The Disgusting Food Of The Ancients!

The Disgusting Food Of The Ancients!


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Campo di Fiori from our last trip to Rome.

Campo di Fiori from our last trip to Rome.

Because he is sometimes not an idiot, my little brother has rented an apartment in the Trastevere in Rome.

This was my suggestion and he took it over the objectively worse suggestion of our father… to stay somewhere near the Trevi Fountain.

He messaged me on WhatsApp last night, asking for food recommendations. I suggest a place for aperitivio that has the best free food in the area and Campari sodas for only €1.

My brother declines the Campari suggestion because he thinks the drink, having never tasted it, is “too feminine.” I threaten to send the ghost of Sinatra after him.

Then I get jealous.

If he’s in Rome, eating Roman food that I recommended, I’m going to be in London eating ancient Roman food that I fucking cooked, dammit.

The following recipes emerged as a by-product of accumulating food-based evidence for Antediluvian cultures.  For instance, the cucumber was widely grown at a very early period in Egypt, and yet it is native to Nepal. Whilst it is technically possible to be spread in bird droppings, birds don’t tend to shit industrial-level agriculture. (Diffusionism lives!)

Non-staple foods are little studied because it is easier to neatly map staple foods to the spread of particular cultures. However, there is a kind of infinite loop in this research. The spread of grain could only happen following the change in climate that accompanied the end of the last ice age. It thus becomes almost impossible to locate where and, crucially, when it began. Indeed, the current academic consensus is that there is “no single origin” for agriculture in the Middle East… which is technically impossible, but there you go. (Rice, on the other hand…)

The second reason these kinds of experiments can be so rewarding is that they provide a tactile counterpoint for the tendency to over-romanticise the ancient world… particularly the tenuous notion that our ancestors were more ‘attuned’ or ‘harmonious’.

So let’s start with Rome.

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A floor at Ostia Antica, Ancient Rome’s main port.

Ancient Roman food at a glance

No recipes survive from Etruscan cuisine, but excavations in Bolsena have uncovered remains of beans, peas, chickpeas, nuts, figs, plums, other fruits, goat’s cheese, sheep’s cheese and milk. The only meat of which traces were found was pork, which was considered a luxury.

As for the Romans themselves, they never met a food they didn’t want to taste like something else. Lamb didn’t have to taste like lamb… and probably shouldn’t if you were entertaining guests. We picture Roman food as looking quite like Italian, just without tomatoes, but there are two errors in that line of thinking.

  1. Assuming there is any such thing as Italian food in the first place. The country is too young. There is Puglian or Sicilian or Venetian, etc.
  2. The insane levels of spice used in Ancient Rome. These bastards boiled fish in vats of vinegar, coated ostrich in coriander, and so on. Ancient Roman food has more in common with food court Indian than it does with la cucina italiana.

Here are a few random points to consider:

  • Over-harvesting is not a new issue. The Romans consumed an African herb, laserpithium, to extinction. (They would also eat animals after they had performed in the circus.)
  • Being a parasite was an actual job. if you were a parasite, people would invite you over for meals where you would be witty and entertaining. So I guess Come Dine With Me is also not a new thing?
  • They loved their pulses. Noble families were even named after them. Cicero comes from cicer, the chickpea. The Lentula family comes from lentil, obviously.
  • Aperitifs may include vermouth, which is very ‘on trend’. We have spent the whole summer with a Noilly Prat and lemonade in one hand, and our boules set in the other.
  • After the main course, bread would be handed around for guests to wipe their mouths on and then throw to the dogs as an offering to Hekate, which I find very appealing.

Ancient ‘wisdom’, urine and boysex

Cabbage urine appears to have been the multivitamin and pilates of the day. Cato suggests getting someone to gorge on cabbage and then save their urine. To be used to eyewash, bathing babies, headache and neck pain (you have to warm it first)… or a woman can ‘warm up’ (?) her vagina by sitting in/on a hot bowl of urine, fully wrapped in cloth.

Sacrifice may have been peaceful and holy, but imperial meat production certainly wasn’t. This is from Plutarch (admittedly, a mostly-vegetarian):

Animals must be killed with pity and sorrow, and should not be teased and tortured as happens a great deal at present. Some people stick glowing red spits into the throats of pigs, so that the blood will thicken and run smoothly through the veins, making the meat tender and delicate.

Others jump on the udders of a sow that is about to give birth, to mix blood and dirt together and at the same time kill the unborn piglets at the moment of their birth. And all this to eat the swollen sow’s udders.

Others still sew shut the eyes of cranes and swans, and lock them up in the dark to stuff them fat with curious concoctions and spiced morsels.

Yikes, right? This winter may finally be the moment where I codify a return to ‘vegetarianishm’. You can see why belief systems that include notions of karma recommend vegetarianism. The story of our treatment of animals is just ghastly. More cruelty:

As there were laws specifying the maximum number of cockerels one could possess and eat, a third category between hen and cock was created: capon. These were cockerels that had been castrated by holding a red hot iron between their legs until their genitalia burst. The resulting wound was then smeared with clay.

