Monday, 29 April 2013

Mackerel with Cumin, Cheese, and Oil

Last week we opened up a whole new world of possibility when we discovered that you can indeed cook fish and cheese together to good effect.  This week we're going to try and see just how good that combination can be.

The original recipe calls for bream from Carthage or Byzantium, but if bream is unavailable to you, or if your local Byzantine merchant can't get his hands on any, then feel free to settle for another type of fish as I have.  It also calls for a clay oven, which, unless you're an experimental archaeologist, I'm guessing you won't have (in fact, very few Romans had them as well!).

Mackerel with Cumin, Cheese, and Oil
(Serves 1 as main, or several as a starter)

"When you're by the sea at Carthage, bake some bream after washing it well.  You'll find great big bream in Byzantium too, their bodies the size of round shields!  Work with the fish whole.  Once you have coated the fish with cheese and oil, hang it up in a hot clay oven and bake it through.  Once done, sprinkle with cumin and salt, and drench it with divine grey-green oil." - Archestratus fr. 13, as recorded in Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 320b-c


  • 1 Fresh Mackerel (or Fillets) 
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1/2 tsp Cumin Seeds
  • Some Hard Italian Cheese (Gran Padano, Parmesan, Pecorino Romano)
  • 4 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil


  • The recipe does specifically say to use the whole fish, but you don't have to if it's too much hassle.  If, like me, you have chosen to use a whole fish, prepare it accordingly by following the advice in this video.  With the head chopped off, spine removed, and fish laid out flat, it's on to the next step.
  • Grate as much cheese as you think it might take to cover the whole fish.  You're supposed to cover it on both sides, but feel free to just cover the top if it is easier.  Mix this cheese with 3 tbsp of the olive oil, creating a paste.  Spread this on the fish.
  • Lay out some parchment paper on a baking tray, and set the fish onto this.  If you don't have parchment paper, brush the tray with olive oil.  Place this into an oven preheated to 180 Celsius.
  • Whilst the fish is in the oven, toast the cumin seeds in a dry frying pan until they start to give off an aroma.  Grind them up and mix with the salt.  If it's easier, use pre-ground cumin.
  • After 20 minutes in the oven, your fish should be wonderfully cooked.  Take it out and sprinkle with the cumin/salt mixture; a big pinch should do it.  Drizzle with the remaining spoonful of olive oil, and serve it up to your hungry guests.


This has quickly catapulted its way to the top of the ancient fish dish pile, and I reckon it might just be one of my favourite ancient recipes so far.  Last week we learnt that fish and cheese can work well, but on the whole it was just that bit too rich and oily.  The kick of the cumin sees to that nicely, imparting a wonderful fragrance and spiciness.  If ever you want an example of how fish and cheese can work well, give this recipe a go.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Baked Mackerel and Cheese

The kitchen can be a bit hectic whilst cooking four fishy recipes at once, so I maybe possibly forgot to take a proper picture of this dish.  Still, whilst the above snap might not be the best looking, you can see enough to know that this week, we're drowning our mackerel in cheese.

Listen!  Do you hear that?  That's the sound of millions of Italians gasping in horror!  And what's that? Why, it's the chef from Philemon's Soldier complaining once more about fish 'drugged senseless with cheese'.  See, for some reason, fish and cheese just isn't done - cookbooks warn against it, and restaurants never offer it.  Thus, it is with some hesitancy that I approach this week's recipe.  Should we be worried?  Did the fish-lovers of ancient Athens really have it all wrong?  There's only one way to find out.

Baked Mackerel and Cheese
(Serves 1 as a main, or several as a starter)

"Cook:  Do you know how to cook mackerel?
Slave: I would if you'd just tell me!
Cook: Cut out the gills, wash it, chop off the fins and spines, then split it in half and spread it out nicely.  Whip it well with silphium, then cover it in cheese, salt, and marjoram."

