In one of the most famous episodes in Roman literature, the wealthy freedman Trimalchio invites the two young heroes of Petronius’s Satyricon to a banquet. The menu includes, as appetizers, roast dormice sprinkled with honey and poppyseeds; Syrian plums and pomegranate seeds; fig-peckers (small songbirds) marinated in peppered egg yolk and stuffed into peahen eggs; various testicles and kidneys; cheese tarts; lobster; sows udder; snapper in pepper sauce; and more. Among the entrees figure stuffed capon, a wild boar, roasted and stuffed with live quail and garnished with cake piglets; and a roast pig, slit open to disgorge sausages and giblets. The dessert menu includes cakes and fruit suffused with saffron; thrushes made of pastry and stuffed with nuts and raisins; and quinces bristling with thorns to look like sea urchins. All served by singing slaves while musicians hover and dancing girls cavort through the dining hall.
While Trimalchio’s feast embodies everything we think we know about Roman gluttony and overindulgence, the reality was a bit more complex. It is true that, thanks to the complex trade routes that connected the empire from Britain to the Middle East and beyond, most any food that could be imagined could be bought. When the rare herb sylphium became extinct through overcultivation, it was replaced by asafetida from India. When a patrician required the best sea brine to mix with his wine, he sometimes imported it from Byzantium. If his wine was too warm, he could strain it through a colander of snow imported from the Alps. Excess and abundance were exploited by the rich, as they always have been and always will be, but for the most part Romans tended towards simple, fresh foods and local ingredients – most especially fish from the teeming seas surrounding Italy.
The banquet in The Uncertain Hour is based in part on Trimalchio’s and in part on independent research. It highlights most of the typical peculiarities of the aristocratic Roman palate: the preference for sweet-sour combinations; the widespread use of garum, a sauce made from salted, fermented fish guts; the ubiquity of exotic spices, especially cumin, saffron and coriander; the great variety of local fish and seafood available to the inhabitants of Campania; the delight taken in subtle cheeses and vintage wines. In some cases, the recipes will be familiar to any contemporary Neapolitan; in others, such as sow’s vulva, only the most venturesome need apply.
In any case, this website has no room for the kind of in-depth analysis that Roman eating habits call for. Instead, I’ve included a number of recipes, appropriately adapted, for dishes that are served at Petronius’s dinner in The Uncertain Hour.
For further reading, I very strongly recommend the books of Andew Dalby, particularly Empire of Pleasures and The Classical Cookbook. Two other good, practical cookbooks available for the curious are Mark Grant’s Roman Cookery and Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa’s A Taste of Ancient Rome.
Recipes from An Uncertain Hour
Place all ingredients except wine, rue and passum in a large sauce pan and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.
Add white wine, allow to evaporate for a few minutes, then add rue and a splash of passum. Cover and cook five minutes.
Roast boar with cooked sauce (adapted from A Taste of Ancient Rome)
Using ¼ cup of the olive oil, brown boar in a casserole, add vinegar and bay leaf, seal casserole tightly, then cook over very low heat for 3 hours, turning occasionally.
Roast the cumin in a pan until fragrant and slightly browned. Add the rest of the ingredients except the saffron, and heat slowly for 10 minutes. Add the saffron and cook another 2 minutes. Serve on the side with sliced boar.
2 lbs moray eel, cleaned and sliced
[In The Uncertain Hour, the eel is fried, but as it is a rather oily fish you may prefer to roast it in a hot oven.]
Mix all ingredients and serve with eel.
Saffron honey cakes (adapted from Roman Cookery)
Preheat oven at 350 degrees. Dissolve saffron in a few teaspoons of warm water. Beat eggs until stiff, drizzling in the honey as you do. Add dissolved saffron. Fold in flour, pour into greased muffin tins, bake for 25 minutes. Serve with warm honey.