Saturday, May 3, 2014

Beyond Apicius (2): recipes from other Roman sources

As noted last week, only one true cookbook survives from Roman times, De Re Coquinaria, itself incorporating a second, and supplemented by the recipes in Anthimus' dietetic, De Observatione Ciborum. Still a number of other recipes can be found in earlier authors, many agronomists, whose works above all include instructions for preserving various foods and often producing various wines, mead and hydromel. Scattered among these are instructions closer to true recipes, which can be made in a shorter time. Ironically, it is Cato the Censor (234 BCE–149 BCE), whom Wikipedia describes as “a hard husband, a strict father, a severe and cruel master”, who left the most hedonistic of these, for a number for cakes.

The resulting selection is scattershot and, even taken together, does not constitute anything like a complete cookbook. Still, it includes some unique items, such as quince with honey baked into it, an unusual type of poached egg, peppered wine and must-cakes for weddings, in addition to variants on familiar standards like mustard.

Note that a number of these recipes refer to “well-pitched vessels”. Pitch was regularly used for sealing and lining vessels, with the predictable result that some wines, for instance, tasted of pitch. Where wine is called for, anyone who absolutely must duplicate this effect today might want to use Greek retsina (resined wine) where wine is one of the ingredients.

The translations are, for the most part, from the works cited below, but slightly changed for accuracy, intelligibility, etc. Some are my own translations of French versions, checked against the Latin. The recipe for Cato's placenta and for Martialis' oenogarum are my own, direct from the Latin.


The exact equivalence of the terms used here for measurements is not always certain, but here are some as defined by the Free Dictionary and Wikipedia; where fidelity to the original is a concern, readers might want to research each of these further:

Sextary/sexter/sextarius An ancient Roman liquid and dry measure, about equal to an English pint
Mina An ancient unit of weight and money, used in Asia Minor, equal to one sixtieth of a talent
Talent A variable unit of weight and money used in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle East.
Hemina (cotyla) A measure of half a sextary; in medicine, about ten fluid ounces
Modius An ancient Roman unit for Dry measures, (8.73 l) roughly equivalent to a peck
Also consult Celtnet's Apicius page for both weight and seasoning equivalences.


Some of the recipes which have survived are so basic a modern reader might almost wonder why they were written down. But these give some idea of just how simple some cooking was in these early centuries.

Cato describes how to make the most basic bread under the kind of pottery bell (clibanis) once used as a portable oven:
LXXIV – Recipe for making depsiticus bread.
Make “well-kneaded” bread as follows. Wash your hands and the mortar [or mixing bowl] well. Put the flour in the mortar, add water bit by bit, mix all this well. Once the dough is made, shape it, bake it under the earthenware pot (bell).
And that's it. His instructions for gruel are little more enlightening:
LXXXV – Wheat gruel
How to prepare it. Put a half-pound of pure wheat in a clean mortar, wash it well, take off the husks, and sift it; after having put it in a stewpot, cook it in pure water. After cooking add in milk bit by bit until it forms a thick cream.
Atheneaus mentions "a tagenites fried in a frying pan with oil." (Wilkins) The instructions Oribasius (c. 320 – 403) quotes from the great medical writer Galen (129 – c. 200/c. 216) on how to make this pancake add little to Athenaeus' note:
Tagenites are only made with oil; one pours the oil into a frying pan placed on a smokeless fire; when this oil is hot, one pours into it flour mixed into a great deal of water; by the cooking in oil, this flour sets and at once thickens like new cheese; then the cooks turn the cake so that the upper part is lower and touches the pan, and the lower part, sufficiently cooked, returns to the surface of the oil; when the lower part is set, they again turn the cake two or three times until it seems to them cooked equally on both sides....
In fairness, Galen does point out that these are rustic products and that some additional flavoring might be used:
Sometimes one adds either honey or sea salt to it; these tagenites are already a type of cake by the same token as these other improvised cakes made by the poor or country folk. Certainly the unrisen fried dough cooked in an oven surrounded by fire, which is then taken out to immediately throw into warm honey so that they imbibe it immediately, is also a type of cake

White sauce

Galen did not leave many specifically culinary recipes, but at one point he writes that elephantiasis can be cured by preparing vipers in white sauce “like eels in a dish”. Elsewhere he contrasts “white sauce” with sauces made with wine, so he may have meant by it only a sauce made without colored liquids. In this case, his instructions, presumably for this “white sauce” are to “pour a great deal of water, a little oil and with the oil leek and dill." This would basically be a very dilute leek-dill sauce. (Anyone who wants to try using this sauce with a viper should know that its flesh is to be boiled until soft.)

