Even though we may specifically remember Ancient Rome for its mythology, their colossal buildings (many of which are still standing), and the calendar used in the western regions of the world, there are many more elements they deserve to be credited for. Fun fact: contrary to popular belief, the people of Ancient Rome did not actually invent sewers, but rather helped develop the foundations for their later construction. They did invent concrete and underfloor heating, though, to name a few.
Nowadays, Italy is considered one of the main food capitals of the world, what with pasta, tiramisu, gelato, and let’s never forget a cheesy slice of pizza. You may wonder, however, what was their diet a couple hundred years ago? How about a thousand years back?
To answer that question, we have a fellow name Apicius Caelius, and the cookbook he wrote in the late fourth or fifth century in Ancient Rome, "On the Subject of Cooking." Apicius represented what the higher classes ate, and as you will see, that diet went from zero to a thousand in a matter of seconds. There are your standard peppered desserts and roasts, then there are downright bizarre combinations that ought to be kept far, far away from a kitchen and deep inside the pages of a history book.
20 We Want To Try: Baked Fish And Bacon
Pork might be too strong, cabbage sprouts too soft, so it is time for a happy middle ground combining both elements into one delicious meal. The following recipe is intended for any kind of fish depending on the reader’s personal preference, which is rather handy in the grand scheme of things.
The preferred fish in case is cooked in oil along with shallots. Once it is golden in color, it is garnished with broiled bacon in the center and sprinkled with savory and just a dash of vinegar, then served. Other additives could be fresh basil, perhaps a family sauce worthy of the likes of ancient Rome.
19 We'd Rather Forget: Fish Pie
People are already rather split when it comes to sardines. Some love them, some hate them. Regular fruit or cream pies are generally seen with a positive outlook; even savory pies are well-received for the most part. Now, what would happen if one combines both ideas?
Modern sardine pies are sometimes accompanied by cheese, bacon, eggs, and other additives that complement the flavor of the sardines. Back in Ancient Rome, that was not exactly the case, as they were made with a loose pastry stuffed with a whole lot of sardine paste mixed with spices, herbs, and pepper.
18 We Want To Try: Globuli
Could be a fair food one gobbles up just before riding a Ferris wheel, not just because of the fried factor, but also for the flavor profile. These are sweet fried curd cheese balls, which will have a remarkably delicate yet surprisingly filling effect if you ever choose to make them.
The curd cheese is washed and drained in a cheesecloth in order to remove the excess salt and liquid. Once it is dry enough, the curds are mixed with semolina until they form an even dough. A few hours later of letting the dough sit, chunks are separated from the whole in order to form small balls, which are then fried in olive oil and served with a generous coat of honey.
17 We'd Rather Forget: Apician Jelly
Savory jellies just have a strange demeanor we can't follow without a healthy sum of skepticism. In this case, Apician Jelly contains an array of herbs and spices, along with seedless raisins, honey, vinegar, oil, nuts, pickles, shallots, calf or lamb sweetbreads, and chicken.
Essentially, one makes a broth from the meats. The resulting mix is supposed to be buried in the snow for it to congeal and turn into a jelly from the fat content in the chicken and the sweetbreads, then decorated and served with a dressing made from the previous herbs, goat cheese, spices. It may look pretty, but we will give it a hard pass and opt for something a bit less transparent. Unfortunately, gelatinous meat creations didn't end in Ancient Rome - check out our list of dubious retro recipes here.
16 We Want To Try: A Sweet Bread Treat
There’s sweetbreads, then sweet breads. Spaces between words are extremely important in cases like this, otherwise one might end up with quite the accidental culinary surprise.
For this recipe, one removes the crust from some fine white bread. It is later sliced into individual pieces that will be soaked in a mixture of milk and eggs. Once it is sufficiently spongy, it is covered in honey, cooked over a hot flame, and served with berries, honey, cheese, milk, or cream. Simple, efficient, tasty. A classic. Convenient for those with a sweet tooth who also happen to be on a tight budget for the week.
15 We'd Rather Forget: Lungs With Milk
A few people may choose to marinate pork in soy sauce, fish in lime juice with white wine, and beef in special marinades to give their chosen ingredients a unique flavor. But what about a good pair of healthy lungs?
