 minutes, strain the concoction you cooked the ham in through a sieve and add half of it to a pan to reduce.  Using a pan with more surface area means it will reduce more quickly.
  • Remove the ham from the oven, let it sit for 5 minutes, then chop it up and put it onto a plate.  Pour some of the fig sauce over.  Delicious.


What a dish!  I served this with some cabbage boiled very briefly in the remaining fig/bay/ham cooking liquid, and it went down a treat.  The outside layer of pastry was crisp, the inside layer was soaked in honey and ham juices, and the ham itself was very succulent.  The diners, who had no idea as to what I was making, picked up on the honey and fig flavours.  What struck me most about this dish was how 'normal' it felt - this could easily have been featured in a Jamie Oliver cookbook, or served up in a local restaurant.  The Romans, with this recipe, have created a truly timeless dish.

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

Saturday, 13 October 2012


Moretum is a cheese, garlic, and herb spread mentioned in a wonderful little poem, also called Moretum, by the poet Virgil.  The poem tells us about the farmer Symilus and his morning meal.  Waking up early he  lights his lamp and works his way to his grain stores.  He gathers his grain, mills it down into flour, and makes a bread not unlike the one we made before.  The farmer notices that he has no meat, and worries that the bread might not be tasty enough on its own, so he sets about making some moretum to go with it.  Seeing as our bread could use a little lift, I'm going to follow this Roman farmer's example and make some of this cheese spread.  The whole poem, which really is worth a read, can be found by clicking here.  It's too long to post in full, so I've summarised the important bits here:
  • Symilus gathers four heads of garlic (!), celery, parsley, rue, and coriander seeds.
  • He grinds the garlic in his mortar and pestle, and adds salt and cheese.
  • He then adds the celery, rue, parsley, and coriander seeds.  He also grabs his crotch for extra leverage with the mortar and pestle, or so Virgil says.
  • The smell is so strong that it makes his eyes water!
  • He adds some olive oil, finishes off the mixture, and slaps some on his freshly baked bread.
So, what to make of this?  Well for one there is far too much garlic; Symilus might have been able to work alone in his field without his breath offending anyone, but most of us don't have that luxury.  I'll have to tone it down a bit to prevent garlic overpowering the other ingredients.  Secondly, Virgil mentions a herb called 'rue'.  Rue is a bitter plant used to flavour lots of Roman dishes, and it grows quite freely here.  However, it is also poisonous.  Until I find a good supplier and understand it a bit better, I'll be leaving out the rue.  Finally, crotch grabbing whilst cooking is unhygienic, so I'll be leaving that bit out too.

Symilus with his packed lunch.

Virgil's Moretum


  • 1 Clove of Garlic
  • 1/2 of a Celery Stick (with its leaves)
  • A Small Bunch of Flat-Leaf Parsley
  • 1 tbsp of Coriander Seeds
  • A Pinch of Salt
  • Some Cheese (I used Feta as it was easy to work with.  With the benefit of hindsight, I would choose a milder cheese)
  • 1 tsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • A Splash of Vinegar


  • Peel the garlic, add to the mortar, and give it hell.
  • Add the salt, the cheese, and the celery to the mortar and mash them up too.  Really make sure to mix them well with the garlic from earlier.

  • To this paste, add the coriander seeds, parsley, oil, and vinegar.  I find that it is helpful to add the parsley in batches and break it down bit by bit rather than trying to do it all at once and making a mess.  Test for flavour - if it is too garlicky, add more parsley.
  • Break off a lump of bread, spread some of the moretum on, and enjoy!


