Sunday, 18 January 2015

Roman Borscht



Beetroot based borscht has been staining clothes for centuries, but could it be that this Slavic soup actually has more Mediterranean origins?  An Apician recipe titled 'Varro Beets' suggests that the answer to this question might just be a rather surprising yes!

The Roman recipe is nestled amidst a number of others described as 'digestive aids', reflecting the fact that in the ancient world there was a strong link between food and medicine.  Also of interest is the dish's name - Varro Beets.  It could well be the case that this recipe is named after Marcus Terentius Varro, a Roman agricultural writer who undoubtedly had countless encounters with the beet.

Whilst I have served this dish as a soup, the Apicius recipe by no means says that this must be done - rather, we are told that the liquid makes good drinking, something which suggests that it isn't usually included in the final dish.  If this is so, then perhaps it isn't right to call this 'borscht' after all.  However, in both appearance and taste, the 'liquid' is incredibly close to the aforementioned Eastern European soup.  I'll let you decide!

Chicken and Beetroot Soup
(Serves 2)

"For Varro Beets, take black beets and clean the roots well.  Cook them with mead and some salt and oil.  Boil them down until the liquid is saturated - this liquid makes a nice drink.  It is also nice to cook a chicken with this." - Apicius, 3.2.4


Ingredients



  • 3 Raw Beetroot
  • 1 Chicken Thigh
  • 500ml White Wine
  • 500ml Water
  • 100g Honey
  • 2 tbsp Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper


Methods


  • Begin by adding the wine, honey, oil and water to a saucepan.  Add the chicken thigh too, then turn on the heat.  This is the stock for the soup.
  • Whilst waiting for the water to boil, peel and either grate or finely chop the beetroot.  This bit is incredibly messy and your kitchen will probably resemble the fields of Cannae after Hannibal had his way with the Romans.
  • When the stock is simmering away, add the beetroot.  Simmer for 1.5 hours to reduce the soup.
  • When the time is up, take the chicken out and shred the meat using two forks.  Pop this back in the pan with the soup.
  • Have a taste and season accordingly.  When this is done, the soup is ready.  Ladle some into a bowl and serve with some bread.  Delicious!


Results


Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.  With fish sauce conspicuously absent, this recipe is quite different from others we have tried before.  There is an incredible sweetness tempered slightly by the meatiness of the chicken and stock.  Mostly, it is very moreish.  Having tasted the end product it is difficult to deny how close it is to borscht (albeit very sweet borscht).  Do I think the Romans did it first?  In this case, the answer is a resounding yes!

Monday, 22 December 2014

Conditum Paradoxum - Spiced Wine


The scene above is probably frighteningly familiar to anybody who has had their Christmas work-do recently, and would probably be frighteningly familiar to many ancient Romans at this time of year.  We're currently in the midst of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a time of gift-giving and continual partying and drinking which ran from 17th - 23rd December in honour of Saturn, the god of time.

Whilst the above fresco does not depict Saturnalia, I've included it here for two reasons - in it we see Bacchus, the god of wine, and we also see a satyr drinking his fill from a bowl.  The Romans clearly loved the stuff, so I think it is high time we had a go at Roman wine for ourselves.  And what better recipe to start with than conditum paradoxum, an ancient spiced wine not dissimilar to mulled wine.

Unlike most Roman recipes, we have exact quantities for this drink, but because this will produce an industrial sized batch, I have reduced the amounts.  As I was just testing the recipe, my quantities are enough to produce a single glass - scale the amounts if you want a bottle's worth.  A point to note is that this wine is incredibly sweet, much like a dessert wine or mead.  We know that in ancient Rome it was uncommon to drink wine straight - it tended to be diluted with water.  If you find that you need to do this, then do so!  Finally, whilst it is unlikely that this was drunk whilst warm, I think that, much like mulled wine, it is well worth doing.

