The Disgusting Vegetables Of The Ancients

The Disgusting Vegetables Of The Ancients


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A night market in Firenze

Too many things were cooked not to eke this out into a second post. Call it leftovers.

The Romans did not think of vegetables as a side dish. They merited a place of honour on the table.

Romans delighted in developing inedible strains of wild plants into common foods that you probably (hopefully) ate last night: cabbage, kale, cauliflower, sprouts, broccoli, leek, asparagus, courgettes, artichoke, etc.

They were also highly particular about terminology.

Grain and pulses are grown in the field, vegetables in the garden. Romans distinguished sharply between agriculture and horticulture. (This seems to me to be an interesting psychological insight into their snobbish use of the term ‘pagani’, by the way):

In our laws, the word ‘farm’ is never used, only ever the word ‘garden’. And that is what it means. – Pliny

Agriculture was mass production out in the field, and the Romans put it out to contract. Rome’s overseas provinces, like Sicily and Africa, became the imperial breadbasket. Egypt almost went bankrupt as a result of the grain-based monoculture imposed on it. However, the Romans preferred to do their own gardening:

Even the kings of Rome did their own gardening with their own hands. -Pliny

This appeals to me. I have long maintained it is best practice to get as much control over your own vegetable calories as possible, now more than ever.

It also serves to problematise the notion that a lopsided food economy is a modern problem that our ancestors were too smart to fall for.

Faseolum

Fancy old timey language for chickpeas. You can soak and cook them if you’re Amish, but otherwise straight out of a jar, drained, is fine. (A tin is passable, but let them air for 30 minutes after draining.)

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  • Coat in olive oil and bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
  • In the meantime, mash together some white wine, cracked pepper and anchovies.

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  • Stir through and eat warm like sticky, annoying popcorn.

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Along with the epithyrum, this tasted properly old timey. Because the flavour profile was so unfamiliar, it was very easy to ‘get there’. If I were to make this again -and I won’t- then I would probably stir the sauce through the chickpeas before baking.

But I regularly bake oil-coated chickpeas and then sprinkle them with pimentón to serve with drinks (sherry) anyway. It’s delicious so I’ll stick with that. How many baked chickpea recipes does one realistically need?

Celery puree

Finally, we use some garum! Vegetarians can swap it for asafoetida… another ingredient the Romans regularly used to ruin their food.

Unfortunately, I fucking hated this.

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It might not have been Ancient Rome’s fault. It brought back memories of a brief experiment with Weight Watchers in New Zealand where I decided you could make a soup out of celery boiled in low-salt vegetable stock. I’m here to tell you that… you cannot.

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Anyway, if I had my time again, I would force all the liquid from the food processor out through a sieve, and then dump the sieve gunk in with the actually quite delicious sauce. But the whole thing is really crying out for some cream and a conversion into soup.

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  • 1 head of celery.
  • 1 large brown onion (I used two echalion shallots because I’m lazy).
  • 150ml sweet white wine.
  • 30ml garum.
  • 15ml olive oil.
  • 2 tsp lovage or parsley.
  • 2 tsp fresh or dried oregano.

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Boil the onions and celery in water until soft. In the meantime, gently heat the other ingredients. When soft, drain and puree the celery and onions in a food processor, then stir into the sauce and serve.

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Leek and olives

Another garum recipe, hooray! And also one that could easily be modernised and made nice. We eat braised leeks all the time.

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  • 1 trimmed leek, sliced into rings.
  • 100ml olive oil.
  • 100ml water.
  • 100ml strong white wine (or vermouth).
  • 200g quartered, pitted green olives.
  • Garum or salt.

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Boil the leek in the water and oil until the water has evaporated. Then stir in the olives until heated through. Before serving, stir in the wine and the garum/salt to taste.

It may sound weird, but the closest I came to personally resonating with the people who cooked these recipes two thousand years ago was while chopping the olives for this dish. Perhaps because most of the rest of the cooking involved modern appliances, but there was a quiet moment of… I want to say kinship?… while sitting down and silently quartering the olives. This was something that had been done many times before.

At this point, we had got back from the pub -somewhere we briefly retreated to when Ancient Roman cooking became too boring- and were getting quite drunk on martinis. So we sat down and broke the rigid culinary guidelines to eat Parmigiano-Reggiano with Scottish oatcakes, epithyrum and faseolum.

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Apicius’s honeyed mushrooms

Mentalists. But, actually, this was delicious. Very Chinese in a way. However it fucking stinks like fish food as you’re cooking it. We had to move the clothing rack out of the kitchen (Victorian houses, you see) so that our work clothes wouldn’t stink of eau du Cthulhu all next week.

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  • 4 large/portobello mushrooms, sliced.
  • 15ml olive oil.
  • 15ml fish sauce or garum.
  • 30g runny honey.
  • ½ tsp of lovage seeds. (Replaced with parsley because that’s all we had.)
  • ½ tsp of black pepper.

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Boil the honey, fish sauce and oil. Add the lovage, pepper and sliced mushrooms. Cook out briskly so that the mushroom liquor and fish sauce boil away, leaving the remains slicked in a weird honey glaze. Enjoy, maybe!

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The end of the experiment

We will very probably make the libum (ricotta bread) again as it was super easy and would go great with a cheese board. Adding olives to braised leeks is also a good call. (Stir through some crème fraîche and garlic oil and you’d have a decent tagliatelle sauce.)

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But, by and large, this food was weird. There are a whole bunch of seafood recipes and Parthian chicken and Alexandrian sweets and other such things I’ll probably investigate at some stage. In fact, I’m half-tempted to hit up one of the people I know who runs a supper club in London and see if we can’t get this done at scale. (Maybe even somewhere actually Roman.)

The whole experience was a lesson in the challenges that accompany trying to arbitrarily freeze and replicate an exact moment in time. In a way, I have newfound respect for reconstructionists because if you take a single step wrong you end up with garbage water instead of soup.

My magical palette tends toward the more universal, the more interoperable… Just like my actual palette, it seems. And this appears to have been a discussion happening back in the day, as well.

Check out Pliny, possibly the world’s first anti-hipster:

Does it give more pleasure to dive to the depths of the sea in search of a certain kind of oyster and run the risk of shipwreck? Or to go beyond the river Phasis to catch birds that not even legendary horror stories can protect? They are in fact prized all the more because of those stories! Or go hunting for birds in Numibia, or among the graveyards of Ethiopa? Or to chase wild beasts and thus, while looking for something to devour, ending up being devoured oneself?

I have only this to say: how cheap, delicious and healthy vegetables are for everyone.

Got that right, Pliny. You’d approve of this evening’s meal plan, that’s for sure.

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