Monday, 25 February 2013

Punic Wars and Porridge (Part 2 of 6)

On the eve of the Second Punic War we left Carthage in a position of considerable power - in control of the sea, in control of Spain's wealth, in control of valuable trade routes, and with thousands of troops bearing down on Italy.  This 'prosperity' is reflected in our recipe for the week - Punic Porridge.

This recipe comes from our old favourite, Marcus Portius Cato, who happened to be alive at the time.  There is no way to verify whether it is an authentic 'Punic' porridge recipe, but compared to the everyday porridge of the Romans (as we shall see next week), it is suitably opulent and worthy of wealthy Carthaginian merchants.

So, as you read on, imagine Hannibal, his men, and his elephants, all tucking into a final bowl of this before setting off over the Alps.

Punic Porridge
(serves 1)

For Punic Porridge; soak 1 lb of groats in water until soft.  When soft, pour into a clean bowl, and add 3 lbs of cheese, 1/2 lb of honey, and one egg.  Mix everything, and place it in a new pot. - Cato, de agricultura, 85


  • 30g Semolina
  • 90g Ricotta Cheese
  • 1 tbsp Honey
  • 1 Egg


  • Pour enough water over the semolina to cover it, and leave to sit for 10/15 minutes.  When it has softened, drain the remaining water away.
  • Add this to a saucepan with the cheese and the honey.  Break the egg into a dish and beat it - add half of this to the pan.
  • Heat thoroughly, but never allow the porridge to boil.  If it is too thick, add a touch of milk or water.  When heated, taste and add more honey if desired.  Serve immediately, with some extra honey poured over the porridge for good measure.


  • Groats are simply the hulled grains of cereals, containing the whole grain.  I used semolina, but it is perhaps best to use bulgur wheat.


Punic Porridge was certainly a rich porridge, thanks to the egg and the significant quantities of cheese used in its preparation.  Because Ricotta is very mild, however, there was no 'cheesy' flavour to the dish.  If anything, the dominant flavours are that of the semolina and the honey.

Was there anything distinctly Punic about this porridge?  Well, that's hard to say, as we know so little about Carthaginian cuisine and culture.  As far as plain porridge goes, however, this is certainly a very luxurious way to make it, and one very befitting of a people with the resources of the known world at their disposal.

Punic Wars and Porridge (Part 1 of 6)

As much as I love a good bowl of porridge in the morning, even I must admit that it's boring.  In terms of boring, it's up there with cauliflower, plain pasta, and white sauce.  How, then, am I supposed to write about two porridge recipes, without sending you all off to sleep?  The answer is to combine these two porridge recipes (and an exciting-but-top-secret-third recipe) with the story of Rome's conquest of Carthage - the Punic Wars.  This is my absolute favourite part of history, and it is one in which I think food plays quite a major role.  But, before we get into all that, just who were the Carthaginians?


The map above shows the extent of both Carthaginian and Roman territory in 218 B.C. - just prior to the 2nd Punic War.  In the Red Corner we have Rome, occupying much - but not all - of modern day Italy.  In the Purple Corner we have Carthage, occupying just about everywhere else.

Carthage started life as a Phoenician colony, but it very soon came into its own.  Its people were a mercantile people, creating and controlling the trade networks of the western Mediterranean. (1)  Their influence stretched along the coast of north Africa and into Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily.  If you needed carpets, rugs, dyes, jewellery, pottery, lamps, tapestry, timber, hides, food, or wine, chances are that there was a Carthaginian merchant who could get them for you.  This trade was protected by Carthaginian control of the sea - they had a formidable navy - and it was this control which brought Carthage into conflict with others. (2)

Carthage and Conflict

First Punic War

It was Carthage's interest in Sicily which worried people most.  When Rome was still young, Sicily and southern Italy were colonised by the Greeks, and for centuries the Greeks and Carthaginians fought on and off for control of the island.  Initially, Rome stayed out of it, even going so far as to sign two treaties with the Carthaginians saying as much.  When southern Italy became Roman, however, they realised that Carthage was a little too close for comfort.  Under the pretence of helping their 'friends' in Sicily, Rome declared war on Carthage - thus began the First Punic War.­­ (3)