Conditum Paradoxum
(makes one glass)

"Put six sextarii of honey into a bronze jar containing two sextarii of wine, so that the wine will be boiled off as you cook the honey.  Heat this over a slow fire of dry wood, stirring with a wooden rod as it boils.  If it boils over, add some cold wine. Take off the heat and allow to cool.  When it does cool, light another fire underneath it.  Do this a second and a third time and only then remove it from the brazier and skim it.  Next, add 4 ounces of pepper, 3 scruples of mastic, a dragma of bay leaf and saffron, 5 date stones and then the dates themselves.  Finally, add 18 sextarii of light wine.  Charcoal will correct any bitter taste." - Apicius, 1.1

Ingredients




  • 187ml White Wine
  • 150g Honey
  • 2 Bay Leaves
  • 1/2 tsp Fennel Seeds (instead of mastic)
  • 1 tsp Black Pepper
  • Several Strands of Saffron
  • 1 Small Handful of Raisins or Dates


Method


  • Add 75ml of wine and all of the honey to a saucepan - bring this to the boil so that the honey dissolves completely.  After several minutes, remove the pan from the heat.
  • Whilst the wine is still hot, add all of the other ingredients - this will help the flavours to infuse.  Place a lid on top of the pan to keep the heat in to prolong the process.
  • When this is cool, add the rest of the wine.  To serve, pour through a fine sieve - it will probably still be quite cloudy.  Taste for sweetness - if it is too sweet dilute with water or with more wine.  If you wish to have it hot, simply reheat in a pan!



Results


Conditum paradoxum is an incredibly sweet wine which tastes largely of pepper and saffron.  The pepper means that the mixture is warming even when served cold.  The addition of fennel seeds results in aniseed undertones, but not so much as to be overpowering.  I think that without some form of dilution, whether in wine or water, conditum becomes sickly quite quickly. Overall, this is a luxurious drink which, when served warm, is perfectly suited to the cold winter months.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Bucellatum - Roman Army Hardtack


It's been quite some time since my last post - in that time I've travelled to Cambodia and back, started a new job and moved to a house with a very small kitchen.  In that time many of my Roman ingredients have gone off or gone missing, and I'm at a point where I have to start from the basics.  The very basics.  Where better to start, then, than with some simple soldiers' fare.

The late-Roman Codex Theodosianus, a compilation of Roman laws, states that during expeditions a Roman soldier should be supplied with "buccellatum ac panem, vinum quoque atque acetum, 
sed et laridum, carnem verbecinam." or "hardtack and bread, wine too and vinegar, but also bacon and mutton." (VII.4.6).  Soldiers were supposed to have the hardtack, mutton and vinegar for two days and then have a day of bread, wine and bacon.  We've already seen that the Romans turned vinegar into the refreshing drink posca, learned what bacon might be eaten with and discovered two different ways of baking bread.  But what of buccellatum?  What is hardtack?

Hardtack is a simple biscuit made from flour, salt and water.  As the name suggests, it is rock hard, baked twice at low temperatures for a very long time, ensuring that no moisture is left inside.  This makes bucellatum perfect for soldiering since without moisture it takes a long time to go off - ideal for prolonged campaigns in Britain where the weather would quickly spoil bread and flour.  Just as bucellatum was perfectly suited to soldiering, it was perfectly suited to soldiers too - a tooth lost to this rock hard biscuit was just another war wound.  In fact, so perfect was this match that Roman soldiers came to be known as bucellarii (Photius, Bibliotheca, 80).  The association between hardtack and the military continues long past ancient Rome, with hardtack being eaten by crusaders, Elizabethan sailors and by folks fighting in the American Civil War.

Bucellatum may have been eaten dry, soaked in posca or softened in a stew - no doubt soldiers found a variety of ways to make this staple more exciting.  Given how long it lasts, if you cook up a batch you can try new ways of preparing it for years to come.  Whilst there is no surviving recipe for Roman bucellatum, there are plenty for hardtack.  All are based upon flour, salt and water, ingredients which the Roman army had in abundance and distributed to its soldiers.  Instead of oil, which some recipes call for, I have used a small amount of butter.

