Romans ate a wide variety of food, so it’s hard to generalize. They tended toward sweet, sour and tangy flavors. They also loved a strong and salty fish sauce, called Garum like some people love hot-sauce. Garum was made by allowing whole fish (or just their innards) to ferment and liquify, and the process was so putridly pungent that it was illegal to make at home. Some people have argued that Worchestershire (anchovie) Sauce is a descendant, but those odorific Asian fish sauces (which can clear a house) such as Nuoc Mam or Nam Pha probably come closer. These kinds of sauces add a savory depth, just as Bitters improves certain drinks, to the mixtures of sweet and sour tastes that Romans liked.
Something to drink?
Romans drank wine with their meals, and the wine
came like ours, in various grades from gut-rot to local and imported vintages. Ancient wine, however, was much more concentrated than modern wine, and Romans diluted it with water (it was considered kind of crass to drink it straight) and flavored it with various ingredients like honey and herbs. Poor Romans drank posca, a mixture of water and vinegar that could also be flavored.
What’s on the menu?
These representative menus come from a variety of sources, but represent banquet settings for the urban poor (Cena Proletaria), small rural farmer (Cena Rustica), city dweller (Cena Urbana), and aristocrat (Cena Nobilis). I used them for an entry on “Rome’s Imperial Appetites” for The Armchair Reader history series. Some of the upper crust kinds of menu items can be found in De Re Coquinaria (“On Cookery“) of Apicius, a practical cookbook written for cooks (that is, upper-class household or caterer servants) around the 4th century CE. Apicius is not the author, but probably Marcus Gavius Apicius, a famous foodie and lover of fine things from the first century CE. Whoever wrote the book probably named it after Apicius in the same way that someone now might want to associate their cookbook with Julia Childs or Lynne Rosetto Kasper. Many people have adapted the recipes in it for class activities.
Gustatio et Promulsis (Appetizers and Starters)
Bunch Berry and Wine Preserve
Fresh Endive and Radishes
Pickled Tuna Garnished with Sliced Eggs and Rue
“Velabrum Street” Cheese
|Bottomless Treasure Chest of Sea Urchins, Oysters, and Mussels with Carrots
Warbler “Trimalchio” (Whole warbler baked in a peppered egg-crème dumpling and decorated to look like peacock eggs)
Thrush Baked with Asparagus
Roasted Capons and Figpeckers
Oyster and Mussel Pasties
Black and White Barnacles with Carrots, Sea-Smelt, and Jellyfish
Prima Mensa (Dinner and Its Courses)
|Puls (boiled wheat cereal) or Panis (bread)||Boiled Farm Cabbage with Rafter-smoked Bacon||Boiled Green Cabbage
Sausage on a Bed of Couscous
White Beans and Bacon
|Wild Boar with Turnips, Lettuce, and Radish Set in a Tangy Caraway-Wine Sauce
Platter of Lamprey and Shrimp Glazed with Campanian Olive Oil, Spanish Mackerel Caviar, Wine, White Pepper, Lesbos Vinegar; Reduced in New Wine infused with Arugula, Yellowhead, and Fresh Sea Urchins
Crane Encrusted in Meal and Sea-Salt; served with Fig-Fed Goose Foie Gras and Leg of Rabbit
Fish and Boar Pasties
Secunda Mensa (Desserts) and Matteae (Savories)
|Puls or Panis||Basket of Nuts, Figs, Dates, Plums, and Apples with Honeycomb
Homemade Ricotta Cheesecake with Honey
|Neapolitan Chestnuts Roasted with Raisins and Pears
Cooked Chickpeas and Lupines
|Mixed Pastry and Fruit Tray Dusted in Saffron
Dates “Apicius” (pitted dates stuffed w/ nuts and pine kernels and fried in honey)
Spits of Blackbird and Squab Breasts.
Chicken with “Capped” Goose-Eggs
Homemade Wine Mixed with Water and Honey or Herbs.
|Table Wine Mixed with Water and Honey or Herbs.||Vintage Domestic and Provincial Wines, Cooled with Snow and Flavored with Honey, Herbs, or Spices.|