Back in the day–and still in chosen present countries–animal lungs were pre-soaked in milk in order to maintain moisture and to remove any particularly foul odors from the organ. Afterward, these were stuffed with eggs, salt, and honey for sweetness, because why not? The lungs were then boiled, served, and sliced up just before some quality family time, and every vegan’s living nightmare.
14 We Want To Try: Patina Lucretiana
Because the people of the day thought beef had a tough texture and a bit of an insipid taste, their main meat consisted of lamb and pork. Apicius has several recipes with seafood as well as these two meats.
An excellent recipe with pork involves preparing a bed of shallots and scallions covered in oil, water, and some broth. A salted chunk of pork goes in the middle, then everything is baked until the pork browns. It is served with honey and a dash of vinegar or pure wine, depending on which one is easier to acquire or on personal taste preference.
13 We'd Rather Forget: Lights of Hare
A hare might just be a hare to someone casually gallivanting through the woods, but to the people of Ancient Rome, a hare was an absolute delicacy. They, however, took it to a whole other level. After all, why limit your options to bare hare meat when there are so many organs to work with?
This recipe calls for the magical combo of hare’s liver, blood, and lungs. The blood is added to the liver, along with honey, vinegar, and finely chopped lung pieces. Everything is boiled in their own juices, and served on a fancy silver platter to improve the potentially off-putting
12 We Want To Try: Pumpkin, Alexandrine Style
Think about Thanksgiving for a moment. No, not about one’s drunk uncle raving about Bitcoin or whether Mark Zuckerberg is a lizard. Specifically, think about Thanksgiving dinner, and the dishes served. The makings of pumpkin pie have been present for several years, only with a different while still delightful presentation. A slightly boiled pumpkin is baked with salt, ground pepper, cumin, coriander seed, mint, laser root (now extinct), vinegar, date wine, nuts covered in honey, and oil.
This does not need to be prepared strictly for the holiday season, but the best time to pick a pumpkin is during the fall. So, taking a stroll down a pumpkin patch would be a worthwhile experience to enjoy by yourself, with a friend, or your family.
11 We'd Rather Forget: Stuffed Dormouse
Could you imagine this cute little guy as a snack? No? Well, Ancient Rome did. The edible dormouse was caught then held in captivity for a time while it was fed nuts and acorns. Much like the aforementioned snails, the kept dormice were killed when they were fat enough, after which point they were stuffed with pork and their own meat trimmings along with pepper and nuts, then roasted over a hot flame until crispy.
Not sure about you, but we personally cannot bring ourselves to kill something with such large eyes and a fluffy disposition, no matter how much of a delicacy it might be.
10 We Want To Try: Young Cabbage Sprouts
Now, we must not forget about those who may not be so thrilled about eating pork–or any kind of meat, for that matter. As a solution, Apicius’ cookbook suggests making a hot salad of sorts, which is the best way to describe the following dish.
It consists of boiling young cabbage sprouts seasoned in cumin, salt, wine, oil, pepper, and mint. If that is not flavorful enough, one must pour pure wine, or vinegar mixed into oil onto the salad. A modernized addition would be goat cheese and croutons, or one can always just leave it in a more simple arrangement.
9 We'd Rather Forget: Milk-Fed Snails
Quite self-explanatory, these are live snails removed from their shell and placed in a container full of milk and salt or porridge. The liquid in case would be replaced every hour for an entire day, until the snails were as fat and scrumptious as can be. Soon after they are bloated, these critters are fried in oil, and served.
Now, snails themselves are typically eaten in several other countries, and we are more than fine with that concept. However, removing a snail from its shell and having it crawl slowly when it is about to burst is an admittedly unpleasant mental image.
8 We Want To Try: Asparagus Custard
A recipe more aimed toward those with a deep fondness for asparagus. While the initial image may not be too pleasant, it is a concept that works surprisingly well, particularly when one keeps an open mind and is already used to eating savory pies and custards.
Asparagus tips, black pepper, and a few more spices are all crushed into a paste with the help of a mortar. A bit of wine, broth, and oil are poured into the paste to soften it up, after which point eggs are stirred in. The whole dish is cooked and served with a generous portion of pepper, more fresh herbs, and possibly salt.