Oribasius quotes very similar instructions for “white sauce” from Galen, adding only that one should add salt after the mixture has boiled a while. Further on, he recommends the sauce in general for fish with soft flesh and the specific instructions for this use make slightly more sense: “After having poured a great deal of water on the fish, pour sufficient oil with a little dill and leek: then one half-cooks the fish and adds the necessary salt for it to not be too salty.”

In this version then the water is largely used to cook the fish and then flavored with oil, dill and leek, and after a little salt.


Mustard has long been made in various ways and it was already a Roman staple. Palladius gives a fairly simple recipe for it:
Reduce a sexter and a half of mustard grain to powder; put in five pounds of honey, a pound of Spanish [olive] oil and a sexter of strong vinegar; when it has all been well pounded, you can use it.
Columella provides a simple and a de luxe version. A modern cook will probably not need to process the mustard seed as instructed, in which case the simple version will come down to grinding commercial mustard seed and mixing it with white vinegar.
Cleanse and sift mustard-seed carefully; then wash it with cold water; and, when it has been well-washed, let it lie two hours in water; afterwards take it out; and, having squeezed the water out of it with your hands, throw it into a new mortar, or into one that is made very clean, and bruise it small with pestles: when you have bruised it, draw the whole mash together to the middle of the mortar, and press it down with your flat open hand; and, after you have compressed it, scarify [prick holes in] it; and, having placed a few live coals upon it, pour nitred water upon it, that it may free it from all its bitterness and paleness; then raise the mortar that all the moisture may be drained out of it; after this put white sharp vinegar to it and mix it thoroughly with the pestle and strain it: this liquor does exceeding well for pickling of turnips. But, if you would prepare mustard for the use of great entertainments, when you have squeezed all the noxious juice of it, add the freshest pine-[nuts] you can find, and almonds to it; and bruise them carefully together, and pour in vinegar upon them: do the other things, as I said above. When you come to use this mustard, it will not only be very fit for sauce, but very beautiful and pleasing to the eye; for it is of an exquisite whiteness, if it be made with care.
For anyone inclined to follow these instruction all the way through, it will be useful to know that “nitred water” is saltpeter, for which, today, you will probably want to find a substitute. While that is not easy, saltpeter has also been used in corned beef and here is one approach to avoid using it there:
In this recipe for home-cured corned beef, I skipped the inclusion of saltpeter and resolved instead to focus on fresh whey (a source of lactic acid) as well as celery juice, which are used to prepare nitrate- and nitrite-free cured meats. While the exclusion of nitrates and nitrites failed to produce a brilliantly pink piece of meat, it did produce a meat with a charming dusty rose hue.
(Nourished Kitchen)


Olives were important to the Romans, both in themselves and for their oil. So it is not surprising that numerous ways of preserving or flavoring them appear in works on agriculture. Columella (4 – ca. 70) includes various instructions for processing them, but also some for simply preparing them.

