Dining, Pompeii Style

British Museum

While in London this weekend we paid a visit to the British Museum’s latest showpiece exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. On entering the exhibition you are greeted with a video that describes this major natural disaster tragedy that resulted in countless deaths as one of the greatest gifts to archaeologists and historians there has ever been. And seeing some of the incredibly preserved objects in this exhibition it’s actually hard to argue with this kind of glib attitude. Some of the things that the British Museum has on display look like they could almost have been used ten years ago let alone almost two thousand. Like the BBC’s unceremoniously cancelled TV series “Rome”, the Pompeii exhibition conspires to show the natives of Pompeii as a boozing, brawling, shagging, shitting people just like you or me, something they achieve through displaying an incredible array of domestic objects in a pseudo-house shaped layout.

A strong part of this ability to empathise with a long dead people is through the food they ate. One of the truly fascinating, and yet harrowing, things about Pompeii is the way that the volcanic eruption preserved in carbonated form all the food that was just about to be eaten that day like a classical Marie Celeste. The exhibition contains carbonated figs and dates and even a whole loaf of bread, complete with the stamp of the baker who made it. On leaving the exhibition, we picked up a copy of the British Museum’s “Classical Cookbook“, because apparently getting recipes is what we do wherever we go, so I decided to have a go at some Pompeii cooking of my own.

Pompeii FrescoMore than anything, the key to understanding the Roman flavour system is garum, the fermented fish sauce that served as their major method of seasoning. This is kind of a problem for us because, as I’ve mentioned before, Professor Plum has the kind of horrible fish allergy that would have her heading for the vomitorium (were that not in fact a passageway in an amphitheatre, not some dinner party puke chamber). A little past experimentation has shown her allergies are specific to certain fish and not others, but it’s still a bit risky whenever we try something from the sea.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (who’s been mentioned here before) describes garum as “the supreme condiment” in Roman food, before telling us how it was prepared: “Garum was a sauce made of the intestines of mackerel or anchovies, macerated in salt and then left out in the sun until the mixture had completely decomposed, or rather had digested itself by the action of the fish’s own intestinal microbes. Carefully calculated amounts of concentrated decoctions of aromatic herbs were added. Then a very fine strainer was plunged into the vessel containing the mixture to collect the syrupy, strongly flavoured liquid. The garum was ladled out and left to mature”. And if that doesn’t sound appealing I don’t know what will!

Pompeii houseGarum was a seriously prized commodity. Every region and every port had their own recipe for garum, the flavour varying greatly from place to place, but the finest was the garum sociorum made on the Southern coast of Iberia, in the area that is Andalucia and Murcia today. From Gades (modern Cadiz) right up the Mediterranean coast to Provence and Liguria in what was then Gaul garum was a hugely valuable trade commodity. As with many other flavour giving foods, this ability to produce garum was part of what attracted the Romans in their Empire building when they conquered Gaul. And it wasn’t cheap either, Toussaint-Samat tells us that in the time of Caesar (a little more than a century before the Vesuvius eruption) a congius of garum (about 3¼ litres) would have cost 500 sesertii, which is equivalent to around £4000 today. In the British Museum’s exhibition there are plenty of signs of garum’s desirability in the various jugs and amphorae. It even tells us that one of Pompeii’s richest merchants built his wealth entirely on garum.

Fish sauceGiven the difficulty of making some macerated and decomposed mackerel in such a short space of time, not to mention a slight concern about going to all that effort only for Professor Plum to bring it back up again, I had to find a simpler way of making my own garum. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of suggestions online. While sauces like this aren’t really much produced over here any more, garum does bear a certain similarity to Asian fish sauces like the Thai nam pla or the Vietnamese nuoc cham. In order to create something that has the appropriate balance of salty flavour the suggestion is to reduce a carton of grape juice and stir a couple of tablespoons of fish sauce and a little oregano. So I did this and managed to create something that may not be the most authentic garum, but came with a pretty decent flavour.

When it comes to the actual dish itself, perhaps the biggest difference between the foods available to pre-eruption Pompeii natives and those that we have today lies in everything that has been brought back from the New World, from potatoes and tomatoes to chilli. Mostly, then, it’s a difference in the available fruit and veg. The meats that the Romans ate are actually quite similar to those that we have today.

