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.

(makes 8)


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


  • 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.


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)


  • 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


  • 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


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


  • 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!


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


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


  • 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.


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


  • 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.


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.

Monday, 23 September 2013


Posca, the Roman vinegar-based wonder-drink, is a bit of a mystery, because as much as people keep mentioning it, it is oddly absent from ancient literature.  Posca appears in books and articles, being sipped by soldiers and passed around by pals, yet we don't even have a recipe for it!

Basically, we know that soldiers were given a vinegar ration (Vegetius, Concerning Military Matters, 3.3), and that this vinegar could be mixed with water and drunk. (Celsus, On Medicine, 2.27)   Hadrian drank posca to 'be one of the soldiers' (Historia Augusta: Hadrian, 10.2), and from this we can infer that it wasn't a drink usually served to the rich.  On the contrary, this was a drink sold on the streets! (Suetonius, Vitellius, 12.1)  If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense - vinegar is what is left when wine production goes 'wrong', or if wine is left exposed for too long.  Knowing how much wine the Romans got through, it stands to reason that there was a lot of vinegar knocking about - so, why not put it to use?

Clearly posca was good enough to keep a Roman army marching - in his soldiering days, Cato the Elder drank posca to fend off raging thirst. (Plutarch, Cato the Elder, 1.10).  The sharpness of the vinegar masked the taste of questionable water, the acidity would have helped to kill off certain bacteria, and, according to a recent study, vinegar makes you feel more full after eating bread.  We shouldn't rush to say that the Romans knew all of this, but it is important nonetheless.  What wasn't so important to the Romans was writing the recipe down, which leaves us in a bit of a pickle.

I've encountered several recipes online, some simplistic, and others quite complex.  They're all feasible with regards to ingredients, so we're going to try them all and see how they taste.  If anybody can find a reliable source for any of these recipes, please do get in touch!  Before starting, make sure you use brewed vinegar (red-wine vinegar preferably), rather than distilled.

1) Ever-so-simple Soldier's Posca

All the sources say is that soldiers drank a mixture of vinegar and water, so that's going to be our starting point.  Nothing fancy here.


  • 2 tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • 250ml Water


  • Mix and drink!


  • If you want to replicate that 'stuck-in-the-freezing-cold-north-of-England' feeling, or fancy something a bit more refreshing, use chilled water.

2)  Sharp-but-sweet Posca

I've seen several websites suggesting that honey was added to posca (without providing sources mind you).  It's a feasible suggestion, so let's pretend we're an entrepreneuring posca salesman looking to one-up the competition, and give it a go.


  • 2 tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • 250ml Water
  • 1 tbsp Honey


  • If using set honey, melt it in the microwave for 20 seconds first.
  • Add the honey to the water, give it a stir, then add the vinegar.

3)  Posh Posca

Everybody loved the honey idea, so now they're all doing it.  We have to go one further and make our posca even tastier!  I've seen claims, again unsourced, that crushed coriander seed was a favourite addition to posca.  It's certainly feasible, although I can't imagine it's what the soldiers and common people got to drink, hence why we're calling it posh posca.


  • 2 tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • 250ml Water
  • 1 tbsp Honey
  • 1/2 tsp Coriander Seed


  • If using set honey, melt it in the microwave for 20 seconds first.
  • Add the honey to the water, give it a stir, then add the vinegar.
  • Crush coriander seeds, add them to the drink, and stir it about for a bit.  After a few minutes, strain the seeds out, and serve the drink.


Vinegar and water sounds quite horrific if we're being honest, but my oh my is it good!  First up was Soldier's Posca, undoubtedly the most 'realistic' version of the drink.  No matter what you add to it, posca is always going to smell strongly of vinegar - this makes taking that first sip difficult.  Struggle through the smell and you have a very refreshing drink with a bit of a tangy taste.  The closest comparison I can think of is lemon water, or lime cordial.  Secondly was posca with a touch of honey.  This was, in my opinion, the tastiest version of the drink; the sweetness of the honey and the acidity of the vinegar work well together, making the mixture much more drinkable.  Finally there was 'Posh Posca' with its added coriander seeds.  This tasted much the same as the second drink, with the coriander seed emphasising the citrusy taste.  With the added expense and hassle however, you have to ask if it's worth it.

Without a written recipe, we can never truly know what went into posca, meaning that all of the above is just guess work.  Given what we do know, I think it's safe to say that posca resembled at least the first of these recipes, although all are equally plausible.  All I can do now is urge you to try them, and see what you think.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Rome sweet Rome!

When I set off for South East Asia, the ancient Romans were the last thing on my mind, but every once in a while, thousands of miles from the Mediterranean, I would see something which taught me a little bit more about their world.  I saw 'ruler cult' in Vietnam as people lined for hours to see their 'Uncle Ho', witnessed religious rituals in Laos and Northern Thailand which wouldn't have been out of place in ancient Rome, and even got to stand side by side with the elephants as Hannibal once did.  

More relevant to Pass the Garum, I also learned a lot about food and cooking.  Asians, like the Romans, are a lot less sheltered than most of us when it comes to preparing and eating food.  If you want to buy ingredients you visit the market, and very quickly get used to the sights and sounds of chickens being killed and cows having no heads - and heaven forbid if you don't use every last little bit of the animal!  Continuing on, stalls were stacked high with countless herbs and spices, and people peddled fruit and vegetables which I never knew existed!  This raises an important question - if we can't even cook an authentic Thai green curry because we don't have the correct ingredients, how can we ever hope to recreate Roman recipes?

One ingredient which we can be a bit more certain about is that Roman staple, liquamen, made now in much the same manner as it was all those centuries ago.  I was lucky enough (depending on who you talk to that is) to visit a Vietnamese fish sauce factory.  Fish were caught in the village, fermented in large vats for around a year, and the liquid was drawn off.  Tasty.  Here are several pictures of the fish-sauce-making-process:

Perhaps the biggest insight I gained into Asian food was how social it was - SE Asians typically take to the streets in the evening to hunt out their favourite foods, with tables and chairs filling every bit of available space.  Meals, with all of their added revelry, can last long into the night, with conversation flowing just as fast as the food.  Ancient Rome was much the same in many respects; the vast majority of people simply did not have the space or facilities to cook elaborate meals, so they headed out in search of food - we can only imagine what the atmosphere might have been like!

With all this added insight and experience, we're now ready to get back to good old Roman cooking - well, almost.  I'm in the process of moving house, and will have to reacquire a few important ingredients first, but once I do we'll have some great recipes ready to get us started again.  Keep your eyes peeled!