by Annelies Van Wittenberghe
on October 21, 2015

Inspired by the Roman Cookbook of Apicius

Did you ever wonder how to prepare a flamingo? According to the Roman 'Cookbook of Apicius', this eccentric bird is at its best served in a sweet-and-sour sauce with coriander and dill! This cookbook, an impressive collection of classical Roman recipes, dates back to the apogee of the Roman empire (between the first and third century AD).

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Food as an essential part of the rich Roman culture

Imagine the time where Rome is the largest, richest and most powerful city in the Mediterranean world. Food is an essential part of its culture, with opulent meals being mentioned in poems and plays and the walls of Roman villas being decorated with still lifes of exquisite ingredients.

"Wealthy senators feast on giraffe and parrot and the most expensive oriental ingredients like pepper, spikenard and cardamon were shipped the Italian peninsula, opening the Roman flavour spectrum."

Roman cuisine sometimes is associated with gluttony; classical texts do occasionally mention decadent dishes like a large roasts with live birds inside, or bizarre ingredients like pheasant brains (but more often than not, these texts try to prove the eater's lack of morals rather than to describe an actual culinary practice.)

Mentioning dishes like eel with Syrian sumac, meatballs with carraway, dates and Parthian asafoetida, the cookbook of Apicius clearly reflects the diversity and vastness of the Roman empire. My favorites: a cumin and parsley sauce served with shellfish, a wild boar stew with pine seeds and dates, and spicy chicken with squash and apricots!

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Combinations & seasonings from The Cookbook of Apicius

Most dishes in the cookbook are well-balanced, tasty and surprisingly modern! Roman cuisine often combines sweet and hearty ingredients, the Apician cookbook adds dates to fish sauces as a binding ingredient and cucumber salad is sweetened with raisins and honey.

"Garum or fish sauce is an indispensable ingredient in Roman food culture. Asparagus quiche, crab cakes and stuffed chicken are seasoned with this fermented condiment. Culinary historians often replace garum by Thai nam pla, a fish sauce that matches these aforementioned dishes."

Roman cuisine heavily relies on pepper and greens herbs. Almost every Apician recipe contains parsley, mint, cilantro or lovage. Partially, the Roman cuisine builds on the flavor combinations of the ancient near East. The combining of the matching cumin and cilantro was quite common in Babylonian cuisine, and is well-represented in the Apician repertoire.

This Roman cookbook adds a few other aromatic matches to the classical cooking canon. Apicius combines lovage with thyme in an ostrich stew, and seasons a fish stew with pepper, parsley and oregano. One spice mixture even contained pepper, oregano, parsley, saffron, dill, celery seed, thyme and ginger, which are all matching ingredients. Apicius mentions an overabundance of different kinds of meat and fish. Dormice are served with minced pork and ginger, goat is combined with prunes and sea urchins are seasoned with bay leaf.

This recipe with sea bream and dates is very feasible and showcases the rich aroma of classical Roman cuisine.

Dorade with dates and pine nuts

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by Annelies Van Wittenberghe
Having blown the dust off of hundreds of cookbooks spanning classical antiquity to present, Annelies Van Wittenberghe has an extensive knowledge of ancient flavour patterns and culinary practices. She shares with us the most enticing and alluring Foodpairings of the past. A historian by training (Ghent University) and a gourmand by calling, Annelies is also a soon-to-be professional chef.

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