One is for epityrum, which is mentioned or described elsewhere as well. In his recipe, he begins with instructions for choosing and cleaning the olives and leaving them in the press overnight. Then:
when the thin rind is broken and opened, we take it out of the press; and, upon each modius of olives, we pour a single sextary of bruised toasted salt; also we mix mastich-seed with them, and fennel- and rue-leaves dried under a shade, after they seem to be cut small enough; and we let them stand three hours, till the berry, in some measure, drink up the salt. Then we pour oil of a good taste upon them, so that it may cover the olive; and we press down a bundle of dry fennel upon them, so that the liquor may swim above them. But, for this sort of pickle, new earthen vessels, without any pitch, are prepared; and, that they may not sip up the oil, they are soaked with melted tallow, or the like, as oil-jars are; and then afterwards they are dried.
Cato offers one as well:
CXIX – How to make white, black and marbled epityrum
Recipe for making epityrum, either white, black, or marbled. Season white, black and marbled olives in the following way, having removed the pits. Cut them, put them in a seasoning of oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue and mint. Let them marinate in an earthen vessel, let them bathe in the oil, and serve them this way.
Columellas's “olive marmelade” (as one translator calls it) is one of several ways of preserving olives, but also creating something like a tapenade. First the olives are squeezed whole overnight; then:
The day following they throw it into a very clean suspended mill, that its kernel may not be broken: and, when they are reduced to a mash, then with their hand they mix with them toasted and bruised salt, with the other dry seasonings; and these are fenugreek, cumin, fennel-seed, and Egyptian anise-seed. But it will be sufficient to put as many hemina of salt to them, as there are modii of olives; and to pour oil upon them, lest they wither; and that ought to be done as often as they shall seem to be dried.


Galen (via Oribasius) gives interesting instructions for poached eggs which closely resemble how they are prepared today (that is, in a double boiler), but seem to involve opening the shells before cooking to put in some seasonings and then pouring the still-soft egg out on a dish:
Those called poached are better than hard-boiled eggs and eggs cooked under the coals; they are prepared by moistening them [in the shell?] with oil, garum and a little wine, then one puts the vessel in a pot holding hot water, one tightly closes this pot with a cover and puts a fire under it, until they reach a moderate consistency, because those which are too thickened become like hard-boiled eggs and eggs cooked under the coals. One must try to get the same moderate consistency for the eggs which are poured from on high onto a dish and not let them thicken entirely, but take the plate off the fire while they are still setting.


Oribasius cites Rufus as saying to boil oysters well, then grill them, and then eat them with a little mustard and pepper.

An easily digested salad”

Early recipes for salad are rare and in fact this might be considered more of a sauce than (as the anonymous translator has it) salad and more of a seasoning than a single dish. Silphium had already became extinct under the Romans and was replaced then, as it typically is today, with asafeotida.
Moretum Oxyporum (or, How to make up a Salad of easy and quick Digestion; or as others will have it, a Salad or Sauce with a Mixture of Garum and Vinegar.)
Put into a mortar savory, mint, rue, coriander, parsley, the festive leek, or, if you have none, a green onion, the leaves of lettuce and of rocket, green thyme, or cat-mint, as also green pennyroyal, and salted new-cheese; bruise all these equally together, and mix a little peppered vinegar with them: when you have made up all this mixture together, in a small dish, pour oil upon it. When you have bruised the above greens all together, join with them as many well-cleansed walnuts as you shall think sufficient; and mix a little peppered vinegar thoroughly with them, and pour oil upon them: bruise sesame, slightly parched, with the greens above also mix a little peppered vinegar with them, upon which pour a little oil.
Cut Gallican cheese, or of any other sort whatsoever, very small, and bruise it, and the kernels of pine-apples [that is, pine-nuts], if you have plenty of them, if not, toasted filberts, after you have taken off their skin, or almonds; and mix them in equal quantities upon the said seasoning herbs; and add a little peppered vinegar to them, and mix them thoroughly; and pour oil upon the whole composition,
If you have none of these green seasoning- or salad-herbs, bruise dry pennyroyal, or thyme, or marjoram, or dry savory, with cheese, all together, and put peppered vinegar and oil to them. Nevertheless, any one of these herbs, when they are dry, if you have not the rest, may also by itself be mixed with cheese.—Take of white pepper, if you have any, if not, of black pepper, three ounces; of parsley seed, two ounces; of laser-root, which the Greeks call Silphium, an ounce and a half; of cheese, two ounces; after you have bruised and sifted them, mix them with honey, and keep them in a new pot: then, when you shall have occasion to use them, dilute what quantity you shall think proper with vinegar, and garum. Take an ounce of lovage, two ounces of raisins [dried in] the Sun, after you have taken out their seeds; three ounces of black or white pepper: these, if you are avoiding greater expenses, you may mix thoroughly with honey, and so keep them. But, if you have a mind to make a more costly and valuable salad, for easy and quick digestion, you shall mix these same things with the composition above-described, and so lay it up for use. But also, if you have no laser, instead of the silphium, you shall put half an ounce of honey to it.