Bucellatum/Hardtack
(makes 8)

Ingredients

  • 350g Flour (Wholemeal)
  • 75ml Water
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 10g Butter/Lard or 1 tbsp Olive Oil

Method


  • Mix the flour, salt and butter.
  • Add the water, bit at a time, to create a stiff (dry) dough - hardtack is supposed to be completely dry when finished.
  • Roll the dough out until it is 1/2 inch thick.  Some sources describe bucellatum as being round, so use an upturned glass to cut out the biscuits.  You can cut it as you wish however - I can't imagine the soldiers being too fussy.  Punch holes in the dough to allow the air - and moisture - to escape whilst baking.  I used a chopstick to do this.
  • Place onto a baking tray and into an oven preheated to around 120 Celsius - you want to cook the hardtack at a low heat for a long time.  Mine took 2.5 hours.  Halfway through I turned the biscuits over and re-punched the holes.
  • Leave the hardtack to cool in the oven for several hours.  If any are still moist, cook in the oven until totally dry.


Results


I quite enjoyed bucellatum - it was tough and at times difficult to eat, but it was wonderfully salty and quite filling.  I imagine that it would work well when eaten with a stew.  With lots left over, I will see how well it keeps.


Useful links:

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Dill Chicken


One of the most popular recipes on Pass the Garum, and indeed my personal favourite so far, is Dill Chicken. This recipe captures all of the flavours of ancient Rome and brings them together in one delicious dish.  When we first encountered it, it was as Roast Dill Chicken, but since then, I've taken to cooking it as a stew, making it taste even better than before.  So, whilst I'm wary about re-using old recipes, I think that this is one which you'll be more than happy to cook again and again.

Dill Chicken
(Serves 2)

Ingredients


  • Handful of Fresh Dill
  • Handful of Fresh Mint
  • 1/2 tsp Asafoetida
  • 1 tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • 2 tbsp Liquamen
  • 5 Dried Dates
  • 1 tbsp Wholegrain Mustard
  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 2 tbsp Caroenum or Balsamic Glaze
  • 2 Chicken Breasts


Method

  • Add the dates to a mortar, removing the stones if there are any. Add just enough water to cover the dates, then crush with a pestle to form a date paste.
  • Wash the dill and mint leaves.  Chop them finely, or tear apart and add to the mortar alongside the asafoetida, red wine vinegar, liquamen, mustard, and caroenum/balsamic glaze.  Crush everything until it is well mixed.
  • Dice the chicken into bite-size pieces.  You're going to cook the chicken using the hob, so heat the oil in a saucepan/frying pan/casserole/earthenware dish.  When it is hot enough, add the chicken pieces and cook for a few minutes.
  • Add the dill sauce to the pot, mix everything together, and cook on a low heat for 15-20 minutes.  If you have a lid, use it to keep moisture in.  If not, add a bit of water if it starts to look too dry.  The sauce should be quite thick, so don't add too much water.
  • Once the chicken is cooked, the Dill Chicken is ready to serve.  I recommend it with the Lentil and Root Veg Mash, or the Parsnip Mash, as these absorb the sauce well.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Poached Eggs with Pine-Nut Sauce


Helen O'Connell once asked her good pal Dean Martin, "How do you like your eggs in the morning?"  Mr. Martin, it turns out, liked his with a kiss - the ancient Romans, on the other hand, would have been asking for a whole lot more.  This is because eggs were actually quite expensive in the ancient Mediterranean, costing one denarius per egg.  If you were buying a dozen of them, as we so often do today, you'd have to fork out 12 denarii, or perhaps 10 if you knew how to barter well.  When you consider that the average worker in 300 A.D. was making just 25 denarii per day, you come to recognise that eggs weren't an ingredient to be used with reckless abandon.

