Monday, 22 December 2014

Conditum Paradoxum - Spiced Wine

The scene above is probably frighteningly familiar to anybody who has had their Christmas work-do recently, and would probably be frighteningly familiar to many ancient Romans at this time of year.  We're currently in the midst of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a time of gift-giving and continual partying and drinking which ran from 17th - 23rd December in honour of Saturn, the god of time.

Whilst the above fresco does not depict Saturnalia, I've included it here for two reasons - in it we see Bacchus, the god of wine, and we also see a satyr drinking his fill from a bowl.  The Romans clearly loved the stuff, so I think it is high time we had a go at Roman wine for ourselves.  And what better recipe to start with than conditum paradoxum, an ancient spiced wine not dissimilar to mulled wine.

Unlike most Roman recipes, we have exact quantities for this drink, but because this will produce an industrial sized batch, I have reduced the amounts.  As I was just testing the recipe, my quantities are enough to produce a single glass - scale the amounts if you want a bottle's worth.  A point to note is that this wine is incredibly sweet, much like a dessert wine or mead.  We know that in ancient Rome it was uncommon to drink wine straight - it tended to be diluted with water.  If you find that you need to do this, then do so!  Finally, whilst it is unlikely that this was drunk whilst warm, I think that, much like mulled wine, it is well worth doing.

Conditum Paradoxum
(makes one glass)

"Put six sextarii of honey into a bronze jar containing two sextarii of wine, so that the wine will be boiled off as you cook the honey.  Heat this over a slow fire of dry wood, stirring with a wooden rod as it boils.  If it boils over, add some cold wine. Take off the heat and allow to cool.  When it does cool, light another fire underneath it.  Do this a second and a third time and only then remove it from the brazier and skim it.  Next, add 4 ounces of pepper, 3 scruples of mastic, a dragma of bay leaf and saffron, 5 date stones and then the dates themselves.  Finally, add 18 sextarii of light wine.  Charcoal will correct any bitter taste." - Apicius, 1.1


  • 187ml White Wine
  • 150g Honey
  • 2 Bay Leaves
  • 1/2 tsp Fennel Seeds (instead of mastic)
  • 1 tsp Black Pepper
  • Several Strands of Saffron
  • 1 Small Handful of Raisins or Dates


  • Add 75ml of wine and all of the honey to a saucepan - bring this to the boil so that the honey dissolves completely.  After several minutes, remove the pan from the heat.
  • Whilst the wine is still hot, add all of the other ingredients - this will help the flavours to infuse.  Place a lid on top of the pan to keep the heat in to prolong the process.
  • When this is cool, add the rest of the wine.  To serve, pour through a fine sieve - it will probably still be quite cloudy.  Taste for sweetness - if it is too sweet dilute with water or with more wine.  If you wish to have it hot, simply reheat in a pan!


Conditum paradoxum is an incredibly sweet wine which tastes largely of pepper and saffron.  The pepper means that the mixture is warming even when served cold.  The addition of fennel seeds results in aniseed undertones, but not so much as to be overpowering.  I think that without some form of dilution, whether in wine or water, conditum becomes sickly quite quickly. Overall, this is a luxurious drink which, when served warm, is perfectly suited to the cold winter months.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Bucellatum - Roman Army Hardtack

It's been quite some time since my last post - in that time I've travelled to Cambodia and back, started a new job and moved to a house with a very small kitchen.  In that time many of my Roman ingredients have gone off or gone missing, and I'm at a point where I have to start from the basics.  The very basics.  Where better to start, then, than with some simple soldiers' fare.

The late-Roman Codex Theodosianus, a compilation of Roman laws, states that during expeditions a Roman soldier should be supplied with "buccellatum ac panem, vinum quoque atque acetum, 
sed et laridum, carnem verbecinam." or "hardtack and bread, wine too and vinegar, but also bacon and mutton." (VII.4.6).  Soldiers were supposed to have the hardtack, mutton and vinegar for two days and then have a day of bread, wine and bacon.  We've already seen that the Romans turned vinegar into the refreshing drink posca, learned what bacon might be eaten with and discovered two different ways of baking bread.  But what of buccellatum?  What is hardtack?

