The Ancient Roman Diet: Typical Food and Ingredients Used in Roman Cookery

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Roman Amphora-used to store garum, olive oil, wine

Judging by the evidence of recipes and carbonised shopping lists from Pompeii, the average Roman family’s diet would have been simple and nutritious. Some recipes are not for modern tastes. Several, however have survived to the present day.

Roman Staple Foods

Grain. Traditionally spelt was the cornerstone of the Roman diet. Known to the Romans as far, it had multiple uses. As flour or farina it could be baked into bread or panis. Alternatively it could be made into puls, a kind of porridge which was one of the oldest traditional Roman dishes. It was also used to thicken sauces or to form the basis of sweet dishes such as tractum which was used in pastries and biscuits.

The agricultural texts of Cato and Columella are full of recipes for other types of grain. Millet, wheat and barley were all staples of the agricultural diet. They were either boiled and eaten plainly or flavoured with cheese, honey, eggs or milk. These porridges remained popular well into the empire with those of simple culinary tastes as well as the poor, who would have relied upon such simple and economic dishes for survival.

Vegetables and Pulses.Rome was well supplied with produce from its purpose built market gardens that sprang up on the city’s outskirts. Evidence indicates that lentils, chickpeas, beans, onions, leeks, celery, turnips, onions, garlic, carrots and parsnips were common favourites. It was also possible to acquire imported food stuffs such as dates which were affordable and readily available in the markets.

Pulses formed the basis of many dishes. They could be ground into flour such as lomentum which was made from ground broad beans, servedin salads with herbs and cheese or in stews and soups. They also made excellent snack food. Chickpeas were soaked and then oven roasted and salted, to be eaten like peanuts.

Cheese Like vegetables, cheese was readily available and commonly combined with vegetables and grain. It could either be served preserved or as fresh curd cheese. Preservation involved pickling in brine or vinegar or salting or smoking. Curd cheese was often mixed with herbs or sweetened with honey and nuts.

Garum and Other Condiments

General Condiments. Olive oil and wine were the most frequent condiments served with food. Wine would be boiled down into a condiment known as sapa and used as the basis of sauces that were often served with Roman meals. Herbs and spices were regularly added to these sauces, as well as fruit and honey, lending dishes a strong sweet and sour flavour.

Garum. Also known as liquamen, garum came in various different grades of quality and was the ancient equivalent of tomato ketchup Made by fermenting mackerel and other fish in huge vats, it was transported all over the Roman Empire. However, it does not feature as an ingredient in regular recipes were salt was more commonly used. It is however regularly included in recipes found in Apicius’s cookbook. An elite recipe book, this suggests it was more of an expensive elite condiment.

Meat Eating and the Romans

Despite literary evidence, the common Roman diet include very little meat or fish. With time, it became more affordable. Most people could afford to eat meat once a week and it became common for at least one main meat dish to appear on modest dinner party menus. It was, however, considered to be vulgarly ostentatious to serve meat with every course, as Petronius’s Trimalchio does in his Satyricon..

Popular meats included pork, lamb, game and beef, as well as chicken and goose. Dormice and wild birds such as thrushes and figpeckers were also eaten as delicacies.

The entire animal was used. Whilst whole roast suckling pigs could be served at feasts, so could thriftier dishes of offal in sauce. Sausages were also popular.

Fish was rare and so therefore costly, except for those living in coast regions. Rome despite its close proximity to the sea, did not have a ready supply. Available stocks were commonly sold live from huge tanks in the markets. Eels, anchovies and sardines and mullet were all popular choices.

Surviving Roman Recipes

Many Roman ingredients and dishes bear little resemblance to modern Italian cuisine. Some, however, could have formed the basis of some Italian favourites.

Laganon was the ancient version of pasta, made from wheat flour mixed to dough with water. Unlike modern pasta, it was fried and not boiled and used to scoop up the vegetable sauce usually served with it.

Ancient Pesto. Columella describes a sauce made or ground pine nuts, hazelnuts or almonds, mixed with oil, peppered vinegar and cheese, with thyme, oregano or savory.

Sources:

  1. Grant, M, 1999, ‘Roman Cookery’. Serif: London
  2. Matyszak, P, 2007, ‘Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day’. Thames & Hudson
  3. Hooper, W D & Ash, H B, (Trans) ‘Cato and Varro on Agriculture’. Loeb Classical Library
  4. Sullivan, J P, ‘The Satyricon by Petronius’. Penguin Books
  5. Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, ‘On Agriculture’. Loeb Classical Library
  6. Faas, P, 2003, ‘Around the Roman Table’. Macmillan
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