Moretum was a great accompaniment for my Roman bread - its creaminess complimented the 'rough' texture of the bread, and the strong flavours drew attention away from the overly wheaty taste of the bread.  In fact I'd go so far as to say that the wheaty after-taste provided by the bread was the perfect follow-on flavour for this cheese spread.  However, even though I used just one garlic clove, this spread was verging on being too strong, something not helped by the saltiness of the feta either.  Thankfully, a bit of extra parsley stopped that being so.  Despite the inadequacies of this first attempt at moretum, it is a spread which I recommend you try, and one which I am looking forward to making again.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Cato's Roman Bread

So, you've just arrived back from the grain distribution up on the Aventine and on the way home you popped into the miller's shop to get it ground up.  You're sitting there with a sack of flour. Great, how do you eat this?  Well, today we're going to start with the simplest of all recipes, and we're going to bake some bread.  I'm taking inspiration from Cato the Elder's agricultural handbook, de agri cultura.  This manual, written around 160 BCE, is the oldest piece of Roman prose we have, and is a guide to managing a farm.  I like this recipe because it's a simple recipe dating from simple times and thus requires few ingredients and relatively little preparation - it's the kind of bread any Roman could have been making at any stage of Roman history.  Cato writes:

Recipe for kneaded bread: wash both your hands and a bowl thoroughly.  Pour flour into the bowl, add water gradually, and knead well.  When it is well kneaded, roll it out and bake it under an earthenware lid. -Cato, On Agriculture, 74

I'm going to take some liberties when it comes to baking the bread under an earthenware lid, as I don't actually own one, but his advice on washing hands and equipment is timeless.  As Cato doesn't provide quantities or timings, I've experimented and come up with the following:

Cato's Roman Bread


  • 500g Spelt flour
  • 350ml Water
  • A Pinch of Salt
  • A Splash of Olive Oil


  • Preheat an oven to 180°C.
  • Wash hands and wash a large bowl - we're being authentic here!
  • Add the flour to the bowl along with the pinch of salt.  Give it a bit of a mix to distribute salt.
  • Pour a splash of olive oil into the bowl.
  • Slowly add in the water, mixing as you go, until you get a dough which isn't too floury and isn't too sticky.  

  • Knead the dough well and form into a circular shape.  With a knife, score the top of the loaf, dividing it into 8.  This doesn't particularly help with the baking process, but it's how the bread preserved at Pompeii looked, and it's how it's often depicted.

  • Place on some greaseproof paper on a baking tray and place in the oven for 45 minutes.  By this stage the bread should be lovely and crispy and golden on the outside.  A good way to tell if it's ready on the inside is to tap the bottom of the loaf - if it's ready it will sound hollow.  Because there is no yeast, the bread won't have risen much if at all.


  • I added the olive oil because it keeps the bread softer for longer, and added salt to enhance the flavour of the bread a bit.  I need some bread leftover for my moretum recipe.  These two ingredients are ones which any Roman might have access to, so are not inauthentic.
  • The bread lasted four days before it started to go mouldy.


The bread was a success, and everybody who tried it enjoyed it.  The texture and the taste were very 'wheaty' because of the use of Spelt, and I personally am not sure what to make of this flavour.  At the minute I find it quite overpowering, but with olive oil and vinegar for dipping the bread is very tasty indeed.  Do I envy the Romans?  In this instance, not quite.

Give us this day our daily grain

The people who once gave out military commands, made magistrates, and summoned legions - the people who did everything - now content themselves and wait anxiously for two things - bread and circuses.
Juvenal, Satire, 10.77-81

The Roman satirist Juvenal observed that the people, who once held some serious political clout, gave up whatever influence they had in return for 'bread and circuses', or more generally 'food and entertainment'.  Essentially, as long as they had food in their mouths and a gladiatorial game or two to keep them amused, the Roman people didn't care about who ruled them or how.  Whilst this is perhaps a bit of an oversimplification,  it highlights just how important 'bread' was to the Romans, something which I think warrants further investigation.

When Juvenal writes about bread he is essentially writing about 'grain'.  Grain was the mainstay of the ancient Mediterranean; potatoes and maize were still entertaining the Incas in South America, and rice, whilst not unknown, was limited in its usage.  It was grain which was the staple of the Roman diet, and it was from this grain that you get the breads and porridges with which most people would start and finish their days. With so many depending on it, millions of acres stretching from Italy to Egypt were devoted to the cultivation of wheat.  This was not wheat as we know it, but rather hardier varieties known as spelt and emmer.  As hardy as it might be, however, the Romans still left nothing to chance.