Oribasius gives this from Galen for quince:
Take out the seeds, pour in honey, completely cover the fruit with flour dough and then put it in the coals until the dough is burned: then take off the dough, the fruit is entirely cooked and it has absorbed all the honey.
Palladius offers a rather spicy recipe for quince jelly (which, in its milder form, is known as cotignac in France) or, alternately, a kind of spicy, sweet-and-sour quince syrup:
Peel ripe quince, cut them into very fine slices, and discard the hard parts at the center. Then boil these fruits in honey until reduced by half, sprinkling them with fine pepper during the cooking. Other recipe: Mix together two sexters of quince juice, one and a half of vinegar and two of honey; boil this mixture until it is as thick as pure honey; add to it two ounces of ground pepper and ginger.


The dour Cato's catalog of various sweets includes a number of pastries but also other preparations that to modern eaters, at least, would appear dessert-like.
LXXV – Of libum
How to make bread for the sacrifice. Crush two pounds of cheese well in the mortar; when it is done, mix in a pound of wheat flour, or only a half-pound of the best flour, if you want it less compact, and mix all this well. Shape your loaves, place them on leaves, and let them cook slowly under the bell on a hot hearth.
A placenta was basically a cheesecake. It is particularly useful to have recipes for cheesecake because these are mentioned so often in meals. Alica was a kind of particularly fine flour that is sometimes translated as "semolina", though it never has been precisely identified; it may either have been a separate grain or finely ground spelt that was artificially whitened. Today, pastry flour is probably an acceptable substitute. The distinction between the first and second kinds of flour might be more problematic, since even ordinary flour today is far finer than was the case centuries ago. One solution might be to use ordinary white flour for the first and whole wheat for the second
LXXXVI – About the placenta
Take two pounds of the finest wheat flour to make a base for the dough, and for the strips four pounds of flour and two pounds of prime alica and soak the alica in water. As soon as it is softened place it in a very clean working bowl and let it dry well; knead it well with the hands. When it is well worked, bit by bit add the four pounds of flour. From this make strips. Arrange these on a basket to dry. Do the same with each piece. Once kneaded, daub each all over with a cloth soaked in oil and daub the hearth where they will bake and the clay bell. After sprinkle the two pounds of [finest] flour with water while kneading it. Make from it a thin base. Put fourteen pounds of sheep's cheese, not too acid and very fresh, in water. While soaking it, change the water three times. Take it out bit by bit, press out the water with your hands; once drained put it in the bowl. When the cheese is well-dried, in the clean bowl knead it with your hands, breaking it up as much as you can. Then take a clean flour sifter, push the cheese through the sifter into the bowl. After put in four pounds of good honey and mix it well with the cheese.
After on a clean table, put a strip [of the base?] a foot wide with greased laurel leaves underneath; shape the placenta. Put a single strip down on the entire base, then smear the contents of the bowl on it, add the strips [in layers?] one by one, until all the cheese with honey is used up. On top put a single strip, after join it to the base neatly and put it on the hearth. First prepare the hearth, then put the placenta on it under the hot bell, cover this with hot coals and put them all around. See that it bakes slowly and well. Uncover it two or three times to check it. When it is baked, take it out and spread honey on it. This will be a half-modius placenta.
The above recipe (even with its possible variants) can be readily adapted for a modern kitchen. It is the basis for several that follow.

LXXVII – About the spira
Set out everything in the same proportions as for the placenta, except that you put the strips differently on the base: cover them well with honey; braid them then like a cord you put on the base, carefully putting simple strips in the interstices. For the rest proceed and bake as for the placenta.

LXXVIII – About the scriblita
Put on the mold strips sprinkled with cheese, like a placenta made without honey.

LXXIX – How to make globos [beignets]
Globes are made as follows. Mix cheese with alica in the same way; make from it as many as you think necessary. Pour oil in a hot cauldron; only cook one or two at once; continually turn them about two sticks; when they are cooked, take them out and daub them honey, sprinkle them with poppy and serve them.