When you think of the Roman military you think of armour clad soldiers with sword and spear and shield - a Roman navy doesn't really spring to mind.  In 264 B.C. this vision is especially true, as the Romans had very few ships indeed.  Needless to say, when their handful of ships came up against the Carthaginian fleet, they were destroyed.  However, if nothing else, the Romans were quick to adapt; realising that their strength lay in their infantry, they engineered and equipped their boats with a corvus.  The corvus, meaning 'crow', was a platform which would swing down and pierce the enemy's deck (like a crow's beak, hence the name); this let the Romans turn naval combat, with which they struggled, into infantry combat, at which they excelled.  By 241 B.C. Carthage was defeated, and sent packing back to Africa.  Forced to give up valuable territories to Rome, and made to pay 96 tonnes of silver to Rome,  Carthage was humiliated.

Second Punic War

With a fortune to pay and none of Sicily's resources to pay it with, Carthage turned its eyes towards Spain, a country rich in silver and gold.  Spain allowed the Carthaginians to reclaim some of its lost pride, but many still had nothing but contempt for the Romans.  According to Livy, one such person was Hannibal Barca; as a child, "(Hannibal swore), with his hand laid on the (sacrificial) victim that as soon as he possibly could he would show himself the enemy of Rome". (4) This account is doubtless made up, but it illustrates very nicely the point that with Carthage on the rise once more, another clash with the Romans was almost inevitable.

In 218 B.C., with Carthage once again getting too close to Roman interests, Rome declared war.  By this stage, however, Hannibal was already approaching the Alps with some tens of thousands of soldiers (and 37 war elephants), ready to descend on Italy.  Rome was in trouble.


1) Polybius, 6.56.1
2) Polybius, 6.52.1
3) Polybius, 1.10.1
4) Livy, 21.1

Monday, 18 February 2013

Cabbage - Three Ways (part 2 of 2)

I'm sure that by now last week's cabbage recipe has gone down a treat, and you've all had the chance to witness those health benefits for yourself.  If, however, you're not yet as keen for cabbage as Cato, then I hope that with this week's recipes, you will be.  In all honesty, last week's recipe was the weakest of the three.  Of these two, the first is enjoyable, but the second is truly spectacular, convincing me that it is the Romans, and not us, who have it right when it comes to cooking cabbage.

Cumin and Coriander Cabbage
(serves 1)

Mash cabbage leaves and season them with coriander, onion, cumin, pepper, raisin wine (passum) or condensed wine (defrutum), and a little olive oil. - Apicius, 3.ix.3


  • 1/3 Cabbage
  • 1/4 Small Onion
  • 1/4 tsp Cumin Seeds
  • 1/4 tsp Black Peppercorns
  • 1 tbsp Raisin Wine
  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 1 tbsp Baking Soda


  • Add the baking soda to boiling water before adding the washed and chopped up cabbage.  It should take just 3 or 4 minutes to cook.  Reserve some of the cooking liquid, but drain the rest away and set the cabbage to the side.
  • Heat up a frying pan, and toast the cumin and peppercorns until they start to release their aroma.  Remove them from the pan and grind with a mortar and pestle.
  • Chop the onion and add it to the pan with a bit of the cabbage cooking liquid.
  • When the onions are cooked (again, just a few minutes), add the ground spices, the raisin wine, the olive oil, the chopped coriander, and finally the cabbage.  Let this cook for a few minutes, allowing some of the liquid to evaporate.
  • Dish up!


This cabbage certainly looks a lot more appetising than the red mush which was the last recipe, but by Jupiter is it spicy!  The cabbage, which we're used to eating boiled and bland (think school dinners), has developed quite the kick when cooked this way.  In Apicius this recipe was simply cabbage 'another way', but so prominent are the cumin and coriander that I feel they deserve a place in the title.  One MASSIVE thing to note is that this dish is entirely lacking in fish sauce!