Grain and the Gods

Ceres, Goddess of Agriculture
Given their dependency on grain, it is not surprising that the Romans looked to the gods for support.  They had seemingly limitless agricultural deities, with the goddess Ceres (from where we get our word cereal) leading a team including, but not limited to Convector (the grain carrier), Conditor (the one who stores the grain), Promitor (the grain distributor), Hostilina (the goddess of even grain growth), Patelana (goddess of opening up the grain), and Tutelina (the goddess who watches over stored grain).  The very concept of the Roman grain supply was itself personified as the goddess Annona.  Lots of gods and goddesses meant lots of festivals, with the grain related festivals alone including the Cerealia (a festival for the growth of cereals), Opiconsiva (for the organising of cereal reserves), and the Consualia (for the opening of the grain chambers).  Rome needed its grain, and there was no way that any part of the process was going to be left to chance.  It is particularly telling than Ceres was predominantly worshipped in the Aventine, the part of Rome most often associated with the poor.  If it was the gods who oversaw the production of the grain, it was the politicians who did all the dirty work.


In the modern western world we are detached from the production and supply of food - it's taken for granted that you can go to a supermarket and get the ingredients you need.  In fact, we are now so detached that we don't even have to buy the ingredients to make the dinner, you can buy an entire meal just in need of a few minutes in the microwave.  In ancient Rome, however, the production and supply of food was of great concern.

Roman society was an agricultural society, with cities supplied by food from the neighbouring fields.  As the cities grew, these fields struggled to provide enough for everybody to eat.  The city of Rome, which grew from 250,000 to 1,000,000 inhabitants in the space of just over a century, felt these pressures more than most, and the people quickly turned to the politicians to provide a solution.

A baker selling his wares, or a politician currying favour?

People needed grain, and politicians needed votes, so throughout Roman history many aspiring consuls took to distributing free food to garner support.  In the 120s BCE however, one politician named Gaius Gracchus proposed a controversial law, the lex frumentaria, which meant that the state started providing a subsidised grain ration to the poor.  P. Clodius Pulcher took things a step further in 58 BCE and made this ration free.  This was controversial because it undermined the ability of the elite to increase their popularity through displays of charity.  By the time of the Empire (Rome was first a Kingdom, then a Republic, then an Empire), the number receiving this corn dole was set at around 200,000.

Grain, then, was not just on the minds of the poor, but also on the minds of the very people running the city of Rome.  As long as the people were fed, there would be order.


'Food Supply', in Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A., (eds.), Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd Edition, (Oxford, 2003)

Grainger, S., Cooking Apicius, (Totnes, 2006)

Scheid, J., An Introduction to Roman Religion, (Paris, 1998)

Ungern-Sternberg, J.V., 'The Crisis of the Republic', in Flower, H.I. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, (Cambridge, 2004), pp.89-112

Ancient Sources

Cato, On Agriculture

Pliny, Natural History

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Rome Sweet Rome

At its height the Roman empire stretched from Britain to Babylon, encompassing countless peoples, customs and cultures.  All manner of luxury goods flowed back to the city from the empire's furthest reaches.  At the beginning, however, Rome was a simple city-state full of farmers and their families.  When we talk about Roman food then, do we talk about the bread and salt of the poor, or the extravagance and opulence of imperial banquets?  Well, in this case we're going to talk about it all.  If we stick to the common folk's food then Pass the Garum will soon become Fifty Shades of Bread, and if we stick to over-the-top banquets then I will most likely run out of money.  We'll strike a balance.  First thing is first - we need to know a little bit about the Romans' dining habits, so here's a handy introduction.

When did they eat?