LXXX – About the encytus
Make the encytus in the same way as the globos, except that you use a hollow and pierced vessel; put it in hot oil in the same way, and make it almost like spira. Turn it several times with two sticks, daub it with oil, brown it, not too hot. Serve it with honey or honeyed wine.

LXXXI – About the erneum
The erneum is made like the placenta, and with the same ingredients. After having well-mixed them in a bowl, put them into the earthen mold called hirnea, which is plunged in a copper pot filled with hot water. Cook with a flame. After cooking, break the hirnea and serve.

LXXXII – About the spaerita
Make the “spherical cake” like the spira, except that you use neither cheese nor honey, and the balls are large as a fist. Put them on the base, as thick as for the spira, and cook in the same way.

LXXXIV – About the savillum
How to make savillum. Mix exactly a half-pound of flour, two and a half of cheese, three ounces of honey, as for the libum, and add an egg. Rub an earthen dish with oil, in which you will put all your ingredients, first mixed. Close the dish with its cover, and try to make the baking penetrate to the center of the cake; that is where it is thickest. As soon as it is baked, take it out of the dish, daub it with oil, sprinkle it with poppy, put it some time under a baking bell, then take it out and put it on a small plate with spoons.

Since the following recipe for a "Carthaginian soup" is clearly a sweet, the title is probably humorous (like the Italians' “English soup” dessert, zuppa inglese).
LXXXV – Punic soup
Punic porridge is made this way. Let a pound of alica soak well in water, then put it in a clean bowl, mix in three pounds of new cheese, a half-pound of honey, and an egg. Put it in a new stewpot [presumably to cook].
The following must-cakes were bridal cakes given to the guests to take home. With some minor changes this recipe could be promising. The two pounds of fat here might simply act as shortening; the laurel shavings do not sound particularly appetizing, however. It is tempting to see a misreading here, or perhaps a period quirk? But no other source seems to mention this ingredient in a food.
CXXI – Mustaceos
How to make “cakes with must”. Moisten a bushel of good flour with wine must, add anise, cumin, two pounds of fat, a pound of cheese and shavings from laurel twigs; shape the cake, put it on laurel leaves while baking it.


If you like peppered vodka, maybe you'd like peppered wine? Oribasius offers a number of wine recipes from the Greek physician Philotimus (4th and 3rd centuries BCE), including this one:
Peppered wine
Honey, two pounds; first quality wine, thirty pounds; pepper, one ounce: crush the pepper and mix it into the wine: add the honey to the wine after skimming it, and leave the mixture to itself, after having stoppered and tied it.
Palladius offers a number of wine recipes as well, including several for myrtle wine (which might also be made with blackberries); here is one:
Here is the recipe of the Greeks for making myrtle wine: Put in a cloth eight ounces of ripe myrtle berries, crushed after drying them in the sun; suspend the sachet in wine, then cover and stopper the vessel. When the berries have stayed so several days, take them out of the wine to use it. Others crush or squeeze the myrtle berries after having gathered them ripe, in a dry season, on arid ground, and put eight cotula of juice for each amphora of wine.
Another is for pomegranate wine, much used in medicine in later centuries:
Here is how you make pomegranate wine: Put ripe seeds, carefully cleaned, in a palm basket. Subject them to a screwpress and slowly cook the resulting juice to half its volume. When it has cooled, close it in a pitched vessel, daubed with plaster. Some, instead of cooking the juice, put a pound of honey by sexter, before enclosing it in vessels to keep it.
Otherwise, anyone who likes to make flavored or alternate wines can find a rich variety of recipes in these authors.


Cyceon (cinnus) is mentioned in several classical works. As quoted by Oribasius, Galen dismissively describes how to make it in telling how NOT to make an infusion (tisane): “Grind raw barley in a mortar with water and after having boiled it some time add the drink called hepsema or siraeum [that is, cooked new wine]: sometimes they also add in honey and cumin.”

Basically, this is barley gruel with a little wine (maybe sherry?), honey and cumin; not a bad winter drink.