Hardtack is a simple biscuit made from flour, salt and water.  As the name suggests, it is rock hard, baked twice at low temperatures for a very long time, ensuring that no moisture is left inside.  This makes bucellatum perfect for soldiering since without moisture it takes a long time to go off - ideal for prolonged campaigns in Britain where the weather would quickly spoil bread and flour.  Just as bucellatum was perfectly suited to soldiering, it was perfectly suited to soldiers too - a tooth lost to this rock hard biscuit was just another war wound.  In fact, so perfect was this match that Roman soldiers came to be known as bucellarii (Photius, Bibliotheca, 80).  The association between hardtack and the military continues long past ancient Rome, with hardtack being eaten by crusaders, Elizabethan sailors and by folks fighting in the American Civil War.

Bucellatum may have been eaten dry, soaked in posca or softened in a stew - no doubt soldiers found a variety of ways to make this staple more exciting.  Given how long it lasts, if you cook up a batch you can try new ways of preparing it for years to come.  Whilst there is no surviving recipe for Roman bucellatum, there are plenty for hardtack.  All are based upon flour, salt and water, ingredients which the Roman army had in abundance and distributed to its soldiers.  Instead of oil, which some recipes call for, I have used a small amount of butter.

(makes 8)


  • 350g Flour (Wholemeal)
  • 75ml Water
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 10g Butter/Lard or 1 tbsp Olive Oil


  • Mix the flour, salt and butter.
  • Add the water, bit at a time, to create a stiff (dry) dough - hardtack is supposed to be completely dry when finished.
  • Roll the dough out until it is 1/2 inch thick.  Some sources describe bucellatum as being round, so use an upturned glass to cut out the biscuits.  You can cut it as you wish however - I can't imagine the soldiers being too fussy.  Punch holes in the dough to allow the air - and moisture - to escape whilst baking.  I used a chopstick to do this.
  • Place onto a baking tray and into an oven preheated to around 120 Celsius - you want to cook the hardtack at a low heat for a long time.  Mine took 2.5 hours.  Halfway through I turned the biscuits over and re-punched the holes.
  • Leave the hardtack to cool in the oven for several hours.  If any are still moist, cook in the oven until totally dry.


I quite enjoyed bucellatum - it was tough and at times difficult to eat, but it was wonderfully salty and quite filling.  I imagine that it would work well when eaten with a stew.  With lots left over, I will see how well it keeps.

Useful links:

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Dill Chicken

One of the most popular recipes on Pass the Garum, and indeed my personal favourite so far, is Dill Chicken. This recipe captures all of the flavours of ancient Rome and brings them together in one delicious dish.  When we first encountered it, it was as Roast Dill Chicken, but since then, I've taken to cooking it as a stew, making it taste even better than before.  So, whilst I'm wary about re-using old recipes, I think that this is one which you'll be more than happy to cook again and again.

Dill Chicken
(Serves 2)


  • Handful of Fresh Dill
  • Handful of Fresh Mint
  • 1/2 tsp Asafoetida
  • 1 tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • 2 tbsp Liquamen
  • 5 Dried Dates
  • 1 tbsp Wholegrain Mustard
  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 2 tbsp Caroenum or Balsamic Glaze
  • 2 Chicken Breasts


