What did the Romans eat, anyway?

neo-classical market, Senigallia, Le Marche
Ever since we crawled out of the Dark Ages, the legend of the Roman Empire has enthralled and enchanted us. (They irrigated their fields and built aqueducts! They engineered bridges and roads that lasted long after the Empire crumbled! They had mile markers on their highways! They were democratic!)

So even though the western half of the Empire fell in 476 AD, we still emulate them. When we need a building to look important, we slap on some columns. When we want something to sound important, we write it in Latin. These tricks are nothing new—we’ve been applying them since the Renaissance. More recently, we’ve glorified gladiators in the movies and gladiator-like attire on Project Runway. And every once and a while, someone tries to conjure up a proper Roman feast.

neo-classical market arches, Senigallia, Le Marche

I’m all for marble columns and sandals; I’m less sure about ancient Roman fare. Ancient menus have next to nothing in common with modern Roman food, which tends to be stripped down Italian, reliant on pecorino and pepper, artichokes and fava beans, and, of course, offal from the quinto quarto—the so-called fifth quarter of the animal. While working on this book, I’ve been thinking a lot about ancient versus modern Italy. It got me thinking: what were the Senate and the Roman People eating?

Salt, for starters. The ancient salt route, later turned into the Roman road Via Salaria, stretched from the Tiber River to Le Marche. Some credit the salt route with the founding of Rome. Some also say the tradition of salt in the city has influenced the modern Roman palate, which leans toward the salty side. I say people like salt in Rome because they’re recovering from all that salt-free bread they ate in Tuscany.

Bacchus at Art Institute, Chicago

Garum. I’m a fan of this fermented fish sauce, which is the Euro answer to Asian fish sauce. When I worked at A16, we used a few drops with olive oil, lemon juice, and fried breadcrumbs for a vinaigrette to spoon over tuna conserva. Delicious. Thanks, Christophe Hille, for the introduction.

Bone Marrow. Centuries and centuries before NYC’s Blue Ribbon would serve its first bone marrow bone with oxtail marmalade, those trend-setting Romans were snacking on marrow spread on toasted bread.

Cerveteri museum
Wine. The Museo Civico on the Tyrrhenian coast in the Cerveteri province north of Rome has a collection of terracotta amphora used to move wine throughout the Mediterranean. The Romans liked their wine on the sweet side (possibly because sweeter wine tended to be less likely to turn to vinegar).

Honey. If the wine wasn’t all that sweet, a bit of honey would help wash it down. (Extra credit: Apis is Latin for bee.)

Farmed Fish. The property around the castle-like fortress now inhabited by the Museo Civico (pictured above) was first occupied by the Etruscans and later by the Romans. On my visit in early April this year, the museum docent pointed to a part of the shallow coast blocked off from the sea where the Romans farmed fish.

Rice. The Romans didn’t make risotto—they thought rice should be used for medicinal purposes. I’m not sure exactly what it was supposed to cure. Had they already discovered gluten intolerance?

Looking at my list, it’s not sounding crazy. But look what it’s missing: no tomatoes, no beans, no peppers, no chocolate, no artichokes. None of those foods were around in ancient times. I’m not even sure that pasta had made its mark on the city yet.

And even though Rome was full of insomniacs (Caesar prohibited cart and chariot traffic within the city walls during the day to ease congestion, so traffic started up after dark and went all night–and it was noisy), they weren’t drinking coffee, either.

I can see why a chef would be drawn to the creative challenge of limiting his pantry. You don’t need tomatoes in everything. Still, I’m not ready to forfeit modern-day Roman food for ancient feasting.

Roman Ruins at Villa Bucci estate

2 comments… add one

  • M.F.K. Fisher wrote a whole essay about garum. It is interesting to see that it’s en vogue again… Did it ever really go out of fashion?

  • interesting that MFK Fisher wrote about it! it’s just one of those ingredients that seems to stay on the perimeter–chefs mention it now and again, but it will never be the next fancy salt craze…

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