He offers after this a recipe for phacotisane:
The food called phacoptisane is an excellent food, if one mixes lentils and hulled barley, not in equal parts, but in putting in less hulled barley, because barley becomes like a jelly and swells a great deal. This food is seasoned in the same way as the infusion [with dill and leek], with this one exception that, if one adds thymbre [like smaller thyme] or pennyroyal, it is more agreeable.

Other liquids

A number of liquids were used in Roman cooking for seasoning, notably vinegar, honey and garum but also a number of others.

Oxymel in its simplest sense was vinegar mixed with honey. But more complex methods appear for making it, including this one from Pliny:
The following, as we learn from [the Greek physican] Dieuches, was the manner in which oxymeli was prepared by the ancients. In a cauldron they used to put ten minae of honey, five heminae of old vinegar, a pound and a quarter of sea-salt, and five sextarii of rain-water; the mixture was then boiled together till it had simmered some ten times, after which it was poured off, and put by for keeping.
Various forms of vinegar existed; Palladius' recipe for pear vinegar is simplistic, but promising:
Pear vinegar is made as follows: Leave in a pile, for three days, wild or tart pears which are ripe, and put them in a vessel with spring or rain water; this vessel will remain covered for thirty days. Successively replace by as much water the vinegar you draw for your use.

Garum was typically an industrial product, specifically made of mackerel or, in an inferior form, from tuna. The following recipe. for a variant of it mixed with wine (oenogarum), is already curious in defining a domestic way to make it and from fish other than the two standard ones. What is more, it is so richly flavored with both spices and herbs that it would not taste anything like the standard garum, which today is often replaced by Asian fish sauce.

Quintus Gargilius Martialis was a third-century Roman writer on horticulture, botany and medicine. Several fragments of what are believed to be his work were preserved in Carolingian monasteries, including this recipe. Note that it includes clove, which was not used until fairly late in Roman cooking, and cinnamon, which typically is said not to have been used then for cooking at all. Neither spice is used in De Re Coqinaria, for instance. The choice of fish is also curious, seeming to reflect later, and northern, tastes more than Roman. So questions might be raised as to the attribution of this recipe to a third-century writer. But currently that is the accepted one; if accurate, this recipe records an early use of both cinnamon and clove. If not, this may provide some idea of how Medieval cooks made what they thought of as garum.

Some modern cooks might hesitate to age fish in the way described here; one option might be to use the seasonings mentioned together with off-the-shelf Asian fish sauce.
To make the liquamen called oenogarum
Take fish of a fat nature, these are salmon and eels and shad or herring, and make a composition of them and dried fragrant herbs with salt. Prepare a solid and well pitched vessel of three or four modii capacity, take dried fragrant herbs from the garden as well as the field, put dill, coriander, fennel, celery, savory, clary, rue, mint, watercress, lovage, pennyroyal, thyme, oregano, betony, agrimony and cover the bottom of the vessel with these in the first order, then the fish, whole if they are small, or cut into pieces if big, in one or the other order, on this add salt two inches deep in the third layer, and so alternate all three layers of salted herbs and fish until filled to the top. Then close it with the cover and leave it there for seven days.
The following twenty days two or three times each day stir it with a wooden stick so that the composition is moved to the bottom. After these are completed, collect the liquor which flows from this composition and in this way liquamen or oenogarum is made from it. Take two sexters of its liquid and mix half a sexter of good wine with it, then throw four handfuls of dry herbs into this mixture, that is dill and coriander and savory and clary, add a handful of fenugreek seeds, and of spices thirty or forty grains of pepper, three denari pounds weight of costus, cinnamon, clove the same, this finely crushed mixed in the same liquid. Then cook the mixture for a long time in an iron or brass vessel until it is reduced to one sexter. But before cooking it you must add half a pound of refined honey. Once it is cooked, strain the usual dose through a bag until clear, boiling as it is poured through the bag. Use it when thoroughly strained and cooled in a well pitched vessel to season food.


Caton l'Ancien, Varron, Columelle, Palladius, Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus, Les agronomes latins : Caton, Varron, Columelle, Palladius ed.Nisard, Désiré 1864

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