But What If We Don’t Like It? Cooking Roman Staples and the Dilemma of Authenticity

Selected Classical Recipes
Layered Cheesecake – The Classical Cookbook
Fish in Coriander Crust – The Classical Cookbook
Nut Cake – Roman Cookery

GrecoRoman Pt 5.

When making the array of ‘Roman staples’ (of which many didn’t make it into the post), I encountered a problem. I frequently didn’t like them. However, I’d bought the ingredients, I was hungry, I was darn well going to eat them.

I have been lucky to have so much choice in selecting recipes. I could have easily chosen only items I know I would like. But I forced myself to step outside my boundaries -and heavily resisted the inclination to adjust the recipes to my taste. Making food I like wasn’t the point (but was usually an added benefit). The point was seeing if I could learn something new about the Greeks and Romans through their food. But how much can you learn if it isn’t authentic?

The topic of authenticity in museum spheres has inspired much discussion, experimentation, and debate. When is something considered real or fake? When should we care? Can ‘fake’ be just as useful as it is harmful? Visitors increasingly want to ‘experience’ the past in immersive ways. But as I have discovered, ‘filling in the gaps’ can be done -or interpreted- as ‘necessary substitutions’ or conversely, as ‘complete fabrication’.

An ‘authentic’ Roman kitchen. Believe it or not, my kitchen does not look like this. Source.

To what degree are we beholden to following old recipes if we don’t like them? An interesting conversation on this matter is found within The Culinary Chronicles (#22, Autumn 1999. Kindly sent my way by the Culinary Historians of Canada). It concludes that in a museum setting one should always have respect for:

  1. the original recipe – as an artifact;
  2. the original author – who wrote and developed the recipe as intended; and
  3. the museum (or blog) visitor – who should not be lied to, mislead, or cheated out of an education in gastronomic history

Time for some quick self examination! In comparing those tips with my own posts:

  • Am I upfront about all substitutions and assumptions? Check.
  • Do I make inferences rather than knowings, unless further backed by textual documents? Almost always.

I did notice two other things. Putting aside that I have an alarming ability to sometimes sound like a time travel tourism ad, I fail to provide the original document in full (from my futile attempt at limiting word count). I have described the changes made, but hindered further comparison. Unfortunately, some of these recipes are adapted from lengthy passages. (See this Garlic and Herb Spread, in case you doubt me.)

Going forward I will quote the original, or link were possible.

A Macedonian Banquet. Sadly, this is not how I usually eat my meals. No authenticity in dining experience. Source.

Has my experience been ‘authentic’? Some would say it is as much as possible, others would argue that it has not gone far enough. Due to my inability to acquire certain herbs (looking at you, spikenard), as well as my use of modern technology (because the Romans totally had blenders), it is impossible to know how accurate my creations taste. And we cannot forget, culinary historians adapted these recipes while lacking quantities or verbs in many of the original documents. It is safe to say that most of these recipes are the product of much educated guess-work. From the beginning I have mentioned that authenticity is never entirely possible in historic recipes, because I introduce many inaccuracies. Things are quite different today: theway we process our flour, the geographical location where we cultivate our foods, thetechnology we use to cook items, the preservation methods, and the spices we have access to in our markets.

My creations are based upon ancient sources, yes. But they are undeniably modern adaptations. For my purposes, does that matter? I argue not. I am conservative when drawing inferences on preparation (even on volume of aroma), as my methods are different. And yet many times I use the differences as learning points. I ask myself “How has modern production affected the behaviour of a particular ingredient? Why for the life of me can I not find these herbs? How long will it take to de-fumigate the apartment of anchovy?” Practical things like that.

In this way, and many others, recreations can be extremely useful. Even when ‘fake’, recreations can inspire previously unforeseen topics of discussion and research. And if palates differ, changing things so that it meets your own preferences defeats the point. Think of it instead as an educational experience! (That you never have to taste again. That would be you, Vitellian Peas.)

For a full bibliography of cookbooks used in the Classical journey of Historic Kitchen, please see this post.

Layered Cheesecake (Placenta) – The Classical Cookbook, Sally Grainger and Andrew Dalby

Cato, On Agriculture 76

Cato Cheesecake 2_picmonkeyed
Layered Cheesecake. I like to think that the crispy tips make it a little more authentic hmm?? Photo: Leah Moncada.

1/3 cup semolina
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
340g ricotta cheese
3 tbsp plus ½ cup clear honey
bay leaves

Just cover the semolina with cool water. Let sit for 1 hour.

Sift 3/4 cups of the flour into a bowl. Add 2 tbsp cold water and knead into a dough. Let rest.
Strain the semolina, removing as much water as possible. In a bowl, knead 1/3 cup flour into the semolina. Knead into a dough and let rest.