-Alexis 138, as recorded in Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 322c-d


  • 1 Fresh Mackerel (or Un-Smoked Mackerel Fillets)
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Asafoetida
  • Some Hard Italian Cheese (Gran Padano, Parmesan, Pecorino Romano)
  • Fresh or Dried Marjoram or Rosemary


  • For this dish it's best to use the whole fish, skin and all, rather than just the fillets.  You want to chop the head off, take out the spine, and lay the fish out flat, skin side down.  For an idea of how to handle mackerel, please watch this video.
  • Sprinkle the salt and asafoetida all over the fish.
  • Grate as much cheese as is needed to cover the little critter.  Roughly mix this cheese with whatever herbs you've decided to use, and set atop the fish.
  • Onto a greased baking tray, and into a preheated oven for 15-20 minutes at 180 Celsius.  Job done!


To all those waiting with baited breath, scared that the cheese would overpower the fish, you can relax.  Your fears about combining these two ingredients were, in this case at least, unfounded.  It was still very apparent that this was mackerel we were eating, the fishiness not lost to the pungency of the asafoetida and cheese.  All in all it tasted nice, but just nice - this isn't something to write home about.  I think part of the reason was that the dried herbs got lost somewhere along the way, when really they should have been there to cut through the oiliness of the whole affair.  For future efforts I would be inclined to use fresh rosemary instead. Baked Mackerel and Cheese is certainly worth a try, if only the once.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Mackerel in a Coriander Crust

The Podcast History recently set sail across the sea and arrived on the shores of ancient Greece, so to celebrate, I'm going to cook up a seafood feast.  Fish was something which the Ancient Greeks loved.  For some of them, when it comes to fish, simplicity is key.  A chef in Philemon's Soldier says:

"How tender was the fish before me!  What a dish I made of it!  Not drugged senseless with cheese, nor window-boxed with dandifying herbs, it emerged from the oven as naked as the day it was born." - Philemon, The Soldier, fr. 82

Whilst in Morocco, I had the chance to eat fish (lots of fish!) freshly caught, prepared, and grilled in front of me, and it was divine!  Philemon's chef has it right - simplicity works - but it's hardly very exciting for you if I just throw a kipper under the grill.  So, even though this first recipe has some of those 'dandifying herbs' we're told to avoid, and even though it's an Apician recipe, it is still remarkably simple, and would have appealed to the simple tastes of the chef above.

Mackerel in a Coriander Crust
(Serves 1 as a main, or several as a starter)

"Carefully prepare the fish.  In a mortar and pestle, crush up some coriander seeds and salt, making sure to mix them well.  Roll the fish around in this mixture, cover it, and bake it in the oven.  When it's ready, sprinkle it with a strong vinegar and serve." - Apicius, 10.1.4


  • 1 Fresh Mackerel (or Un-Smoked Mackerel Fillets)
  • 50g Coriander Seeds
  • 1 tbsp Salt
  • White Wine Vinegar


  • If you're using a whole mackerel, you need to fillet it.  Here's a video showing you how to do just that.  This can be quite tricky, so feel free to have a fish-monger do it for you, or just buy pre-cut mackerel fillets instead.
  • Next, grind up the coriander seeds and the salt - I used my trusty mortar and pestle to do this.  Make sure everything is well mixed together.
  • Pat the fish dry and coat it in this mixture - just like bread-crumbing a fish.  I didn't use quite enough when I was preparing mine, so use a bit more than in the picture below.

  • Place the fillets on an oiled baking tray and pop this in the oven at 180 Celsius for 15-20 minutes.
  • Once it comes out of the oven, pour a little white wine vinegar over each fillet to moisten it.  After that, dig in and enjoy.


Superbly simple to prepare, and immensely enjoyable to eat.  Coriander seed has a delicious citrusy taste, which shines through wonderfully.  It also helps to cut through the oiliness of the fish, making this dish feel very light and fresh.  Adding vinegar whilst serving adds a slight tang, but doesn't overwhelm the coriander flavours.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Something Fishy This Way Comes

After a week of waxing lyrical about 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum', it's back to business, or rather back to the kitchen.  To coincide with the Podcast History of the World's introduction to the Greeks, in response to several requests on Twitter, Facebook, and via email, and simply because it's about time, we're going to spend the next month cooking up some fish!  The first three recipes are Greek, prepared with the frugality characteristic of their cuisine.  Each dish kicks it up a notch, adding a little bit more and a little bit more, until we come to our final fishy feast, which is Roman.  So far we've only encountered fish fermented and poured from a bottle - we know the ancients loved that, but what did they make of the real thing?

"What other craft gets youthful lips burning, gets their fingers fumbling, has their lungs gasping for air, in their haste to swallow?  And isn't it only when it's well-supplied with fish that the agora brings about liaisons?" - Anaxandrides, Odysseus, fr. 34 K-A

What we learn from Anaxandrides, who describes the fish-monger and his art in almost sexual terms, is that it is fish which brings people to the market, and fish which gets them excited.  Given that the Greeks populated rocky outcrops and rugged islands, it shouldn't be surprising that many of them relied on the sea for food, and the reverence with which they speak about fish becomes all the more understandable.  Fish pervades not just Greek cuisine, but Greek literature and language too.  To get a sense of just how much this is true, I implore you to pick up a copy of James Davidson's excellent 'Courtesans and Fishcakes', a book which explores 'the consuming passions of classical Athens'.

Fish Mosaic from Pompeii

Many modern commentators like to stress that Rome wasn't quite so taken with fish as the Greeks; sometimes they even paint a picture of Romans turning their noses up at seafood!  Quite honestly, I am not sure where this attitude stems from, as Apicius alone has close to one hundred seafood recipes.  However, since Rome had plenty of fertile fields (in contrast to the mountainous, rocky Greek countryside), it wasn't quite so reliant on the sea as the Greeks were.  Thus, at Roman dinner parties, fish is usually served as an appetizer, with meats such as pork taking centre stage.  Still, you only have to look at the mosaic above to know that the Romans, too, were rather fond of the fishies.  Hopefully you will be too!

Friday, 12 April 2013

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum - The Book

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Paul Roberts

British Museum: £25 (With free copy of 'Art in Pompeii and Herculaneum')
British Museum Website: £25
Amazon (UK): £16

In this final post on the British Museum's 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' exhibition, we turn to look at the accompanying book of the same name.  This hefty volume, written by the exhibition curator, Paul Roberts, is a work of art well worth the asking price.  Over the course of 320 glossy pages, Roberts reconstructs the daily lives of the people who once inhabited Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The objects of the exhibition feature heavily in the form of 400 photographs and figures, used to great effect to illustrate points and support arguments.  For the academic and the intrigued, footnotes are used extensively, allowing you to follow up on Roberts' assertions and get into the nitty gritty of Roman history.  For this reason, the book is a must-have for both casual readers and academics alike.

After beginning with a brief introduction of the Vesuvian sites, we are taken inside the city walls and dropped off outside a Roman house.  Throughout the course of the book, Roberts acts as our guide, starting first with the shops, then the atrium, the bedroom, the garden, the dining room, the kitchens, toilets, and baths.  The book's real emphasis is on life inside the Roman household - sure, we're told about how the rooms were decorated, but we're also told how people might dress or do their hair, or who did the cooking and how they did it.  Everybody gets a look in, from the slaves and urban poor to the merchants and magistrates who ruled the towns.  We finish, as might be expected, with a chapter on the eruption, meeting some of those unfortunate souls who fell victim to the volcano's blast.

Benefiting from beautiful pictures, a wealth of scholarship, and the most up-to-date research, 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' provides one of the best introductions to both the Vesuvian sites and day-to-day Roman life I've yet encountered.  If you can visit the exhibition, this book builds beautifully upon what you've already seen.  For those who can't, it's a worthy alternative to trekking to London, showing you the best that the exhibition has to offer without the hustle and bustle of the crowds.  With so much on offer, it's all too easy to lose a few hours turning page after page after page.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum - Highlights

With hundreds of items on display, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is a treasure trove for anybody with even the slightest bit of interest in Roman history.  This makes picking 'highlights' rather difficult.  To make things easier, and because this is a Roman food website, my first five items are related to Roman wining and dining.  To show that there's more to life than just food, however, I've included three bonus objects at the bottom.  To all those lucky enough to attend, have fun hunting them out.  To all those unable to go, here's a taste of what is on show:

1) Placentarius - Cake Tray

© Trustees of the
British Museum
I can only imagine the laughs that this cheeky little chap got as he was carried out after dinner, laden with all the honey stuffed dates and sweet treats you could ever want.  With one foot forward and a wry smile on his face, you get the impression that he was trying to run away with dessert.  Clearly caught out, he looks up at the diner, hand raised in defence as if to say, "Me?  Steal dessert? Never!"  Others imagine that he is singing the praises of whatever treats he happened to be carrying.  Either way, grab what you can before he's gone!