One of the reasons why we have so much Roman history to draw on is that the Romans pretty much invented history as a study. They wrote things down in a way that people hadn’t done before and, thus, gave us the earliest in depth accounts of food, diet and recipes. Marcus Gavius Apicius was a renowned gourmet of the era just before the Vesuvius eruption and the name Apicius became associated enough with the culinary arts that De re coquinaria, the first true recipe book written around 400AD, is often known as Apicius. From Apicius we can see that the Romans may have eaten many of the meats that we do, but occasionally in ways that are unfamiliar..

The Roman writer Pliny, a witness of the destruction of Pompeii, for example, is cited in Toussaint-Samat as having some very specific preferences with regard to meat: “The real delicacy of patrician Roman banquets was a dish made from sows’ vulvas and teats No account of such festivities omits to mention them. Pliny goes so far as to claim that the vulva of a sow who had aborted her first litter was the best of all”. Always keen to assert the dominance of her own country’s culinary heritage over that of Italy, Toussaint-Samat can only quote her cartoon countryman Asterix’s famous refrain: “These Romans are crazy.”

Roman ingredientsA little unsure of how to broach the subject of the dead pig’s previous reproductive history with the butcher, I decided to go with a pork dish for my Roman meal, but something perhaps a little more humble than that suggested by Pliny.

The Classical Cookbook provided me with a classical variant on the ever popular combination of pork and apple, Minutal Matianum, named for the Emperor Augustus’ good friend Gaius Matius, developer of a fine variety of sweet apples. In Apicius the recipe simply reads: “Put oil, fish sauce and stock into a saucepan: chop leek, coriander, small meatballs. Dice a cooked shoulder of pork (with the crackling left on). Cook all together. Half way through cooking, add cored diced Matian apples. While cooking, pound together pepper, cumin, fresh coriander or coriander seed, mint, asafoetida root; pour on vinegar, honey, fish sauce, a little concentrated must, and some of the cooking liquor: adjust the flavour with a little vinegar. Bring to the boil. When it boils crumble pastry to bind the sauce. Sprinkle pepper and serve.” Along with the modern interpretation in The Classical Cookbook this proved pretty easy to follow actually, certainly more so than some of the previous historical recipes I’ve cooked here.

Roman cookingAs with the garum, the autenthicity of this meal can never really be 100% accurate. For example I wasn’t about to use the kind of cooking equipment or conditions that were appropriate to Pompeii. The “kitchen” section of the British Museum exhibition’s house layout showed how Pompeii’s residence decided to locate what passed for a toilet right in the middle of the food preparation area, figuring that food waste and human waste might as well be dumped in the same place (see, told you it was an exhibition about shitting). I decided, for the sake of common decency as much as extremely basic food hygiene, not to follow through on this element of the Roman culinary world.

Albeit without using my kitchen as a toilet, fermenting fish for weeks or making a pig have an abortion, I eventually managed to make something that supported the exhibition’s thesis that the Romans weren’t too different from us, as it was a pretty recognisable stew of pork and apple. The presence of both diced pork and beef meatballs was a little unusual, as was the Roman tendency not to separate sweet and savoury flavours. The Minutal Matianum is sweetened with honey, in a pre-sugar age a sweetener that was used in almost everything. But otherwise I felt pretty comfortable that this was the kind of dish that I was actually fairly familiar with making. But how did it turn out in the end?

RomanWell, it certainly tasted pretty good, but I have to say that – with apple, a fairly sweet white wine, grape juice in the garum and a good dose of honey – the dish was a lot sweeter than anything I’m used to, and even sweeter than I’d expected it to be. It was not entirely unpleasant, but the sweetness could almost overwhelm the other flavours. Next to that, the salty fish sauce didn’t really get much of a look in. The cookbook and the exhibition have definitely made me curious to try some more of how the Romans ate. Professor Plum survived the cheat’s garum, maybe next time I’ll go for the real thing (vulva of a post-abortion pig probably less likely).

6 thoughts on “When in Rome…Eat Fermented Fish

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