Ancient Cuisine Part 1: Dormice Dipped in Honey, Fermented Fish Sauce and Flamingo.
Honey was indispensable to many ancient civilisations as a natural sweetener and was a vital ingredient of Greek and Roman cuisine, as well functioning as a preservative and to alleviate a variety of medical complaints. Greek beekeepers would move their hives considerable distances to take advantage of regional vegetative cycles and optimise production, and by the 6th century BC, beekeeping had become so widespread in Greece that a law was passed to regulate the location of new hives. Beekeeping also flourished throughout the Roman empire; a working apiary recently excavated at Tel Rehov, in Israel’s Beth Shean Valley, dates from around 3,000 years ago and has been estimated to have contained around 100 hives and to have produced about half a tonne of honey every year. Similarly, another well-designed ancient apiary in Malta is estimated to have accommodated at least a hundred hives. The ancient Romans were well acquainted with the regional variation in taste, texture and aroma attributable to the prevailing vegetation. Horace, the leading lyric poet during Augustus’ reign, describes bees’ attraction to thyme and lauds the honey from Tarentum, in Southern Italy. Sicilian honey was also held in high esteem.
Wealthy Romans could purchase a huge variety of produce imported from far-flung parts of the empire, including ham from Belgium, oysters from Brittany and game meat from Tunisia. There were more than thirty varieties of olive available, and a staggering array of fruits and vegetables including pears, dates, figs, celery, garlic, cabbage, beans, lettuce, onions asparagus, cucumber, turnips and parsnips. Carrots of various colours were also cultivated – but not in orange! Tomatoes, capsicums and potatoes were yet to arrive from the New World; rice was seldom available and citrus fruits were also rare. Seafood was more commonly consumed than meat, and oysters were farmed on a large commercial scale. Beef was scarce, in part because cows were valued for their milk, while bulls were indispensable working animals. The most popular meat was pork – often eaten as sausages. Dormice were considered a delicacy, and were fattened on a diet of walnuts, chestnuts and acorns. They were then commonly roasted and dipped in – you guessed it – honey. Some well-to-do Romans apparently liked to show off by weighing the dormice in front of dinner guests!
Fortunately, there is ample evidence – both in terms of written information and archaeological finds – concerning ancient Greek and Roman culinary favourites. So much so that the British Museum has published a volume entitled The Classical Cookbook, written by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, which brings some of these recipes to life for modern cooks. Honey and olive oil feature prominently as staple ingredients, as does fermented fish sauce, which the Romans knew as garum. The use of this preparation was so widespread that it became an integral part of the Mediterranean economy. It was celebrated by renowned first-century encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder, and featured in the early Roman culinary text, Apicius, which also included a recipe for flamingo! If fermented fish sauce seems a little too much for the modern palate, think again. Worcestershire sauce, a perennial favourite since 1837, is made with fermented anchovies!
It is also apparent that some of the recipes contained in the book are surprisingly intricate, and that the majority remain just as mouth-watering to this day. For example, honey glazed prawns are sauteed in a mixture of honey, fish sauce and olive oil. The sauce is then reduced; chopped oregano is added and it is then poured over the prawns. Finally, the dish is sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper, and then served with crusty bread and a salad.
The recipe for roast lamb or kid is derived directly from Apicius. The meat is first marinated in a combination of milk, honey, a little asafoetida, and salt and pepper, while a handful of dates are soaked in red wine. The next day, the meat is seasoned with olive oil and roasted at 200OC. Meanwhile, the sauce is prepared by pulping the dates and adding more red wine, honey, fish sauce and oil. It can be thickened with a little corn starch.
Athenian cabbage sounds like a particularly interesting starter or side dish and was claimed to cure headaches and alleviate stomach upsets. Finely sliced white cabbage is tossed with chopped green coriander, fenugreek seed and honey vinegar, and then finished with a pinch of asafoetida powder and salt.
Pancakes drizzled with honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds were likely to have been enjoyed at breakfast and were possibly a form of street food in ancient Athens. Honey was – predictably – pretty much a universal ingredient for ancient desserts, some of which have survived almost unchanged to the present day.