2) Carbonised Food

As good as any Roman recipe is, this is the only actual Roman food you're ever going to see.  On display are the carbonised and mineralised remains of the figs, dates, nuts, and grains used to prepare meals in the two cities' final days.  Holding pride of place amongst the over-cooked foods is the carbonised loaf of bread found in Herculaneum.  It is stamped 'Property of Celer, slave of Quintus Granius Verus'. Does this stamp tell us that Celer worked in Granius' bakery and baked the bread, or does it tell us that the finished loaf was to be collected by the slave?  It's hard to say.  For a Roman food lover, these items are invaluable - for example, they confirmed that the grain resembled semolina or bulgur wheat, which is what we used when preparing ancient porridge.

3) Drinking Horn

Drinking was serious business in the ancient world; the vast array of drinking objects on display in this exhibition alone is testament to that!  There were amphorae for storing, jugs for pouring, jars for mixing, and cups, bowls, and horns for drinking.  At the wildest parties, according to Horace (Satires, II.6), one man was made the rex bibendi, or 'King of the Drinks', and could dictate how much, how often, and how quickly you drank.  Ten letters in your name?  That's ten cups for you!  Want to show off?  Why, drink from a horn of course!  At the exhibition you can find a fresco of a man doing just that, as well as the pictured drinking horn itself.

4) Skeleton Butler


The meaning of the Skeleton Butler is perhaps best illustrated by a story in Horace's Satires; in this story a mouse from the city tries to convince his country bumpkin rodent friend to abandon his hard life in the countryside, and to enjoy a life of wining and dining in the city.  The city mouse, a rather eloquent chap, says:

"All earthly creatures have been given mortal souls;
large or small they have no means of escaping death.
So, my dear friend,while there's still time, enjoy the good things
of life, and never forget your days are numbered." - Horace, Satires, II.6

We're all going to die, so why not enjoy life first?  With a skeleton pouring your next cup of wine, how could you possibly forget?

5) Glirarium - The Dormouse Jar


You have this great house at the bottom of a jar.  Even better, once a day a hand appears from the heavens and drops some acorns in at the top!  You roll out of your cosy straw nest, stretch a bit, and then scamper up to the top of the jar to get some treats.  Scampering is getting quite tough, as you're putting on a lot of weight, but that doesn't matter too much - you're living the dormouse dream.  That kind, gift-giving hand starts to reach into the jar again.  More treats already?  Not this time - before you can say 'squeak' you've been scooped up, thrown into a pan, covered in honey, peppered with poppy seeds, and gobbled up by some wealthy senator.  Your house, it turns out, was a glirarium, used solely to fatten up dormice for eating.

6) Furniture

When I first visited the Vesuvian sites, they moved me.  Until that point I was used to roving through ruins which were ankle-high and left an awful lot to the imagination, but here were the actual houses which people lived in, the brothels they loved in, the bakeries they ate in, and the baths they washed in. These buildings had  doors and stairs and decorations which people opened, climbed, and admired.  What I found most moving, however, was the furniture - something once touched by Roman hands - and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum has it in abundance.  There's a sturdy chest where the master of the house stored his documents and valuables; the chair his wife sat on when brushing her hair; the cradle in which his son lay, slept, and sadly died.  My favourite piece of furniture is the table shown - we see a similar one pictured in this fresco, laden with jugs of wine.  Charred and damaged this furniture might be, but there's a lot of life left in it yet.

