Let me take you back to the days of gladiators, naumachia, and chariot races. In other words, the halcyon days of ancient Rome. Much has been told about the grandeur and general largesse of Roman feasts. Those old toga-wearers would eat so much that they needed to take vomit breaks. So, I was pretty geeked to get into A Taste of Ancient Rome by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa. I bought it as a joke for my Latin-loving husband because the author takes an original recipe, in Latin, and translates it into something you can make in your kitchen. Well, she translated it from Latin to Italian, and then Anna Herklotz translated it from Italian to English.
Maybe something got lost in all of those translations or maybe ancient Romans were all about the number of dishes and not so much about how they tasted. Let me just say that at my feast, the vomitorium was not used for making room for more food. I made four recipes: an appetizer, a main course, a vegetable, and a dessert.
Pine Nut Sauce for Medium-Boiled Eggs
- 4 medium-boiled eggs (I did them hard-boiled)
- 2 oz pine nuts
- 3 T vinegar
- 1 t honey
- Pinch each of pepper and lovage (that’s parsley)
Soak the pine nuts for 3-4 hours in the vinegar. (Granted, I didn’t have that sort of time. They soaked for maybe an hour and a half as I cooked everything else.) Then mix all the sauce ingredients thoroughly in a blender. (Now, I know that the ye olde folks didn’t have blenders, so I’m not sure how long this would take with a mortar and pestle, but I don’t want to think about it.) Place the sauce in a sauce bowl so each person can serve himself or herself.
Since I hard-boiled the eggs, I just drizzled the sauce on top of the eggs.
Damn good. I think I will make this sauce and add it to the mayonnaise when I make egg salad. The tangy vinegar and sweetness of the honey are remarkable. I might also use this to modify hollandaise sauce for eggs Benedict. It’s super easy to make.
Chicken à la Elagabalus
- 1 medium (about 2 lbs) cleaned and gutted chicken, cut into pieces
- 4 small tender leeks
- 1 bunch each of coriander (European talk for cilantro) and savory (I didn’t have savory on hand so I used sage)
- 2 C white wine
- 1 T olive oil
- 1 t garum (fish sauce)
- For the sauce
- Ample white pepper
- 3 oz pine nuts
- 1 C milk
- 3 hard-boiled egg whites, minced
Gather the leeks, cilantro, and savory substitute into a bouquet, tying so that it doesn’t come apart when cooked; place it in a pot with the olive oil, wine, and garum. (I diced the leeks up rather than including them in the bouquet.)
Heat and add the chicken pieces to cook. When they are around three-quarters done, prepare the white sauce: Grind the pepper (mine was already pre-ground) and pine nuts in a mortar, moistening with a bit of cooking juice from the chicken. Blend thoroughly with milk.
Remove the herb bundle from the pot and cover the chicken with the white sauce. Cook a further 10 minutes to reduce the sauce, then add the minced boiled egg whites.
Apparently, this recipe is attributed to the emperor Elagabalus. Before his short, four-year reign, he was known as Varius Avitus Bassianus. So, if you really want to make this recipe, you might find it under Chicken à la Varius in your handy-dandy stone cooking tablet.
The chicken tasted like boiled chicken—which is understandable since you basically boil it wine. Then, it just got nastier from there. I’m not even going to bore you a picture. The white sauce was bland. In a lot of Roman recipes, garum replaces salt (salt being a highly-prized commodity, but rotten fish were plentiful). And, there is just not enough salt in this recipe.
Also, the copious use of eggs in these recipes surprised me. Especially since it is so unproductive in this sauce. It’s a creamy white sauce, and then you go and blow it by adding something crazy like minced egg bits.
Broccoli with Herb Sauce
- 2 lb broccoli
- For the sauce
- 1 T cumin
- Garum to taste
- ½ C strong red wine
- ½ C olive oil
Boil the broccoli in salted water and drain when cooked. (I hate boiled vegetables. So, I steamed the broccoli in my ye olde fashioned microwave. Very Roman, I know.)
Mix the sauce ingredients together and pour over the broccoli
This would be good with red wine vinegar, but the red wine itself didn’t have enough punch to really make it taste like anything. I ended up with oily broccoli. The cumin made for an interesting after taste, but it was really just a bit odd.
- 4 pears
- Water or white wine to cook the pears
- 1 T honey
- Pinch each of pepper and cumin
- ½ C passum (I was plum out of raisin wine, so I macerated some raisins in cognac and called it a day)
- 3 eggs
- 1½ C milk (optional)
- 1 T olive oil
Poach the pears in the liquid. (I peeled and cored them before poaching.) Crush them into a puree, mixing in the honey, pepper, cumin, and passum.
Beat the eggs and milk. Then, blend this into the pears with the olive oil. Pour into a casserole (a small square one worked well) and bake for around 20 minutes at 350°. (I baked for another 10-15 minutes because it looked really juicy and uncooked, but then it still looked the same.)
I’ll let the picture speak for itself.
Yup, that was the gray gruel-like substance that passed for dessert in Roman day. Now, not knowing what this is supposed to look like in the first place, perhaps it should be more frittata-esque or like a soufflé. How did it taste, you ask?
As Paul said, “I suppose if you had never had real sugar or dessert, this would pass as something sweet.” I was not a fan. The gooey texture mixed with the grainy bits of pear was too much for me. Paul said that it was only OK, but then he ate all of the leftovers for breakfast the next morning. Like I said, he loves all things Latin… even, apparently bad Latin food.