Roman food: from poor to wealthy

To follow up on my last post about roman feastgear, this post will be about what to put on that feastgear, food! According to Jo-Ann Shelton (As the roman did: a sourcebook in Roman Social History, 1988) the romans had 3 meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the information we have on the two former are quite scarce. There is a source with an example of a school boy’s lunch which consisted of bread, olives, cheese, dried figs and nuts. This to me (except for the olives) sounds like a perfect snack lunch at an event!

Of course, most of the written sources tell us about the meal traditions of the upper class. The wealthy took a reclined position on couches while having dinner. Preferably outdoors in a garden, if the weather allowed it.

The diet for the poor romans consisted of wheat. Wheat was made, by law, very cheap or even free to feed the poor people. The poorest ate little other than wheat, either crushed and boiled with water as a porridge, or as puls which was a boiled wheat dish like cream of wheat. And if they were lucky and had access to an oven, they ground the wheat into flour and baked bread. Other types of food poor people might have eaten were beans, leeks and sheep lips. With this they drank cheap wine or vinegar, mixed with water. As a slave, it could not have been easy to cook and serve things like meats, cheeses, vegetables, and fruits to the wealthy.
        A story about an old peasant couple tells us that they served a guest some cabbage, boiled smoky pork, green and black olives, cornel-berries preserved in dregs of wine, radishes, endives, cheese and eggs. As dessert they served nuts, figs, dates, plums, apples and grapes. As the centerpiece, a honeycomb.
        A modest dinner had ingredients a poor roman could never afford. A meal like that could include lettuce, leeks, tuna with sliced eggs, fresh green cabbage, small sausages on white grits and pale beans with bacon. Dessert could consist of shriveled grapes, pears and roasted chestnuts. As a small snack after, you could have some olives, hot chickpeas and warm lupines. With all this, you drank wine, most likely mixed with water.

Other sources with dinner invitations name courses like; pickled young tuna, lizard fish, oysters, sow’s udder, stuffed wild fowl, barnyard hens, snails, barley soup, mead, snow, beets, cucumbers, onions, sow’s womb and sea urchins!

A staple in the roman kitchen was the fish sauce called garum or liquamen. There’s a rumor that Worcestershire sauce is a descendant of garum. The sauce was so popular that it was a major industry in the seaside towns. So you could buy a readymade jar from a garum factory, or you could make it yourself.
         The entrails of fish are placed in a vat and salted. You could also use whole small fish like smelts, tiny mullets, anchovies or sprats. You salt it some more and then put it in the sun. After it has aged in the heat for 2-3 months, you strain the mixture and retrieve the garum. Some also added old wine to the sauce.
          It is not certain that recipes that calls for liquamen means the pungent fish sauce or maybe a watered down version. Or if it’s a more general term for stock, broth or some other liquid.

Numidian chicken
Clean and poach the chicken and then remove it from the water. Sprinkle it with assafoetida (a spice used today in North African and Middle Eastern cooking), and pepper, and broil it. Grind together pepper, cumin, coriander seed, assafoetida root, rue, dates and nuts. Add vinegar, honey, liquamen and olive oil. Put over heat, stir and when it boils, add starch as a binder. Pour the mixture over the chicken, sprinkle with pepper and serve!

Rabbit with fruit sauce
Cook the rabbit in wine, liquament and water. Add a little bit of mustard, anise an a whole leek. Prepare a sauce with pepper, savory, onion ring, dates, two damson plums, wine, liquamen, caroenum (a reduced wine) and a small amount of olive oil. Then thicken with starch and let the mixture boil for a short time. Put the rabbit in a serving dish and pour the fruit sauce over it before serving.

Liver sausage
The sausage is made by grinding together pepper, rue and liquamen. Grill pork liver and cut into bits. Combine the liver and the spices and grind together. Stuff the mixture into casings and place one bay leaf in the center of each sausage. Hang them to smoke for as long as you wish and when you want to eat them, remove from the smoke and grill them.

Sweet and sour pork
Put olive oil, liquamen and wine in a pot. Chop a dried shallot, dice cooked pork shoulder and add them to the pot. When this mixture is well heated, grind together pepper, cumin, dried mint and anise. Pour over some honey, liquamen, passum (a sweet cooking wine or raisin wine), a little vinegar and some juice from the meat mixture. Combine the spices with the meat. Add some fruit without pits and seeds and heat it all thoroughly. Crumble some pastry over to bind it, sprinkle some pepper and serve!

Now you have a bunch of recipes and ideas for a wide variety of roman meals, from the simplest to the biggest feast. I’m not much of a cook, so please let me know if you try out some of the dishes and how it turned out. I’ll keep to the figs, cheeses and oysters!

A friend of mine, Anna Syveken in the SCA, is doing a bunch of roman dishes over on her Instagram, so I really recommend heading over there if you want to see some roman cooking!

/Herrin Gele Pechplumin
(Magdalena Morén)

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Filed under Feastgear, Food, Roman

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