7 We'd Rather Forget: Patina Quotidiana
A more usual, daily dish for the upper class in Rome. Consider it the equivalent of cooking scrambled eggs in the morning, or perhaps a bowl of pasta in the afternoon, but instead of a good-humored laying hen or noodles, we are working with brains.
This dish calls for previously stewed calf or pig brains mashed in a mortar. This brainy paste is then seasoned with pepper and fresh herbs, sweet wine, milk, and eggs as it cooks uniformly. Next time you make dinner or go to a restaurant, remember: fine dining is not fine, unless it has a dollop of brains in it.
6 We Want To Try: Roasted Pork Cutlets
Another pleasant arrangement with a pack of flavor in each bite, even though it might be Piglet’s nightmare. We have pork chops marinated in oil, broth, and spices. After the chops sponge up all of those rich, rich juices, they are roasted in that same sauce along with black pepper, spices, honey, and a coat of broth thickened with roux.
Now, quick terminology explanation: roux is a combination of flour and butter which is added to liquids such as sauces, broths, and soups in order to give them more of a dense structure. So, think of it as the reason why Alfredo sauce is so pleasantly creamy.
5 We'd Rather Forget: Improved Broth
Not a recipe in itself, but rather a suggested kitchen tip. Expiration dates were a tad more relative in the olden days when several organizations did not exist and could not pounce on anyone who did not follow established sanitation rules. So, whenever a broth or a fish sauce began to expire, Apicius decided to address the situation in a unique fashion.
He believed that if one turned a pot upside down and fumigated it with laurel and cypress smoke before pouring the broth in, it would ‘fix’ the odd smell, and the broth by proxy. While the logic is not entirely off the rails (since bacteria had not been discovered just yet), it is always a better idea to avoid food poisoning and simply discard any type of edible material if it begins to develop an unpleasant odor.
4 We Want To Try: Nut Custard Turnover
While sugar was not introduced into Rome until a few years after this cookbook, people still managed to make a few treats balanced between the savory and the sweet sides of the spectrum using honey and spices.
A classic nut custard turnover is made with roasted nuts covered in honey, which are later mixed into pepper, a bit of broth, milk, and eggs. The mixture is placed over the fire–or in modern cases, the stove–until it thickens up into a custard. The dessert is then served with more honey and a thin coat of oil. One can always replace black pepper for ground nutmeg or cinnamon, and the coat of oil for butter.
3 We'd Rather Forget: Patina de Rosis
Sometimes it seems as though someone challenged the upper class to make a recipe based on whatever they could find in their gardens or kitchen. A few of the custards mentioned here are somewhat similar to a present-day dessert or savory vegetable pie, while others are more questionable.
This is a rose pie, but do not let the name fool you. Yes, there are roses in it, but there is also a paste made from cooked calf brains. So, we have a zombie wearing rose-petal cologne. Needless to say, perhaps this is where Apicius should have drawn the line.
2 We Want To Try: Elderberry Custard
Elderberries are known for their tart, sweet, earthy undertones of flavor, something similar to eating a raspberry with a mouthful of dirt. Well, not exactly like that, considering how it is a lot more pleasant and a lot less muddy.
This recipe consists of preparing boiled elderberries sprinkled with black pepper, a bit of broth, wine, raisin wine, eggs, and oil. It all goes into a hot bath, much like when making a flan or another type of custard. Apicius warns the reader to never allow the custard to boil, since that would cause it to separate, leading to a grainy paste of scrambled eggs instead of a smooth pudding.
1 We'd Rather Forget: Sow's Belly With Udders
At some point in history, it was decided to have pork belly roasted on an open flame. At another point, it was decided to eat udders. Not just any udders, but rather a sow’s udders still attached to the belly, which would then be cooked as a whole.
Sow’s belly with udders was accompanied with fish and poultry, all in alternating layers with an older, thinner version of pancakes between them. It was served in spices, its own juices, and one very large platter. So, it might resemble lasagna in some ways, the main difference being the fact that there are udders poking out of it.