Capons apparently became naturally fat and therefore had very tender flesh, thus circumventing another law against fattening poultry.

They would also trade chickens for boy sex.

In Greece, the cockerel was a traditional gift from an older man to a boy if he wanted to bang him. This custom evidently transferred to Rome. From the Satyricon:

I had another chance the following night. I changed my voice and whispered, “If I am allowed to touch this boy unashamedly with my hands without it troubling him, tomorrow I will give him two of the best fighting-cocks.”

Roman wine must have been awful

My partner's birthday lunch from last year. Distillation hadn't been invented so there would be no Campari but otherwise this isn't a million miles off.

My partner’s birthday lunch from last year in Lucca. Distillation hadn’t been invented so there would be no Campari but otherwise this isn’t a million miles off.

From Around The Roman Table:

Vinology was still relatively primitive. Wine spoiled quickly, and crude media were often added to correct it. Cloudy wine was cleared with smoke or chalk. The taste could be ‘improved’ by smoking it.

Smoked wine is often bitter, and the colour suffers in the process, but the Romans remedied this by dyeing it with aloe, saffron or elderberry. It could be sweetened with reduced must. All kinds of flavourings were added, such as myrtle, rush-flowers, nard, roses, violets, lilac flowers, coriander, celery, anis, almonds, pepper, cinnamon, etc.

Some wines were flavoured with resin, like modern-day retsina. The custom of adding seawater also came from Greece. Heavily flavoured wine was called conditum. Apicius gives two detailed recipes for it, the principal ingredients being pepper and honey.

Think I’ll stick to the St Emilion this evening.

Raisin ‘cooking’ wine, or passum

This is seriously just Vin Santo. But that’s kinda expensive, so the following recipe, according to Columella, a Latin farming writer, is what we might call ‘cooking raisin wine’:

  • 570ml of red wine
  • 120g of raisins
  • Soak the raisins in the wine for two or three days
  • Blend the result, strain through a sieve and then use. (Or drink, but… don’t.)

You could use this for boiling sausages, chicken, fish, onions… really anything you want to taste like Christmas in hell.

Garum and liquamen

Rome’s ubiquitous fish sauces. If you want your own food to taste authentically Ancient Roman, then whip up some garum and put it on everything. Everything. Eggs, meat, vegetables. You name it.

  • 1 bottle Thai fish sauce. (Nam pla.)
  • 1 litre of grape juice, boiled and reduced by half.
  • Combine in a ratio of 1:1.
  • What I’m calling Londinium garum is a mix of half nam pla and half Worcestershire sauce, based on the recent discovery of an ancient fish sauce factory here in town.

If you don’t eat fish, then you can still ruin your meals by using a fruit sauce on everything. Many of Apicius’s recipes include a finely ground paste of dried fruit, either to bind a sauce (acceptable) or as a sauce in its own right, to be used with, for example, leeks. (Unacceptable.) Dates and plums were used most often, then either figs or raisins.

Epithyrum

Another ubiquitous foodstuff, but this time, one that is actually quite nice. It’s essentially a highly spiced tapenade which you can serve as aperitivio with bread, or with cheese, or with various meats.

The blurry ingredients

The blurry ingredients

This adapted from is Cato’s recipe:

  • Grind whole cumin seeds.
Fun fact. This device is part of my drug paraphernalia rather than my kitchen. I didn't clean it too well, either.

Fun fact. This device is part of my drug paraphernalia rather than my kitchen. I didn’t clean it too well, either.

  • Equal amounts of green and black olives. Preferably dry packed, but if brined, then rinsed well and soaked for ten minutes.
  • Tip the olives, cumin seeds, half a fennel, a handful of mint leaves and a handful of coriander leaves and stalks into a food processor and pulse.

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  • Pour in some olive oil and red wine vinegar and pulse again.

Serve, doused with more olive oil.

Shown without the olive oil.

Shown without the olive oil.

This was probably the hit of the evening. It tasted like a tapenade that you really wanted to put basil in. But it also tasted… old. It was a foreign-yet-familiar flavour combination. It felt very much like this was a taste you would consume in a forum somewhere, while scheming against some family or another. The flavour profile just… resonated.

Libum

I make a ricotta dumpling/gnocci that is basically this but boiled instead of baked. To serve with your epithyrum!

Ingredients.

Ingredients.

  • 2 parts ricotta.
  • 1 part plain white flour.
  • Mix well, then add an egg, then briefly knead.
  • Form into a circular looking, old timey loaf. (You could also put it in a loaf tin and cover it, apparently. Fuck that.)

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  • Layer a baking sheet with bay leaves and bake for 45 minutes at 180 degrees.  (Or whatever. I’m not the boss of your kitchen.)

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It didn’t mention the kneading, but next time -and there will be a next time- I will knead this for at least five minutes. It was delicious in a weird, ‘baked gnocci’ kind of way… but the centre wasn’t what you’d call bread.

