Romano – Britain! A culinary view!

When Julius Caesar landed on the shores of Britannia in 55Bc He didn’t just bring masses of roman legions with him, he also brought commodities and foods that the ancient inhabitants of that small island had never imagined before.

Early roman map of Britannia

Early roman map of Britannia

A modern map showing roman settlements

A modern map showing roman settlements

Many of the staples of the roman diet have their origins in other earlier cultures, Such as the Greek and Etruscan civilisations, however, they had a well established culinary repertoire that would change the face of food and drink in Britain for ever. Think about the Vegetables that your local supermarket supplies, the chances are the romans introduced most of what you’ll find.

 Vegetables introduced to Britain included garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus. The leeks’ importance as a part of the staple diet of the British population is illustrated by its later adoption as the national emblem of Wales. Amongst the many herbs they introduced to Britain were rosemary, thyme, bay, basil, coriander and savoury mint. They also introduced herbs that were used in brewing and for medicinal purposes such as Rue.

Bay Leaf, Basil & Thyme

Bay Leaf, Basil & Thyme

After the initial establishment of the roman empire in Britain it took until approximately 43 ad to assume complete control of the lower reaches, ( the Celts) to the north were never subjugated and subsequently Emperor Hadrian built his wall between 122 ad – 128 ad  to keep the blood lusting barbarians out of sight and mind.

Agora

 The roman marketplace ( Agora) from which the term agoraphobia is born was a vibrant cornucopia of animals, tradesmen, stall holders, hawkers and all other classes of society.  The sophisticated system of government and societal standards allowed opportunity to one and all. The elite would rub shoulders with the serfs and not bat an eyelid, maybe they kept a respectful distance from the urchins that frequented the agora but in general their chagrin was well hidden.

At the agora myriad items could be purchased, such as kitchen utensils, jewellery, cooking pots, clothing, furniture, animals, building tools, even slaves would be paraded to potential wealthy investors so they could peruse the goods in order to ascertain for which purpose said slave would be best assigned.

A typical scene of life at the Agora.

A typical scene of life at the Agora.

The preservation of food stuffs at the agora was always a problem, has the ancient method of salting was only really a viable option for meats; Vegetables were left to the mercy of the heat ( 3 hot days a year in Britain) and the flies.

Nevertheless the enormous variety of produce on offer was put to use in some excellent and diverse dishes that we shall now turn our attention to!

liquamen / Garum.

Liquamen or garum is a liquid very similar to anchovy sauce that is still produced in Italy today. Its production was an essential aspect of  roman cuisine. The procedure employed was the same one used by the Greeks, whom, has previously mentioned influenced roman life immeasurably.

 The technique of creating such a complex sauce was both time-consuming and elaborate but deemed necessary to add flavour to many dishes.

The Basic technique of garum Production revolved around maceration of fish, salt and herbs ( including Basil, thyme, oregano, savoury, bay leaf ) etc. Freshly caught fish, usually whole small mackerel or the intestines of larger fish would be placed into vats with the salt and herbs and sealed. The vats would be left in the sun until fermentation began, and left to ferment for up to 3 months.  The lack of sun in this new climate hindered this process, but, time and patience would render acceptable results via improvised methods. Much of the original garum used in Britain was imported from the roman heartland on the continent until acceptable techniques overcame this need.

Garum production

Large Vat of fermenting garum.

A traditional vessel for storing prepared garum.

A classic roman vessel for the storage of garum.

  From the vats the liquid would be firstly strained through cloth leaving behind a sludge but allowing a clear oily liquid to pass. It is this liquid that would be the resulting garum; It as been compared to MSG!

  • Analysis of garum remains found at the manufacturing site in Pompeii revealed free amino acids, the dominant one being mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), a result comparable to modern Italian and Asian fish sauces.

Typical Dishes.

 Apicius was a collection of recipes written between the mid 4th and early 5th century in Rome.  Little is known about the exact recipes used by Romano – Britons between 55Bc – 410ad but indications are that Apicius. was referenced often by the multitude of slaves who had been trained has chefs, and of course general household cooks who had access to the recipes via handed down knowledge.

800px-Apicius_Handschrift_New_York_Academy_of_MedicineThe Apicius manuscript to the left (ca. 900 AD) of the Monastery of Fulda in Germany,  was acquired in 1929 by the New York Academy of medicine. Romano-British recipes would be adapted from Apicius originals with locally sources meats and introduced vegetables. Pork in the form of wild boar was hugely abundant from local pastures and forests and stews utilising it were a very important Romano – British staple!