  • Add the dates to a mortar, removing the stones if there are any. Add just enough water to cover the dates, then crush with a pestle to form a date paste.
  • Wash the dill and mint leaves.  Chop them finely, or tear apart and add to the mortar alongside the asafoetida, red wine vinegar, liquamen, mustard, and caroenum/balsamic glaze.  Crush everything until it is well mixed.
  • Dice the chicken into bite-size pieces.  You're going to cook the chicken using the hob, so heat the oil in a saucepan/frying pan/casserole/earthenware dish.  When it is hot enough, add the chicken pieces and cook for a few minutes.
  • Add the dill sauce to the pot, mix everything together, and cook on a low heat for 15-20 minutes.  If you have a lid, use it to keep moisture in.  If not, add a bit of water if it starts to look too dry.  The sauce should be quite thick, so don't add too much water.
  • Once the chicken is cooked, the Dill Chicken is ready to serve.  I recommend it with the Lentil and Root Veg Mash, or the Parsnip Mash, as these absorb the sauce well.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Poached Eggs with Pine-Nut Sauce

Helen O'Connell once asked her good pal Dean Martin, "How do you like your eggs in the morning?"  Mr. Martin, it turns out, liked his with a kiss - the ancient Romans, on the other hand, would have been asking for a whole lot more.  This is because eggs were actually quite expensive in the ancient Mediterranean, costing one denarius per egg.  If you were buying a dozen of them, as we so often do today, you'd have to fork out 12 denarii, or perhaps 10 if you knew how to barter well.  When you consider that the average worker in 300 A.D. was making just 25 denarii per day, you come to recognise that eggs weren't an ingredient to be used with reckless abandon.

If we were a farmer with a few hens running around, we wouldn't need to worry so much, but as it stands we are mere manual labourers who have blown half of our pay packet on a dozen eggs because the fella' at the market convinced us it was a deal we couldn't afford to miss.  What we want to know is, how do we make the most of these eggs?  Why, we poach them and pour over a pine-nut sauce of course!

The recipe describes the eggs as ova hapala, which means that they ought to be very soft-boiled.  I've opted to poach them briefly to achieve this effect.  As you will also notice, I've omitted the lovage called for in the recipe.  This isn't for any culinary reasons - I simply haven't been able to find any recently!

Poached Eggs with Pine-Nut Sauce
(Serves 4)

"Serve pepper, lovage, soaked nuts, honey, vinegar, and liquamen." - Apicius, 7.17.3


  • 4 Eggs
  • 40g Pine-Nuts
  • 1 tsp Honey
  • 1 tbsp Red-Wine Vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp Pepper
  • 1 tbsp Liquamen


  • Soak the pine-nuts in water for several hours to soften them - this will help us make the sauce later.  If you want to be that bit more decadent, soak them in white wine to add some subtle flavour to the dish.
  • Pine-nuts suitably soaked, drain them and add them to a mortar (or food processor) with the honey, red-wine vinegar, pepper and liquamen.  Crush crush crush.  You can make the 'sauce' as smooth as you like.
  • Sauce prepared, it's time to poach the eggs.  For a good no-nonsense video explaining how to do this, click here.  Otherwise:
    • Add a few inches of water to a saucepan and bring this to a gentle simmer.
    • Once the water is simmering away, add a little bit of white-vinegar - the word on science street is that this stops the egg from falling apart while it cooks.  Don't let the water boil.
    • Crack an egg into a small bowl or ramekin.
    • Stir the water in circles to create a vortex (or invoke Neptune to do it for you).  As it swirls, gently pour the egg from the bowl/ramekin into the water.  You need to be gentle to prevent it falling apart.
    • 4 minutes later and the egg is done.  Take it out of the pan with a slotted spoon and set it into your serving dish.

  • With your eggs arranged in a serving dish, spoon a little of the sauce over each of them.  Finish by sprinkling over some more pepper, then tuck in and enjoy!


Perhaps it's just my predilection for poached eggs, but this dish was thoroughly enjoyable.  The earthiness of the pine-nuts combined beautifully with the poached egg, whilst the sharpness of the vinegar cut through the sauce's heavy texture.  The recipe is quite reminiscent of Eggs Benedict, albeit an Eggs Benedict with much stronger flavours.  If you want to get the most from your expensive eggs, you need look no further.