7) Fresco of Terentius Neo and his wife

With history it is usually a case of us looking in at the past, but with this fresco we find two Romans staring back out at us.  Posing for us are Terentius Neo, a Pompeiian baker with a patchy beard, and his good lady wife.  Terentius has donned a toga, suggesting that he has embarked on a career in Pompeiian politics.  His wife wields a wax tablet, used by Romans for writing and recording the day's dealings - perhaps she took over the running of the bakery?  Whatever message the painter is trying to convey, I think that this fresco is a must-see, as it affords us a rare look at two real-life Roman citizens.

8) Pompeiian Plaster Casts

© Trustees of the British Museum

Nothing is so synonymous with Pompeii as the plaster casts of the dead.  When Vesuvius erupted, a column of ash rose into the air, growing higher and higher and higher still.  Eventually this column collapsed, and clouds of  hot gas and burning ash raged through the Campanian countryside as pyroclastic flows.  The one that hit Herculaneum was hot enough to burn bodies to the bone.  The one that hit Pompeii, however, was not.  Those that died lay as they fell, buried by ash and stone and volcanic debris.  This soon set, and although the bodies buried within decayed, their every little detail was imprinted in the ash.  The casts we see today were created when some bright spark decided to pour plaster, and later resin, into the hollows.  The British Museum is displaying several casts, ranging from a little doggy to a whole family.  By the time you get to the casts at the exhibition's end, you've seen the lives these people led, and if you're like me, you've grown quite fond of them.  To then stare into what would have been a father's eyes, or watch as his child claws at walls which are no longer there, is quite a harrowing and humbling experience.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum (British Museum Exhibition)

Last week I travelled to London to visit the much anticipated 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' exhibition at the British Museum.  Many of you messaged me, looking to know how it was, and whether or not it is worth trekking to London to see.  I figured that, over the course of three posts, I'd write a little bit about my visit and what I learnt from it.  This first post is a review of the exhibition as a whole - its content, its arrangement, and how it is to actually walk around.  It is followed by a post featuring some of my exhibition 'highlights' - needless to say this will have a culinary bent to it.  The final post will be review of the companion book, also called 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' - a worthy souvenir for all who visit the museum, and great alternative for those who can't.

The Essentials

  • Dates: 28th April - 29th September 2013
  • Price: £15 (Adults & Oldies), £12.50 (Students, Unemployed, Disabled, & Groups), Free (Members and U16s)
  • Online Ticket Booking - This is essential
  • No Photography :(

The Exhibition

I have been to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples twice, and can still safely say that this is the greatest collection of Roman artefacts I have ever seen - the museum in Naples must be awfully empty whilst this exhibition is on!

Photo: Soperintendenza Speciale per i beni Archelogici di Napoli e Pompei

'Life and Death' is a showcase of the domestic, something reflected in the very layout of the exhibition itself; everything is arranged according to the plans of a well-to-do Roman house.  You start off flanked by the shops commonly found at the front of Pompeiian houses, process into the atrium where the family showcased their wealth and pedigree, and are then free to wander into the more private bedroom, garden, and dining areas.  The exhibition ends with you fleeing this house, as the Pompeiians did in 79 A.D.  Pretty soon you start to find the money they dropped and the lamps they struggled to light, before catching up with them, or rather their plaster casts, at the exhibition's exit.

Photo: Soperintendenza Speciale per i beni
 Archelogici di Napoli e Pompei

The hundreds of items on show have been perfectly chosen, breathing life into the various rooms you wander through -  here is the beautifully crafted stool a Roman matrona sat on, and there is the elegant silver mirror she used when brushing her hair.  So many of these items are familiar to us today - toothpicks, razor blades, dice, perfume, spoons - which is why you can't help but feel a sense of attachment to the people who used them, and which is why the sight of their tortured forms at the exhibition's end is so heartbreaking.

Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

The Experience

The exhibition is undoubtedly a masterpiece - it brings the Roman world to life in a way which can be hard to do.  Unfortunately, my experience was far from perfect.  Despite the use of ticket-booking and time-slots, the exhibition was over-filled; even half the number of people would have been far too many.  My girlfriend and I were jostled from one artefact to the next, pushed around by tour-groups full of people who didn't want to be there, often unable to see items or read about them.  At times this exhibition felt more like a bad queue than an exploration of the Roman house.