Roast Cabbage Stalks
(also serves 1)

Place the cooked stalks in a baking dish.  Add some fish sauce and oil, season with cumin, and sprinkle with ground pepper, leeks, and chopped green coriander. - Apicius, 3.ix.2


  • Cabbage Stalks
  • 2 Inches of Leek
  • 1.5 tbsp Fresh Coriander
  • 1/2 tsp Black Peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp Cumin Seeds
  • 1 tbsp Fish Sauce
  • 2 tbsp Olive Oil


  • When preparing some of the other cabbage recipes, cut away the thick stalks running through the centre of the leaves.  Chop these in half lengthways.
  • Cut the bottom 2 inches off a leek, and chop it up finely.  Mix the leeks with the cabbage stalks, and steam however you see fit.  I opted for the metal colander over a saucepan of boiling water approach.
  • Chop up the coriander, toast and grind the peppercorns and cumin seeds, and pop the lid off your fish sauce and olive oil.  When the leeks and cabbage stalks are ready, put them in a baking dish.  Pour/sprinkle everything else over them, ensuring that they are well coated.
  • Put the baking dish in an oven at 180 Celsius for 20 minutes.
  • When finished, sprinkle with a bit more black pepper, and enjoy.


With a little bit of love and attention, the stalks become the best thing about the cabbage.  Thanks to the fish sauce and the leeks, these are a salty, savoury treat well worth the making.  I was actually taken aback by how enjoyable they were, and only wish I'd made more to eat!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Cabbage - Three Ways (part 1 of 2)

I asked some of you readers what you wanted to see more of on the site, and the overwhelming answer was recipes using seasonal ingredients.  Well Garum Lovers, I'm sure you'll be excited to learn that cabbage is currently in season, and we're going to be cooking a whole lot of it!  One person who would be excited to hear this news is our dear old friend Cato the Elder.  Cato was such a fan of cabbage that he wrote an entire chapter in de agri cultura about it!

Cato wrote of cabbage's medicinal properties, rather than its culinary, and some of the highlights include:

  • Dodgy bowels?  Eat cabbage!
  • Can't pee?  Eat cabbage!
  • Sword wound?  Wrap it in cabbage!
  • Dislocation?  Drink cabbage juice!
  • Clogged arteries?  Tried cabbage?
  • Going drinking?  Cabbage please!
  • Drunk?  Cabbage will help!

Bearing all this in mind, after you've tried this week's and next week's recipes, you'll be a paragon of health.  We have three recipes to get through, two involving the leaves and one involving the stalks.  They come from Apicius, where no mention is made of cabbage's medical properties; perhaps the Romans soon learned that it was better to wear armour into battle, rather than relying on cabbage for help.  Now, our first recipe is as follows:

Cook the cabbage in soda water, then squeeze all the water out.  Chop the cabbage up finely.  Crush and add pepper, lovage, satury, and onions, followed by fish sauce, olive oil, and raisin wine. - Apicius, 3.15.1

If you do not have lovage, feel free to substitute finely chopped celery instead.  As for 'satury', even dependable Google failed to find out what it actually is.  Until such times as we know, it's getting left out.

Sweet Cabbage


  • 1/3 Cabbage
  • 1/4 Onion
  • 1/2 tsp Lovage Seeds
  • 1/2 tsp Black Peppercorns
  • 1/2 tbsp Fish Sauce
  • 1/2 tbsp Baking Soda
  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 30ml Raisin Wine (Passum)


  • Add the baking soda to a pan of water, and bring to the boil.  The idea behind this is that it keeps the cabbage green, but the downside is that it breaks the cabbage's cells down, making it a bit more mushy.
  • After washing the cabbage, chop up the leaves quite roughly, and boil them in the soda water for 3 or 4 minutes.  Don't over do it.
  • Remove the cabbage, and chop it up finely.
  • Grind up the black pepper and the lovage seeds, chop up the onion, pour in the fish sauce, oil, and wine, and add them all to a pan with the cabbage.  Cook it until the onions are done, and serve.