Below are 2 authentic recipes from Apicius

PORK ROAST WITH CUMIN;

APER ITA CONDITUR. Wild Boar. Clean the meat with a cloth. Sprinkle it with salt and ground cumin and let it rest (overnight). The next day, roast it in the oven. When cooked, serve in a sauce of ground pepper, gravy from the boar, honey, stock, boiled wine and raisin wine. (Apicius, Book 8, I-I).

  • 1.5 kg pork roast (wild boar)
    Clay ovens

    Clay ovens

    2-3 tblsp ground cumin
    2 tsp ground pepper
    4-6 tblsp honey
    1 pint of  Chicken stock
    3-4 tblsp boiled wine
    50-100ml sweet white wine

Modern Method
Rub the pork  with the cumin and salt and roast, covered, at 180 degrees for 1 ½ – 2 hours. ( I cut the fat off half way through and make crackling, separately.) Remove the roast from pan and keep warm, covered with tinfoil. Add the meat juices, stock, honey and wines to the roasting pan and deglaze, season to taste plenty of white pepper is my preference. Slice the roast thinly and pour the sauce over it,  warm in the oven before serving.

Authentic accompaniments  would be boiled or baked Vegetables such as turnip, cabbage or leeks.

A modern version of a classic roman wild boar roast.

A modern version of a classic roman wild boar roast.

PARSNIPS WITH CORIANDER

ALITER SPHONDYLOS. Parsnips. Grind cumin and rue. Mix with stock, some boiled wine, olive oil, fresh coriander and chives. Serve the boiled parsnips in place of saltfish. (Apicius, Book 3, XX-4)

  • 2 bunches parsnips, peeled and coarsely chopped
    2 tsp cumin
    sprig of rue, finely chopped ( use a strong herb such has thyme)
    150 mls chicken stock
    2 tblsp olive oil
    handful of fresh coriander
    handful of fresh chives
rue

A sample of the herb Rue; Please note; Rue is now known to be poisonous when consumed in substantial amounts, it should be avoided at all cost by pregnant women.

Modern Method

Parboil and drain the parsnips. Add the olive oil to a sauce pan and gently fry the cumin to release the flavours.

Add the Rue ( Thyme ) Chicken stock, Fresh Coriander and Chives and bring to a gentle simmer.

Place the Parsnips back in the saucepan and gently warm through for about 10 minutes until the Parsnips are al dente. As with all modern dishes its advisable to season with salt and pepper. White pepper was the most widely used in Romano – Britain but  black pepper is acceptable.

Bread

“The staff of life” was by no means new to Britain, having been made in varying qualities for centuries before the romans even considered a new home in northern Europe.

Lots of the pre-Roman bread in Britain was a basic un-leavened  rustic type of flat bread. Many types of grain such as spelt, buck wheat and even dried flower seeds have been utilised in the bread making process. Whether or not ancient Britons had discovered yeast is unclear however we do know that Romano – British bread did to some degree use yeast.

The Yeast of Roman Britain was not the simple light brown living paste of today, it was more a hit and miss concoction, sometimes as basic as a wine and flour paste or a liberal skimming of beer froth. There are countless shapes and styles of Romano – British bread of which a selection appears below. They almost all followed simple recipes such as – flour, water,  yeast  and honey! On occasion olives would be added to create a more satisfying product.

  • Another type of Yeast was also used and is still much revered today by professional bakers.   Chef starter or simply Chef is a piece of  dough that would be torn from a

    thU51P3SJM

    A dark wheat bread possibly containing honey to create a rich sweet loaf

batch of  dough prior to rising.  The torn piece would be wrapped in damp cloth and used to start the next batch of dough, this cycle would continue indefinitely. It is said that some Italian family bakers today have chef starters that are 100 years old.

 

An example of a Roman bread stamp and loaf with the stamps insignia

An example of a Roman bread stamp clearly showing the stamps insignia

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A traditional flat bread similar to Irish soda bread

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Rustic loaf with visible olives

Wine

 The wine consumed in (enormous quantities)  by the people of Roman Britain is quite possibly the least altered of all transcendent commodities , even the methods of production have changed little in over 2000 years.

 Both red and white wine were produced in Britain using the same techniques.

The basic method was to crush the grapes under foot on  specially built wooden troughs with slightly sloping internal bases. The wine juice would be collected from where it pooled underneath the troughs, this juice would then be transferred to huge earthenware vessels known as Dolium, these vessels could have capacities of up to 1000 litres. They would be

Buried Dolium

Buried Dolium

buried in the ground in covered barns to offer the optimal temperature for fermentation to take place. To the right is an example of Dolium from an excavated sight in Italy.

This would have been a familiar sight to wealthy land owners in Britain during the roman occupation.

