One food in particular has remained an enigma for centuries - nodi ollae - and it is this recipe which I hope to recreate today. For a recipe which we know next to nothing about, nodi ollae is mentioned quite frequently in literature. Here are the most illuminating passages:
Rations for farm-workers: four modii of wheat in winter, with which to make the nodi ollae. The overseer, housekeeper, foreman and shepherd should receive three.- Cato, De Agri Cultura, 56
Here we learn that wheat is an important ingredient, and that nodi ollae was deemed an appropriate meal to keep farm-hands going throughout the winter! This wasn't just a winter food - when we look at the medical writings of Celsus, we learn that it was seen as the next best thing to a full meal:
If you have eaten a full meal at midday, avoid extremes of hot and cold and tiredness - these are more damaging to a full stomach than an empty. If you find you cannot eat, nodi ollae will preserve you until such times as you can.- Celsus, De Medicina, 1.2.8
I could go on, repeating passage after passage as evidence; Augustus prides himself on making it available to senators who attended the races; Frontinus loves that Rome's aqueducts made it easier to prepare; Pliny the Elder even goes so far as to rate different types of cumin and laser based upon how they taste in nodi ollae. So what actually was it? After several weeks of detective work I have worked out what I believe to be the definitive recipe for that ever-so-Roman of recipes - nodi ollae.
- Toast the cumin seeds and grind them up with the pepper and asafoetida.
- With the spices prepared, chop the onion up into the smallest pieces you can manage. Crush and chop the garlic clove, and mix this with the onions.
- Nodi Ollae translates as 'knots of the pot' - we have to make the 'knots' now. To do this, sieve the spelt flour into a bowl. Add the water, just a few drops at a time, and make a dough which is not too dry or not too sticky.
- Flour a work-surface (plain flour will do) and roll the dough out so that it is about a millimetre thick. You want to chop this dough into lots of little strips before it dries. As the dough dries, the strips curl up and turn into the 'knots' you see below. This process can take several hours, so sit back with a copy of Plautus' latest comedy and relax.
- When they are ready, mix these 'knots' with the spices, onion, garlic, and the peas/chickpeas. Add them to a casserole dish, pour over boiling water, and put into a preheated oven (180 Celsius) for just a few minutes. When it is done, it should look something like this:
- Once the boiling water has done its trick, add a few splashes of fish sauce and tuck in - April Fools!
- Nodi Ollae, I am sorry to say, did not actually exist. I made it up. Cato, Celsus, Caesar - the lot. Who knows what Rome might have achieved (or not) if they had Pot Noodles?
- I don't actually know what culinary masterpiece (or disaster) this recipe will lead to!