If we were a farmer with a few hens running around, we wouldn't need to worry so much, but as it stands we are mere manual labourers who have blown half of our pay packet on a dozen eggs because the fella' at the market convinced us it was a deal we couldn't afford to miss.  What we want to know is, how do we make the most of these eggs?  Why, we poach them and pour over a pine-nut sauce of course!

The recipe describes the eggs as ova hapala, which means that they ought to be very soft-boiled.  I've opted to poach them briefly to achieve this effect.  As you will also notice, I've omitted the lovage called for in the recipe.  This isn't for any culinary reasons - I simply haven't been able to find any recently!

Poached Eggs with Pine-Nut Sauce
(Serves 4)

"Serve pepper, lovage, soaked nuts, honey, vinegar, and liquamen." - Apicius, 7.17.3

Ingredients



  • 4 Eggs
  • 40g Pine-Nuts
  • 1 tsp Honey
  • 1 tbsp Red-Wine Vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp Pepper
  • 1 tbsp Liquamen


Method


  • Soak the pine-nuts in water for several hours to soften them - this will help us make the sauce later.  If you want to be that bit more decadent, soak them in white wine to add some subtle flavour to the dish.
  • Pine-nuts suitably soaked, drain them and add them to a mortar (or food processor) with the honey, red-wine vinegar, pepper and liquamen.  Crush crush crush.  You can make the 'sauce' as smooth as you like.
  • Sauce prepared, it's time to poach the eggs.  For a good no-nonsense video explaining how to do this, click here.  Otherwise:
    • Add a few inches of water to a saucepan and bring this to a gentle simmer.
    • Once the water is simmering away, add a little bit of white-vinegar - the word on science street is that this stops the egg from falling apart while it cooks.  Don't let the water boil.
    • Crack an egg into a small bowl or ramekin.
    • Stir the water in circles to create a vortex (or invoke Neptune to do it for you).  As it swirls, gently pour the egg from the bowl/ramekin into the water.  You need to be gentle to prevent it falling apart.
    • 4 minutes later and the egg is done.  Take it out of the pan with a slotted spoon and set it into your serving dish.

  • With your eggs arranged in a serving dish, spoon a little of the sauce over each of them.  Finish by sprinkling over some more pepper, then tuck in and enjoy!


Results


Perhaps it's just my predilection for poached eggs, but this dish was thoroughly enjoyable.  The earthiness of the pine-nuts combined beautifully with the poached egg, whilst the sharpness of the vinegar cut through the sauce's heavy texture.  The recipe is quite reminiscent of Eggs Benedict, albeit an Eggs Benedict with much stronger flavours.  If you want to get the most from your expensive eggs, you need look no further.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Roman (French) Toast


So much of Roman cooking involves familiarising yourself with the unfamiliar - obscure ingredients, unusual methods of preparation, and nigh-on-non-existent instructions.  So it took me by great surprise when, fumbling through the pages of Apicius, I found a very familiar recipe indeed - it would appear that the Romans had a thing for French Toast!

Needless to say the Romans were there first, so perhaps we should rename the recipe 'Roman Toast', but I can't help but imagine Vercingetorix, defeated by Caesar, being paraded through the streets of Rome with some French Toast in hand.


You may wonder what the point of posting this recipe is when I could just guide you elsewhere, but I think it's nice to see some continuity with the Roman world as well as the near-infinite differences.  You'll notice that the recipe calls for 'fine white bread' - given how time consuming and wasteful it is to produce white flour, white bread was a luxury available only to the well-off in the ancient world.  As it is written, this is a recipe of some status, but feel free to use whatever type of bread you wish, whether fresh or stale.