Once fermentation was complete which took anything from 2 weeks to 30 days the wine would be transferred to storage jars known as Amphora. The Amphora would have small holes drilled in the neck to allow carbon dioxide to escape. ( Any home brewer will tell you that without a system of carbon dioxide release wine and beer can be lost to alarming explosions)

White wine was made using the same procedure however the must (wine ) was allowed to rest on its lees (sediment) which developed flavour. Chalk or marble dust was also added to white wine to cut the acidity or bite.

Note; Lead was often added to wine as a sweetener and is said to have contributed to the madness of the Emperor Caligula.

Below is a selection of Amphora for wine storage, some a little more imaginative and cruder than others;

Well....

Well….

Pear shaped amphora

Pear shaped Amphora

Classic Amphora

Classic Amphora

 It is said that roasted door mouse was a popular dish in Romano – Britain but recipes seem thin on the ground. Certainly Ostrich was eaten and many other foods that would be considered unusual to the modern British diet. Snails, frogs, otters etc have all featured on various banquet tables for the inebriated rich man.

 Final thoughts

I would like to leave you with one of my favourite cooking sketches from one of the most eccentric and ultimately tragic TV chefs ever to grace our screens. I refer of course to Keith Floyd. A chef who would drink wine whilst filming his many shows, he would argue with his producer and sound man, and tape was so precious the scenes rarely got edited and resulted in fantastic comedic parodies of cooking demonstrations,

 In the scene I have included the link for below, Keith is challenged to reproduce a Roman style dish containing garum, and whatever Keith could reliably research when not in the pub smoking park drive and drinking wine.

I hope this brief article has highlighted the direct influences still felt today in much of british cuisine and indeed life in general, things that may not have arisen if Julius Caesar had not embarked on his journey to Britannia…..!

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About jayvongrime

I am My own multi faceted Nemesis. Cook, Angler, Musician, philosopher and confidante to anyone who engages me with gusto and loyalty!
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13 Responses to Romano – Britain! A culinary view!

  1. secularscarlet says:

    I cant thank you enough for this wondeful article Jay. I myself have never looked into the Roman culinary history and found this both fascinating and an eye opener.

    An article one must read over and over , there is so much detail

    Bravo Sir, look forward to your next piece 😊😊😊😊

    Like

  2. secularscarlet says:

    Reblogged this on SECULAR SCARLET and commented:
    A wonderful new blogger and friend, please check out his new site.

    It blends two of my favourites history and food, and this article blew me away with its depth of research

    Bravo Mr Jay

    Like

  3. Jan Hopper says:

    Yet another well written and well researched article. Greatly appreciate the combined history and related recipes. Graphics well chosen as well!

    Like

    • jayvongrime says:

      Thanks Jan. The research for the knowledge gaps is self educating, so in writing these blogs I’am learning new things all the time.
      The images I think embellish the blogs very well.

      Like

  4. madhat2014 says:

    I have finally read your blog. Great detail and information.
    What have the Romans ever done for us, eh? 😉
    The old A5 runs close to where I live. I went from London all the way to Anglesey (where incidentally my mother I in-law lives). Some years ago we drove along it, as best as you can these days. Not the fastest route now, but much of it is still there. It’s a symbol for me for that efficient Roman drive to conquer this country. Once in North Wales I always image the old Welsh tribes lobbing borders onto the advancing Romans. 😉

    Like

  5. madhat2014 says:

    PS Whoever crafted *that* wine amphora clearly had a sense of humour. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  6. jayvongrime says:

    Thanks Anke, not just for reading the peice but also your interesting comments. Regarding *that* Amphora….Clearly The British sense of humour was a Roman gift! I did promise to include one item of joviality in every blog!

    Note; if you do pub quizzes always remember the last Roman emperor in Britain was Romulus Augustus.

    Like

  7. David Hughes says:

    Great article Jay. Don’t much fancy the dormouse, need a dozen to make a butty !
    I read somewhere the Romans invented the beef burger .
    Might do the wild boar next week, sounds good.
    Well done Buddy, more of the same please.

    Cheers
    Dave 👍🍴🍷

    Liked by 1 person

  8. jayvongrime says:

    Cheers David. .
    Indeed the door mice may require a lot of washing down with red wine. The Garum though is something I’ve been tempted have a go at. Just a few issues over it going off and
    poisoning me.

    The pork stew featured at the end in the video is something I’ve tried, a little refinement and it was excellent.

    I’am pleased you took the time to read the article. 😊

    Thank Jay. .

    Like

  9. Awesome blog buddy. Although I know which amphora I will definitely NOT be drinking from 😉

    Like

  10. Tim says:

    Excellent article Jay. Tim Chastain, your Christian friend on Twitter.

    Like

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