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This went amazingly well with the epithyrum, obviously. But it also went groin-grabbingly well with just poorly spread chunks of butter or margarine. So, so good.

Apicius chicken

Seeing as I’m not particularly interested in banging little boys, we’ll be cooking this baby instead. (Besides, this isn’t a prize cockerel, it’s a dead Tesco chicken, so I’d end up with a minger, anyway.)

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You know it’s a questionable recipe when the ingredients for the stock look more appealing than the end product.

It occurs to me that this would actually be quite a decent ‘proper’ meal if you roasted it rather than boiled it, but in the interest of authenticity we’ll be a’ boilin’. Not that I have anything against properly boiled chicken. My Jewish genes would disown me if I did.

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  • 170g pitted black olives, quartered.
  • 1 small chicken.
  • 2 bay leaves. (From the garden! Hooray, I’m self-sufficient.)
  • 1 onion.
  • 1 carrot (purple for authenticity, if you can find it).
  • 1 celery stalk.
  • A lunatic assortment of spices: peppercorns, cloves, coriander seeds. Whatever.

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Stuff the chicken with the olives, tie it with cotton or cooking string, boil it for 90 minutes with the other ingredients. Cool slightly before carving.

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Consider using the stock for puy lentils as a side.

  • 1 part lentils.
  • 2.2 parts liquid (250g/600ml).
  • Bring to the boil, simmer for 20.
Even less appetising than it looks.

Even less appetising than it looks.

A curious mix

In the next post, we’ll cover the vegetables that went with this bizarre meal. But I wanted to provide you with a few wizardly observations at the end of this one.

Firstly, that there is a peculiar sense of resonance that accompanies fastidiously following ancient recipes that amount to a sum greater than its constituent parts… much as it annoys the chaos magician in me to say so. This is something I need to go away and process.

Secondly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, this experiment was accompanied by a certain degree of high strangeness.

I actually do most of my grocery (and other) shopping online… especially at the moment where I’m putting in fourteen hour days but have enough time somewhere in the middle there to log in and load up. All of this is to say that I consider online grocery shopping safe, normal, boring and reliable.

However, the occult, ulterior motive for this precise experiment was as an offering to a specific being that was long overdue… overdue largely thanks to stag parties and castles and the such. Anyway, I order all the components for this half-offering feast, along with a whole bunch of boring house stuff that needs replacing. I do this on a Thursday, and book the delivery in for Friday morning. I end up spending almost £200. (There’s an amazing booze sale going on at Tesco right now so I laid in an unholy amount of Talisker and St Emilion.)

The food doesn’t arrive. I ring. I speak to someone in a Scottish call centre. The food still doesn’t arrive. I call several times over the next six hours but the food -which I won’t need until Saturday- doesn’t arrive. In the end, because of ‘blah blah English bullshit lying blah blah no one in this country does their job’ the food… my sacrifice… won’t show up until Saturday morning. However, it will be fully refunded. ie completely free.

I recall something I heard on Deeper Down The Rabbit Hole in February this year, whilst on the Eurostar heading to Paris. Ian Corrigan said that the spirits are fascinated when we deny ourselves something. At the time, this really resonated with me because it folds into my exploration of why the neighbours want us to build basilicas for them when they could build one themselves. For me, this ties into the idea that it is changes in consciousness that underly most magical objectives; both on our side and ‘theirs’. Ian’s observation blew the top off my head and has informed a good deal of my spirit trafficking for this entire year. I will speak more about this later.

Returning to the subject at hand, my magical delivery was delayed by 27 hours, but with no impact on the actual preparation of the sacrifice, and it ended up being free. This doesn’t sound like much but other people’s magical results rarely do. Without throwing some cards on the issue, I can tell you that the hybrid intention behind my large purchase and what I planned to do with most of the items has informed the  how, when and how much of the whole operation. That’s just how it feels and I won’t be swayed on it. Things got weird.

Anyway, the whole ordeal was an indicator that I had best come clean with my ulterior motive for this little anthropological experiment… which may have been the being’s endgame in the first place.

So, without further ado, I dedicate this feast to Isis… Queen of Rome.

6 Comments

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  1. 2
    Johnny

    “For me, this ties into the idea that it is changes in consciousness that underly most magical objectives; both on our side and ‘theirs’. Ian’s observation blew the top off my head and has informed a good deal of my spirit trafficking for this entire year. I will speak more about this later.”
    I sense an interesting post upcoming ;).
    Anyway, I’ve never tasted Roman food, and I have to admit I feel apprehension when it comes to heavily spiced/taste-modified food. I like my lamb to taste like a lamb.
    I’d try it anyway if I had a chance. YOLO, right?

  2. 5
    R. Valetine

    Christ. I am forwarding this to my brother, part time sorcerer, full-time chef so that he can choke and weep for a time. Also, obviously they got Catholicism for their crimes against cuisine.

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