However, whilst my experience was far from ideal, I still stand by all that I said above - this really is the best collection of Roman artefacts I have ever seen.  And, when the disgruntled and uninterested tourist with the big hair and two backpacks finally moves to the side, that glimpse of a silver spoon from Herculaneum really does make it all worth it.

Some Spoons
Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

My advice for all who want to visit 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' is to go, but to do so in the middle of the week at the start of the day when things are that little bit more quiet.  For those who can't make it, the exhibition book, also titled "Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum", is a stunning alternative.

Some Other Reviews

Monday, 1 April 2013

Nodi Ollae

Have you ever found yourself walking past a restaurant or bakery or food stall, only to be waylaid by the most amazing of smells or delicious of sights?  We should count ourselves very lucky that so many Roman recipes have survived for us to recreate - there are quite literally hundreds!  But sometimes, those recipes which didn't survive, or those which we only hear about in passing, can waylay us like the sights and smells described above.

One food in particular has remained an enigma for centuries - nodi ollae - and it is this recipe which I hope to recreate today.  For a recipe which we know next to nothing about, nodi ollae is mentioned quite frequently in literature.  Here are the most illuminating passages:

Rations for farm-workers: four modii of wheat in winter, with which to make the nodi ollae.  The overseer, housekeeper, foreman and shepherd should receive three. - Cato, De Agri Cultura, 56

Here we learn that wheat is an important ingredient, and that nodi ollae was deemed an appropriate meal to keep farm-hands going throughout the winter!  This wasn't just a winter food - when we look at the medical writings of Celsus, we learn that it was seen as the next best thing to a full meal:

If you have eaten a full meal at midday, avoid extremes of hot and cold and tiredness - these are more damaging to a full stomach than an empty.  If you find you cannot eat, nodi ollae will preserve you until such times as you can. - Celsus, De Medicina, 1.2.8

I could go on, repeating passage after passage as evidence; Augustus prides himself on making it available to senators who attended the races; Frontinus loves that Rome's aqueducts made it easier to prepare; Pliny the Elder even goes so far as to rate different types of cumin and laser based upon how they taste in nodi ollae. So what actually was it?  After several weeks of detective work I have worked out what I believe to be the definitive recipe for that ever-so-Roman of recipes - nodi ollae.

Nodi Ollae
(serves 1)


  • 90g Spelt Flour
  • 30 ml Water
  • 2 tbsp Fish Sauce
  • 2 tbsp Asafoetida
  • 3 tbsp Cumin Seeds
  • 1 tbsp Black Pepper
  • 1 Clove Garlic
  • 1/2 Small Onion
  • 1 tsp Dried Peas or Chickpeas


  • Toast the cumin seeds and grind them up with the pepper and asafoetida.
  • With the spices prepared, chop the onion up into the smallest pieces you can manage.  Crush and chop the garlic clove, and mix this with the onions.
  • Nodi Ollae translates as 'knots of the pot' - we have to make the 'knots' now.  To do this, sieve the spelt flour into a bowl.  Add the water, just a few drops at a time, and make a dough which is not too dry or not too sticky.
  • Flour a work-surface (plain flour will do) and roll the dough out so that it is about a millimetre thick.  You want to chop this dough into lots of little strips before it dries.  As the dough dries, the strips curl up and turn into the 'knots' you see below.  This process can take several hours, so sit back with a copy of Plautus' latest comedy and relax.

  • When they are ready, mix these 'knots' with the spices, onion, garlic, and the peas/chickpeas.  Add them to a casserole dish, pour over boiling water, and put into a preheated oven (180 Celsius) for just a few minutes.  When it is done, it should look something like this:
  • Once the boiling water has done its trick, add a few splashes of fish sauce and tuck in - April Fools!


  • Nodi Ollae, I am sorry to say, did not actually exist.  I made it up.  Cato, Celsus, Caesar - the lot.  Who knows what Rome might have achieved (or not) if they had Pot Noodles?
  • I don't actually know what culinary masterpiece (or disaster) this recipe will lead to!


How did this recipe turn out?  You can tell me on Facebook or Twitter!