This wasn't the most visually appealing dish, as the passum turned the onions red, but in terms of taste it was excellent.  The cabbage was remarkably sweet, with a subtle spiciness coming from the pepper and bitterness from the lovage.  The lovage bestowed upon the dish a celery after-taste.  My only suggestion for improvement might be to use a clear dessert wine, or to just use less of it.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Lovage Seed

Lovage (Levisticum officinale)

The seed of the Lovage plant is reckoned by Grainger to be the single most common spice in Apicius. Whilst seed, root, and leaves are all edible, they are not commonly found in modern cuisine.  In Roman cuisine it is the seed, typically 'pounded with pepper', which we are interested in.  Despite its seeming necessity in Roman cooking, the ancient authors have little say, except Pliny the Elder who tells us that:

Lovage grows wild in the mountains of Liguria, its native country, but at the present day it is grown everywhere. - Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 19.50


Celery, celery, celery is the overwhelming flavour.  When ground up, it is also the overwhelming smell.  Where lovage seed differs from celery is in its bitterness, but this is not particularly overpowering.  I believe Lovage seed serves the same purpose in Roman cooking as celery does in Italian.  Italian cooking typically involves creating a Battuto or Soffritto, which provides a strong flavour base for the rest of the ingredients.

Finding it

For something once so popular, Lovage seed is a nightmare to find.  If you have a spice market or health-food shop nearby, then you might get lucky, but otherwise the answer is to hop online.  Be warned, there is a similar-but-not-quite-the-same spice called ajwain which is often sold under the name Lovage.
I've recommended buying so few seeds for two reasons.  Firstly, you can try the real thing, then quickly move on to the alternatives listed below.  Secondly, if you're still keen to use actual Lovage seed, then it only takes a few to grow one.  That's what I'm doing, following this advice.  Sowing time is February/March.


Celery - Crush some in a mortar and pestle, or blitz it in a processor.
Celery Salt - Celery salt is, rather surprisingly, made from Lovage seeds!

Asafoetida (Silphium)

Asafoetida (Silphium)

Let us start with Silphium, a spice so popular that its picture ended up on a coin, and so valuable that the Romans stored it in their public treasury.  Silphium grew only in a very small tract of land in ancient Cyrenaica (modern-day Libya), appearing, according to Pliny the Elder, after a mysterious black rain fell upon the land. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 19.15)  Just as quickly as it appeared, however, it vanished.  The same passage of Pliny puts this down to over-grazing by the local sheep, and because it apparently could not be cultivated.  Whatever the reason, Silphium soon became a relic of the past:

Within living memory, only one stalk has been found, being sent to the Emperor Nero as a 'curiosity'. - Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 19.15

Bad Nero, eating the last of our Silphium like that.  However, whilst we might never experience the supposedly sensational taste of Silphium itself, we do have access to its inferior cousin, Asafoetida.  As Silphium slipped from Rome's grasp, Asafoetida, a poor substitute for the real thing, soon came to be called by that name.  Given that most the Apicius recipes were collected after Silphium had vanished, it is Asafoetida that they call for, and it is Asafoetida which we shall use.


Asafoetida doesn't exactly scream 'add me to your food', as it smells like an extremely pungent garlic/leek/onion crossover.  The flavour, like the smell, is  a combination of these three ingredients, and adds a savoury quality to food.  Asafoetida is rarely used in isolation, and is instead added to help harmonise other ingredients in a dish, a task which it performs well.

Finding it

If you're after Silphium, note that, according to Pliny, it makes sheep fall asleep and goats sneeze.  If your goats aren't sneezing, and your sheep are still jumping fences, then you might just have to settle for Asafoetida.  Luckily, Asafoetida is readily available; just check the spices at your local supermarket.  It is also sold as 'Hing' in Indian and Asian food stores if you happen to have any nearby.


  • Leek - whilst it shares qualities with garlic, onion, and leek, it is leek which has the savoury undertones most closely matching Asafoetida.  Make sure to chop it up finely.
  • Garlic Salt
  • Onion Powder

Friday, 8 February 2013


Rue (Ruta graveolens)

A commonplace ingredient in Roman cooking, Rue is also the national herb of Lithuania, a literary symbol of regret, and, according to Pliny the Elder, a great weapon against caterpillar attacks (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 19.45). In the same passage Pliny also says that the Romans "held Rue in peculiar esteem", which, given its regular occurrence in Apician recipes, I can well believe.  Before you decide to fight off caterpillars or honour any Lithuanian heritage you might have, I need you to err on the side of caution.


  • Picking fresh Rue without gloves can cause lovely blisters.
  • Rue is toxic in large quantities, causing everything from tummy ache to liver failure.  If you want to be completely scared off, check out this page of possible side-effects.
  • FOR WOMEN: Rue can induce abortion and menstruation.  Do not eat if pregnant.  

