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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Apicius - the great ancient gourmet

     When it came to entertaining, nobody did it like the Romans.  The books of Apicius are the oldest ones we know regarding the history of recipes and cooking techniques.  They date from as far back as the time of Christ, and provide valuable insights as to how cooking and gastronomy started.

     Scholars are at odds as to whether Apicius was one or several persons, and as to whether the book that we know as De Re-coquinaria was written all at once or it is actually a compilation, put together over several years.  The romantic side of the story attributes the collection of ten books to a Marcus Gavius Apicius, a notable gourmet that lived in Rome during the reign of Tiberius.  This Apicius used to dine on fresh crayfish, and a famous anecdote claims he took sail towards the coast of Africa on a whim, in search for the coveted crustaceans when they were not available in Rome.

     The notable Roman entertained almost constantly and, although possessor of great wealth, upon noticing one day that his fortune would more than likely not allow him the pleasures of such dining extravagances until his final days, he decided to commit suicide by overeating.  I’d say that for any gourmet, this is the ONLY way to go.

     There are several translations of the books of Apicius.  The one I read is the first one ever translated into English by scholar Joseph Dommers Vehling.  Although the recipes are vague and not a single one of them gives any clue on measurements, learning about the ways the Romans prepared their food has been an enlightening experience.

    Take, for instance, the way used to slaughter animals.  In one of the recipes for chicken, the slaughtering is described as raptum.  This has to be the cruelest way of killing an animal, which means none other than pulling it to pieces while it is still alive.  Romans believed that suffering increased the quality of taste in the meat.  Nowadays, of course – and thank God - we know the opposite to be true, as suffering only adds stress and makes the meat harder.  One can only imagine the bestiality that took place in Ancient Rome, not just for entertainment purposes but over day to day living. 

     In general, Romans seemed to believe suffering, on all levels, added a new dimension to life, which somehow made it worth living.  Hence the brutality present in all aspects of their lives, from killing slaves and throwing the bodies into fish ponds in order to fatten the mullets and eels living in them, to the invention of methods like crucifixion as punishment for crimes.

     But going back to the cooking, we see that spices like cumin and black pepper were omnipresent.  Also mulled wine and broth, which were used for sauces and rouxes.  A combination of ingredients that intrigued me was one of fennel, dry mint and vinegar, so I decided to try it in a salad. 

     I made it quite simply, and no recipe is required.  Just slice some fennel in thin strips, sprinkle about a tablespoon of dried mint over it, then season with red wine vinegar.  It’s refreshing and proves to be a nice digestive for something heavy as a lamb roast, with which I served it.  I also topped it with a dollop of crème fraîche seasoned with ras-el-hanout, a special Moroccan spice mix, which added yet another dimension and paired magnificently with the Moroccan-style lamb.