Breakfast, or ientaculum, was a simple affair consisting of a bit of bread and cheese or leftovers from the day before.  It was a quick meal giving you just enough energy to get out the door and get on with the day's business.The main Roman meal was known as cena (nothing to do with the WWE superstar).  For most people this was eaten at around midday, with a light supper (vesperna) in the evening to keep tummy rumbles at bay.  This would give people the energy needed to complete their day's work  The rich, who might be finished their business quite early in comparison, moved their cena to the late afternoon, and instead ate a small lunch, or prandium at around midday.

Where did they eat?

The elite ate in their triclinia, dining rooms with a central table surrounded by couches for reclining. These rooms were lavishly decorated, and in Pompeii at least, many looked out over the house's garden.  Slaves would bring course after course as the host attempted to impress his guests.  I say 'his' because originally it was only men who were allowed to dine and recline in this fashion, although women were eventually permitted to join in.  For the common-folk there were all manner of eating establishments along the streets; in some housing blocks such as at Ostia, the entire ground floor was a tavern, a place where the common folk could mingle, eat, and drink.  Obviously, eating out all the time was impossible, so people tended to have access to portable braziers to cook their porridges and bread in whatever space was available to them.

What did they eat?

The Roman diet, from the earliest days of the kingdom to the last days of the empire, was cereal based - they loved their porridges and bread.  For those who could afford them, vegetables (onion, garlic, cabbage), legumes (chick-peas, lentils, beans), and maybe even fruit (grapes, figs, apples) made a nice addition.  Olive oil played a prominent role, and was the main source of fat in the diet, with cheese added when available.

You might have noticed the distinct lack of meat in this diet - meat was a luxury unavailable to most.  For those who could afford it, the favourite meat by far was pork, with poultry and game also featuring heavily.  People made the most of their meat, with kidney, liver, tongue, and brain all being used.  Fish was eaten, but because it was expensive it was eaten only rarely.  Garum, or fish sauce on the other hand...

It is said that "the Romans disliked the natural tastes of most cooked foods" and loved to over-season their meals with spices and sauces.1  Whether this reputation is deserved, we shall find out.

And drink?

Beer was for barbarians - in Rome, wine was what mattered.  Everybody drank wine, albeit of varying quality - slaves, soldiers, and senators alike.  The wine of the slaves and soldiers was more like vinegar than wine, but this was not a massive problem since the Romans tended to drink their wine diluted.  Drinking undiluted wine was, like beer drinking, a sign of the barbarian.

How did they eat?

Roman food was all a bit fingers and toes, with feet and hands being washed before the meal.  Spoons were used for some foods, but typically it was just a case of grabbing it with your fingers and shovelling it into your mouth.  Flat breads, not unlike naan bread, were also used to pick up bits and pieces.  The slaves would take care of the mess.

Who made it all?

Unlike in Greek society where cooks had some renown, in Rome they were "nameless and without reputation".2  The Romans had this idea of what a respectable man may and may not do, and whilst writing treatises on agriculture and cooking was acceptable, actually getting involved in it was not.  The Roman orator Cicero says:

"Those trades which are the servants of physical pleasure are to be thought least proper - the fishmongers, butchers and cooks."3

So, in elite households at least, cooking was done by the slaves.  The everyday man, however, having no such luxury, just had to get stuck in and do it himself.


1. 'Food and Drink', in Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A., (eds.), Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd Edition, (Oxford, 2003)

2. Grainger, S., ‘The Myth of Apicius’, Gastronomica (2007), p.72

3. Cicero, de officiis, 1.150


Carcopino, J., Daily Life in Ancient Rome, (London, 1941)

Grainger, S., Cooking Apicius, (Totnes, 2006)

Grainger, S., ‘The Myth of Apicius’, Gastronomica (2007), pp.71-77

'Food and Drink', in Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A., (eds.), Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd Edition, (Oxford, 2003)

'Meals', in Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A., (eds.), Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd Edition, (Oxford, 2003)