Beat the cheese, adding 3 tbsp honey. Set aside.

Divide the semolina dough into 6 equal pieces, rolling each piece into 20cm circles. You will have to pull with your hands after rolling. Cut into even circles and discard the edges. Lay to dry on a lightly floured surface.

Once dry, roll, press, and pull the flour dough into a 45cm circle.

Grease a baking tray with olive oil and cover with 4-5 bay leaves. Place the flour dough disk onto the leaves. Spread 1tbsp of the cheese mixture into the middle of the dough. Place one semolina disk on top of the cheese mixture. Continue layering cheese and semolina mixtures, finishing with a layer of semolina. There should be about 13cm of flour dough around the semolina layers.

Starting on the far side, fold up the pastry, moving clockwise. If there is any excess on top, twist it off.

Bake at 425F for 45-60m, until golden brown.

Let cool slightly. Serve with plenty of warmed honey drizzled over the slice.

Not your modern cheesecake. Here we have a verbose food connoisseur and a straight talker discussing placenta:

“The streams of the tawny bee, mixed with the clotted river of bleating she-goats, placed upon a flat receptacle of the virgin daughter of Zeus, delighting in ten thousand veils – or shall I simply say cake?”

“I’m for cake.”

-Athenaeus X 449b-c

A rather bland recipe, I had to resist adding herbs to make it more flavourful. Placenta was served at banquets but it perhaps better known as a common religious offering at temple altars. In an unnamed Horace source, Grainger describes how a temple slave, sick of honeyed placenta, ran away looking for some plain bread! I sympathized.

It is interesting to note that the ratios of Cato’s text are unusable. The resulting dough would misbehave, as well as be many feet across when rolled out.

Fish in Coriander Crust – The Classical Cookbook, Sally Grainger and Andrew Dalby

Apicius 10, 1, 4, 436

FIsh in COriander Crust 2
Fish in Coriander Crust. Photo: Leah Moncada.
2 tbsp coriander seeds 
1 tsp salt 
2 fillets of cod, haddock, or plaice 
white wine vinegar 
Roast the coriander seeds in a dry frying pan for a few minutes. Cool slightly, then pound in a mortar with the salt until it is well broken. Pat fillets dry and check for small bones. Roll fillets in the spice mixture. Place in a well oiled casserole dish and cover with a lid. Bake for 15-20 minutes (at a temperature determined by the fillet). Sprinkle liberally with white wine vinegar (critical!) and serve immediately. 


I could talk about the importance of fish in the greek and roman diets, as that would make much more sense given my post topic. However, I want to bring up a delightful fellow that Grainger and Dalby mention in the preface to this chapter by the name of Archistratus. Possibly the oldest recorded food critic, his writings are snappy and full of interesting little cultural tidbits. I mention him specifically because he and our two authors spend an entirely necessary length of time discussing an eminently important topic: WINE. To compliment this dish, they recommend a white, preferably from Sicily. Enjoy. (You’re welcome.)

Nut Cake (Gastris) – Roman Cookery, Mark Grant

Athenaeus, The Partying Professors 14.647f-648a

Nut cake 2
Nut cake. Hard to believe this was outlawed! Photo: Leah Moncada.

100g poppy seeds
100g ground walnuts
100g ground hazelnuts
100g ground almonds
100g dried and stoned dates
100g dried figs
150g sesame seeds
75g clear honey
1/2 tsp black pepper

In the oven, briefly grill the poppy seeds and ground nuts. Turn frequently to prevent burning. 

Puree the fruits. Add the nut mixture and pepper, blend until it forms a sticky dough. 

In a pan, bring the honey to slow boil. Simmer for three minutes, or until it darkens. Blend 1/3 of the honey into the fruit and nut mixture. In a separate bowl, mix the remainder of the honey in with the sesame seeds. Flour your hands. Divide the sesame mixture into two equal balls. Flatten one ball onto a paper covered plate, in a 25cm disc. Place the fruit and nut mixture on top, spreading evenly to cover all the sesame seeds. Flour your hands again, and flatten the remaining sesame ball on top of the cake. Let sit while the honey cools and hardens.

According to Grant, gastris is a rare example of a particularly elaborate branch of Roman cooking. This recipe was apparently banned under Roman law – on the grounds of extravagant ingredients! It is so tantalizing to think about what kinds of dishes this so-called branch of cooking included, that we will likely never experience.

Historic Kitchen returns in Fall 2015 with a tour of Late Medieval & Renaissance Europe

Originally published on Musings on July 31, 2015.

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