What better intersection of my interests than a meal based on Ancient Roman cuisine. On Thursday July 14 and 15th the Getty Villa offered a combination of lecture on ancient food and a meal of authentic Roman dishes based on the legendary recipes of Apicius. I had used this very same cookbook as the basis for our Empires of the Ancient World Ball back in 2006! The event page for the Getty dinner is here, although it might eventually go away.
We enter the new Getty Villa, which mixes a gorgeous setting, the lovely and semi-authentic original villa, and Richard Meier‘s over-modern Travertine slabs (I personally think the architecture of both Getty’s should have been entirely traditional, as I DO NOT subscribe to the ornament is dead school of thought).
Food historian Andrew Dalby starts the evening by exploring dining practices in the city that once ruled the Mediterranean. He identifies the range of luxuries that comprised a fashionable meal 2,000 years ago: great wines, local farm produce, and exotic spices from India and beyond. Dalby illustrates how invitations and place settings at the table were calculated to impress, persuade, or seduce. Gaius Julius Caesar understood better than any of his rivals that food could serve as a means of persuasion. How did Caesar, a relatively unknown politician, build up the influence that made him a dictator and gave birth to a new political structure? Dalby shares examples from the ruler’s feasts and entertainments to shed fresh light on this pivotal period of Roman history.
Andrew Dalby is an historian and linguist with a special interest in food history. He collaborated with Sally Grainger on The Classical Cookbook (Getty Publications, 1995), which explores the culinary history of ancient Greece and Rome and includes recipes adapted for the modern kitchen. His bookDangerous Tastes (2000), on the origins of the spice trade, was a Guild of Food Writers Food Book of the Year. His other publications include Empire of Pleasures (2000), which addresses food and other luxuries in Roman writings; light-hearted accounts of Bacchus and Venus (Getty Publications, 2003 and 2005); and a new biography of the Greek statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos (2010). His latest translation, Geoponika (2011), brings to light a forgotten primary source on food and farming in Roman and Byzantine times.
Then we proceed into the main villa for dinner.
The food portion was supervised by Sally Grainger, who trained as a chef in her native Coventry, England, before developing an interest in the ancient world and taking a degree in ancient history from the University of London. Combining her professional skills with her expertise in the culinary heritage of the Greek and Roman world, she now pursues a career as a food historian, consultant, and experimental archaeologist.
Grainger’s recent projects include Roman food tastings at the British Museum and the Bath Roman Museum in England. She has demonstrated ancient cooking techniques for English Heritage and also Butser Ancient Farm, a reconstructed Iron Age village and laboratory for experimental archaeology. Grainger recently acquired an M.A. in archaeology and is currently researching the extensive trade across the Roman world of the fermented fish sauce known as garum. With her husband, Christopher Grocock, Grainger published a new translation of the Roman recipe book Apicius for Prospect Books. She has also published a companion volume of recipes, Cooking Apicius.
An aperitif of saffron and honey infused wine. This tasted pretty much the same as the “wine coolers” I made at my party by mixing Soave (a traditional Venetian white that lore has Livia the wife of Augustus praising) with honey.
A table showing off some imperial produce.
Artichokes, pomegranates, raddishes etc.
At the table we are greeted by a menu, and a sprig of aromatic lavender. The full menu can be seen here.
“Traditional White Spelt Loaf: spelt flour, bread flour, yeast.” Rustic roman bread. Food this simple hasn’t changed much, it was pretty bread-like.
“Cucumber in a Mint‐and‐Honey Dressing: cucumber, honey, fish sauce, vinegar, black pepper, mint.”
“Sweet‐and‐Sour Egg and Leek Dipping Sauce with Crudités: cumin, myrtle berries, black pepper, parsley, leek, eggs, honey, white wine vinegar, olive oil, fish sauce”
The cucumbers were very tasty. The sauce was good too, it just had a slightly odd flavor that took a little getting used to.
It’s worth mentioning the infamous Roman fish sauce, garum. This was a type of fermented fish sauce condiment that was an essential flavour in Ancient Roman cooking, the supreme condiment. Although it enjoyed its greatest popularity in the Roman world, it originally came from the Greeks, gaining its name from the Greek words garos or gáron (γάρον), which named the fish whose intestines were originally used in the condiment’s production.
