Mark Grant on Roman Cuisine

We will soon be sharing some warming winter recipes from culinary researcher Mark Grant’s Roman Cookery, but in the meantime here is an interview with Mark on Roman cuisine and its relationship with modern Mediterranean food. Mark teaches classics and has edited and translated a number of culinary works by historical figures such as the Byzantine physician Anthimus and Oribasius, personal physician to the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate.  His most recent book is Austro-Hungarian Cookery: Leaves from a Family Kitchen.

What led you to become interested in Roman cuisine? Why do you think it is a culinary tradition worth exploring?

Shaun Holman, one of my Latin teachers at school, asked if anyone in the class had come across the cookery book by Apicius. He had bought a copy for the library and that evening I borrowed it.  Over forty years later I am still experimenting with Roman food. I pay tribute in the book to his memory. What I find fascinating about Roman food is the survival of flavours. There are predecessors of pesto, Provencal beef stews, agrodolce sauces, filo pastry, honey cakes and dried fruit. This culinary tradition unites east and west, the Christian and Islamic worlds, a common heritage that dates back over two thousand years.

Can you tell us something about the research process? How did you go about finding the recipes in Roman Cookery?

I studied Latin and Ancient Greek at school and university. My PhD looked at the broader topic of ancient dietetics. I also taught Classics at secondary schools for nearly twenty years. Almost from the outset I wanted to find recipes from outside Apicius, a compilation from the late Roman Empire, and so I kept a notebook of references. The sources can be divided into three main types: recipes detailed in agricultural and technical works, for example Cato’s On Agriculture (3rd/2nd century BC), Pliny’s Natural History (1st century AD) and Galen’s extensive writings on medicine (2nd century AD); marginal notes by ancient commentators and scribes to explain difficult words in a text, for example dishes mentioned in the plays of Aristophanes (5th century BC) and Plautus (3rd/2nd century BC); and fragments of other cookery books, for example the Heidelberg papyrus and authors quoted by Athenaeus’ Partying Professors (2nd/3rd century AD). Archaeology can show the content of larders around the Roman Empire, and thus the regional variations, and how this was prepared for the table.

How does Roman cookery relate to modern day Mediterranean and Italian cooking?

Roman cookery is quintessential Mediterranean cookery. It is its very foundation and for some recipes it has hardly changed. Yet just like any other cookery, it needs lots of practice to make perfect, and then some more. Without a family tradition from which to learn, anyone interested in Roman cookery must keep experimenting, trying out proportions and testing ideas. Each cook has to create that family tradition, as if there were a slave in a tunic standing by the side of the stove.

What do you think readers will find most surprising about Roman cooking

That it is really very good – and very sophisticated. I have run cookery sessions around the UK, the most recent at the Wells Latin Summer School, and the verdict is positive. Sometimes the impression from history books is that Roman cooking is not for the modern palate. The flavours can be both familiar and unusual. It is exciting to have such a window on the past.

If you were to recommend one Roman recipe what would it be?

This is a difficult question and the answer will of course change. But for the moment I would recommend a recipe by Apicius (4.5.4) for apricots. Mint, vinegar and wine do not sound as if they will work. Adjust the proportions – the recipe, like most, does not give quantities – and the result is exquisite in its subtlety. For a recipe where I have noted my own interpretation of quantities, the nut cake on pages 144-5 of Roman Cookery is wonderfully moreish.

Read more about Roman Cookery here.