Roman Toast
(Makes 6 slices)

"Slice fine white bread, remove the crust, and break it into large pieces.  Soak these pieces in milk and beaten egg, fry in oil, and cover with honey before serving." - Apicius, 7.13.3

Ingredients



  • 3 Eggs
  • 200ml Milk
  • Honey
  • 6 Slices Bread

Method


  • Thinly slice the loaf of bread - it fries better this way.  Remove the crusts, and break into large chunks if you wish.
  • Break the three eggs into a casserole dish or a bowl.  Add the 200ml of milk and mix it all together.
  • Soak the bread slices/chunks in the mixture for a few seconds on each side.  If you soak them for too long, the end result will be more omelette than toast (still tasty mind you).  Drain the excess mixture off.
  • Drop the bread into a hot, oily frying pan.  Turn it over occasionally, making sure it doesn't burn.  You know it's done when it starts to look like the picture below.  When you're ready to serve, cover it in honey, as per the recipe.  Cinnamon works well too, and was available to the Romans.


Results


It tasted just as French Toast should taste!  It was crispy without being burnt, and tasted very sweet thanks to the honey added before serving.  All of the egg means that this is a filling dish - I started struggling after my third slice!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Stale Bread Salad


With 'Best Before' and 'Use By' dates in abundance, I think we have grown scared of what we eat.  How many times have you poured away milk, or thrown out a loaf of bread because it was past the little date written on the packaging?  Or how many times have you gone rummaging to the back of the supermarket shelves to gain an extra day or two?  I know I do it all the time!  In reality, your loaf of sliced white isn't going to turn into a rock-hard ball of blue fur the moment it hits midnight, and even if it does, it still has its uses.

This week we're taking stale bread, something which I imagine was abundant in ancient Rome, and giving it a little bit of extra life.  To do so, we're going to enlist the help of our favourite Roman drink, Posca!  The recipe, if followed literally, results in an unusual looking paste.  Delicious though it is, it doesn't look very appetising, which is why I've made the salad a second way too.

You'll notice that the recipe calls for the dish to be chilled with 'snow'. Snow wasn't exactly abundant in ancient Rome, but it was possible to import some, albeit at great expense.  The use of snow in this recipe adds an opulence which we, with our humble refrigerators, cannot hope to emulate.  If winter has arrived, then feel free to use all the snow you want (as long as it isn't yellow) - the rest of us can make do without.  As a final note, I've chosen to leave out mint, as I find it very overpowering - include it according to your own tastes.

Stale Bread Salad
(Serves 1)

"Hollow an Alexandrine loaf of bread, soak the crumbs in posca, and make a paste.  In the mortar put some pepper, honey, mint, garlic, fresh coriander, salted cheese, water, and oil.  Chill in snow and serve." - Apicius, 4.1.3

Ingredients



  • Stale Bread
  • One Glass of Posca
  • One Clove of Garlic
  • 50g Hard Cheese
  • 1/2 tsp Black Peppercorns
  • Small Handful of Coriander
  • 1 tbsp Honey
  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 50ml Water

Method 1 (The Paste Method)


  • Add the pepper, cheese, coriander, and garlic to the mortar and grind it to a paste.  Add the honey, oil, and water, and mix further.  This is our dressing.
  • Hollow out a loaf of stale bread - discard the crust (or put it to use if you can think of a way!)
  • Soak the breadcrumbs in enough posca to make a paste.  Place this paste in a serving dish, and smooth it out.  Spoon over some of the dressing, refrigerate for half an hour, and serve to whoever is brave enough to eat it.

Method 2 (The Alternative)


  • Make the dressing as outlined above.
  • Remove the crusts, and cut the bread into triangles.  Arrange these in your serving dish, and pour over plenty of the posca.
  • Spoon over lots of dressing, refrigerate for half an hour, then tuck in.

Results


I'll be the first to admit that neither of these dishes look particularly appetizing.  Despite this, I still tucked into the both of them, and they were phenomenal!  Posca brought the stale bread back to life, making it deliciously juicy, sweet, and easy to eat.  The dressing was very reminiscent of moretum, one of the first recipes found on Pass the Garum - it was sweet, garlicy, and herby, with a bit of a kick from the black pepper.  As for the two methods of making the dish, I would say that the first one tastes the best.  I think we're all agreed, however, that the second is the better looking of the two.  Take your pick.