Around the outside edge:
“Chicken Meatballs with a Dill and Rice‐infused Sauce:
Meatballs: chicken, pheasant, sweet wine, black pepper, fish sauce, egg, bread crumbs, dill hydrogarum (cooking liquor): pepper corns, fish sauce, sweet wine, water, Spanish camomile, celery leaves
Sauce: chicken stock, fresh green dill, black pepper, salt, celery seed, arborio rice, defrutum (boiled and flavoured grape juice)”
The meatballs were good, like chicken meatballs with a slightly sweet flavor.
Then in the center:
“Calf’s Kidney stuffed with Coriander, Fennel Seed, and Pine Nuts: calf’s kidney, pine nuts, fennel seed, fresh coriander, black pepper, pigs caul fat, fish sauce, olive oil”
I can’t say I’m a big kidney fan, and this is, well kidney. It was rubbery, with a very very long finish. I just can’t say it was a pleasant one. It’s all the kidney’s fault though, not the recipe per se.
“Oysters with oenogarum: fish sauce, white wine, honey, black pepper, ground celery seed.”
Wow. These were interesting. The oysters are oysters, but the flavor in combination with the oenogarum was REALLY interesting. It added a pleasant, slightly vinegary, sweet briny taste which lasted in the mouth for a good minute or two. I could only describe it as “essence of maryland blue-crab aftertaste.”
“Zucchini Stuffed with Calf’s Sweetbread, Dressed with oenogarum and Served with Mixed Greens: zucchini, calf’s sweetbread, oregano, lovage, fish sauce, eggs, black pepper, mixed baby greens.”
These tasted good, but as usual it’s hard for me to get over my brain aversion, although that was entirely psychological.
“Sea Bass Fillets in a Green Herb Sauce: sea bass, fresh fennel, coriander, mint, rue, lovage, honey, fish sauce, oil, black pepperMain.”
Like herby sea bass!
“porcellum hortolanum: Whole Stuffed Roasted Pig
Stuffing: chicken, pork, eggs, cumin, fennel seed, oregano, savoury or thyme, pine nuts, parsley, pepper corns, pepper, salt, bread crumbs.”
Now this was some good stuff. I was reminded of this crazy pig video (below). They have essentially taken a roasted pig, taken out everything inside, and then packed the skin together with sausage, the meat and all sorts of other goodies to make a giant piggy-shaped meatloaf!
The pig plated.
Shredded Cabbage and Leek with Coriander and Caraway: white cabbage, coriander, leek, olive oil, black pepper, caraway, fish sauce.”
Roman cole slaw! Tasted like slightly sweet herby slaw.
“Beans in a Honey‐Mustard Sauce: black‐ eyed peas, pine nuts, honey, whole grain mustard, rue, parsley, cumin, white wine vinegar, white wine, black pepper, fish sauce”
Again slightly sweet and herby, with a distinct mustard taste. Actually very yummy beans.
2000 year old BBQ pork with beans and slaw!
“gastris: Sesame Sweetmeat: almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, honey, black pepper.”
I guess this stuff has survived more or less, because I’ve had this greek candy Pasteli that is very similar. Sweet and nutty, kinda dry.
“libum: Honey‐infused Cake Served with Apricot Patina: ricotta, eggs, flour, figs, white wine, honey, dessert wine, defrutum (boiled and flavoured grape juice), cumin, black pepper, apricots.”
This is sort of the ancient version of biscuits with stewed apricots. But like all Roman dishes they are more willing to play with the conventional rules of sweet/savory. Hence, the black pepper! The overall affect was pleasant enough, but certainly not radical.
Luna watches over the festivities.
Overall this was a very enjoyable evening. While a bit strange to our palette, it did show how Roman food was anything but primitive (of course I already knew this :-)). Certainly this was a rare treat. Now I just have to find someplace that serves dormice in walnut sauce! It also made me further appreciate the job Celestino Drago did with adapting recipes from Apicus for our 2006 Ball, as they were nearly as authentic. We did, however, skip the kidneys!
To check out another Getty event involving my favorite Dionysian disciples, the satyrs, click here.
Or for some modern Italian dining, here.