Basically, don't go eating bowlfuls of the stuff, stick to whatever measures are suggested, and don't even think of touching it if you are even just the tiniest bit pregnant.  How people even discovered that this was edible, I do not know.


You know that stuff you put on your nails to stop you biting them?  It tastes like that.  Rue is extremely bitter.  This bitterness helps to tone down the characteristic sweetness of Roman foods.

Finding it

After months of visiting garden centres, herbalists, and spice stalls I finally found this herb in a shop in Durham Marketplace (Pauline's Health Cabin for all who fancy a visit, or you can send an email to  I would recommend searching local herbalists in the hopes of finding some Rue.  Other than that, the only alternative is to buy some seeds online, and grow it yourself.


Rue is as bitter as anything I've ever tasted, and it is hard to suggest an alternative.  Besides adding anti nail-biting polish to your Roman masterpiece, you might consider:

  • Dandelion Leaves

Passum (Raisin Wine)

Passum (Raisin Wine)

Passum, a raisin wine supposedly originating in Carthage, was one of several sweeteners which the Romans added to their food.  If Polybius is to be believed, it was also a girly drink.  He writes that "among the Romans women are forbidden to drink wine; and they drink what is called passum." (Polybius, Histories, Fragments, 4.6.2)  Its manufacture sounds particularly complicated - see Columella, De agricultura, 12.39 (or click here if you fancy) for a lengthy description.


Rather unsurprisingly, Passum is a wine which tastes like raisins!  It is an almost sickeningly sweet wine, not unlike most dessert wines, so is best suited to cooking, where its flavour is tempered by other ingredients.

Finding it

Prepare to fork out an absolute fortune if you want the real thing.  If you're that way inclined, look out for wines with 'vin santo', 'passito', or 'straw wine' in the name.  Otherwise, let's make some cheat's Passum for ourselves:

  • 1 Pint Red or White Wine
  • 100g Raisins

  • Add the raisins to the wine, then cover.  Leave for 3 days, allowing the raisins to swell.
  • When the raisins have swollen, blend them with the wine.
  • Pour this mixture through a sieve, squeezing as much liquid out of the raisin pulp as possible.
  • Bottle it up - you're good to go!


The above method for making Passum is cheaper than any alternative wine might be, so unless you have some dessert wine going spare, I suggest making a batch.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Pass The Garum Plans

Hello Garum Lovers!

It's been a few weeks since the last new recipe, and I figure I ought to keep you all up to date.  Generally I try to keep any information posts such as this off the website and put them on the Facebook page and Twitter feeds instead, but this one is quite important, so should be seen by all.  As a side note, I really encourage everybody to check out the Facebook page as that's where you can get in touch and get the latest updates.

In the 4 months that Pass The Garum has been around, the site has had some 33,000 unique visitors.  For something as niche as Roman recipe recreation, that figure is quite astounding (that's about 10,000 more people than there were living in Pompeii at the time of the eruption).  Every passing week brings more and more new followers, coming from all corners of the web.  However, because blogs bury older posts, it means that many recipes and recreations are going unseen.  As such, for the last few weeks, I've been trying to work out a way to improve the site, and make everything that little bit more accessible.  This (and a combination of work, travel, and research) is why there have been no new recipes recently.

I have received some great feedback from you lot, and have identified three areas for improvement:

1) You want an 'ingredients' tab, providing information about the more obscure herbs, spices, sauces, and seasoning.  Due to the way Blogger works, implementing this will be a bit awkward, but doable.  I have to create separate posts for each ingredient.  These will be made accessible thanks to the next change:

2) There will be a new menu tab added.  This tab will provide easy access to each and every post.  The food will be listed by courses, and the ingredients alphabetically.

3) You want recipes that use seasonable ingredients, and which correspond to Roman festivals and rituals.  Cabbage is in season - lucky you!

4) You want more history posts to build up a picture of dining in the ancient world.

Over the next week or so I'm going to start making the changes which you want to see, and once these are done, we'll be back to the recipes.  As a matter of fact, my Apician Pear Patina is ready to come out of the oven, so I best be off.

Bread and Circuses till next time,