Pop culture often depicts Roman emperors as enjoying lavish feasts. What would it actually look like to feast like a Roman emperor? While you can’t take a time machine to see, you can look at the food of the period. Apicius de re Coquinaria is a collection of recipes that survives from the Roman period. This book was translated and commented upon over multiple editions. We hope to give a suggested Roman feast based on some of the foods described in Apicius, as translated in the Joseph Dommers Vehling edited version. Vehling includes various notes and comments from earlier editions of Apicius by other authors. Each recipe in the Vehling version is numbered, so we will also include the number of the recipe.
Our suggested feast includes an appetizer, a main, 2 vegetable sides, a salad, and a suggestion for a dessert. We will give an overview of the limited original instructions as well as some of the commentary that accompanies each recipe. Practically none of the recipes in Apicius have suggested amounts for ingredients so if you wish to try any of these suggestions, there will be a lot of room for interpretation.
For our appetizer for our Roman feast, we will take recipe 43 from Apicius, Lobster or Crabmeat Croquettes. The original recipe says that the shells are broken, and the meat extracted. You are to pound the crab or lobster meat in a mortar with pepper and the best kind of broth.
Now the next part is where the commentators make suggestions and notes. The original recipe does not describe how you are to cook the mixture into croquettes. One author explains that the recipe implies that the shellfish was boiled alive, and you should take the broth that it was cooked in to somehow stick the meat together for frying. Another author disagrees and says you should put the meat into casings.
Our suggestion is to use a modern food processor instead of a mortar. Also, you could follow some modern croquette recipes for their preparations. Regardless of how you decide to prepare it, this is a Roman dish that we could easily see being on a modern menu.
Our main dish for our Roman feast is Chicken Parthian Style, recipe 237 from Apicius. While the original recipe doesn’t include measurements or amounts, you can find a modern version of this dish if you would like to try it. YouTuber Max Miller aka Tasting History has tried this dish, so there is a video if you would like to watch.
The recipe states that you are to dress the chicken carefully and quarter it. You have to crush pepper, lovage, and a little caraway. Moisten with broth and add wine to taste. You place the chicken in an earthen dish. You pour the seasoning over it, add laser, and wine. The chicken should be allowed to absorb the flavor of the seasoning. Then, you braise the chicken to a point. When done, sprinkle with pepper and serve.
The commentators’ notes suggest that this is probably a smaller chicken like a bantam and that you should fry the chicken a bit before placing it in the dish. Laser was a popular herb for the Romans that historians aren’t completely sure what it is, but it likely no longer exists. Lovage is an herb that will be explained in the next dish.
For our first vegetable side for a Roman feast, we suggest recipe 87 Young Cabbage, Sprouts from Apicius. The original version does not mention whether you should cook the ingredients or not. Some of the commenters suggest that they can be raw with the ingredients forming a dressing or you can boil the sprouts first.
The original states that the sprouts are to go with cumin, salt, wine, and oil. You can add, if you like, pepper, lovage, mint, rue, and coriander. The tender leaves of the stalks are to go in the broth with wine and oil being the seasoning. There is a lot to digest with this info.
For those who don’t know, lovage is a leafy plant that has a flavor similar to celery or parsley. Rue, meanwhile, is a bitter, herby plant that is used sparingly. However, it is a traditional flavoring in the Mediterranean, including Greece. Together, some of the ingredients in this Roman recipe remind us of some modern cabbage dishes.
Our second vegetable side for our Roman feast is Beets with Leeks, recipe 97 from Apicius. The recipe says to slice the two together. Then, you crush coriander and cumin, add raisin wine, boil all down to perfection, and bind it. Finally, you have to serve the vegetables separate from the broth with oil and vinegar.
The commentators all agree that for some reason the original Latin translates to raisins and flour rather than raisin wine, but they don’t see a reason for this. Here, we could possibly see a use for the flour as a thickener, but not a use for the raisins, so adding some sort of starch as a thickener wouldn’t be completely out of the question. Also, one of the commenters suggests serving the beets and leeks cold with oil and vinegar after cooking them with the spices and wine.
If you would prefer a salad over the vegetable sides or in addition to them, then we recommend recipe 109, Endives and Lettuce. The commentators mention that the endives are meant to be a substitute for lettuce when lettuce is not in season.
The recipe states endives with brine, a little oil, and chopped onion, instead of the real lettuce in wintertime. Then, it says, the endives are taken out of the pickle with honey or vinegar.
The editor’s notes mention that the brine, oil, and onion are meant to be a dressing for the endive. They also later mention that the endives are taken out of the pickle and the honey or vinegar is meant to be a dressing. Here, we at Medieval Collectibles are not quite sure if the endives are supposed to be pre-pickled as a preservation method, since this is supposed to be for winter, or if the mixture works just as a dressing. The second way sounds tasty.
It is worth noting that Apicius does not seem to have any section explicitly for desserts. However, there are various recipes that mention how to preserve various fruits. Thus, our suggestion for a dessert dish would be a selection of fruits. These fruits could include citrus, pomegranates, plums, apples, figs, grapes, quinces, and mulberries. All of these fruits are explicitly mentioned in Apicius, usually within the first section.
Together, these dishes from Apicius can create a fantastic Roman feast. Some of these recipes are reminiscent of modern dishes, especially the croquettes and the cabbage. Enjoy!
Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome – Edited and Translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling