You Were What You Ate!

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Food and cooking habits of the past have always fascinated me because I have often fantasized that we might have to, one day, return to the past and live again in utter simplicity as peak oil, peak soil, climate change, water scarcity, overpopulation etc…eventually will catch up in the not so distant future.

First of all, and this is worth noting, the vomitorium is not a place where overfed Romans went to empty their stomachs. Vomitorium is indeed a Latin word, but it has nothing to do with food: it was the name of the exit from the theater and amphitheater, which ‘spewed out’ the crowds at the end of a show. Having cleared this Palinesque fallacy, let’s move on to Greece, 400bc, or thereabouts.

It is also worth noting that all of those tales of exotic and gluttonous eating point the finger to the Romans. Very little of such extravagance is reported of the Greeks for the impeccable good reason that the normal diet of the classical Greek world was commonly frugal and unadventurous, and above all wonderfully healthy. Yes, incredibly healthy and not Spartan at all. Reading up a list of available ingredients in ancient Greece one notices a strong Mediterranean diet that must have played a great part in the remarkable achievements of their race. It was a proverb among the Greeks that “hunger is the best sauce” yet in their literature Homer describes his heroes as great eaters of beef, with barely a mention of seafood which is strange since it was plentiful and great numbers of fishermen were present in all coastal cities and villages.

The staple of all their meals was bread, wheaten or barley, leavened or unleavened, depending on their income. For them it was indeed the stuff of life. Bread at a typical meal was not two bits of sliced bread with a thin piece of meat or cheese but it virtually was the main course. If it was accompanied by some fish, meat, olives or cheese, all the better but these were regarded as mere garnishes. The bread itself might be spread with olive oil or honey, but never with butter. Butter is actually a Greek word – bouturon (‘cow-cheese’), but it was regarded in Greece as a barbarous confection from northern Europe (as was milk, which was only used to make cheese).

Fish, both fresh and salted, was one of the commonest forms of what they called opson (what we’d call the meat in the sandwich), while meat was far less favored as the Greeks prized their vegetables, salads and fruits. During festivities they feasted on delicacies such as roasted lamb with capers, boiled or fried seafood with rich sauces, saffron-flavored rice, thick lentil or bean soups, honey cakes, Persian peaches, Oriental oranges and much more. Olive oil permeates the entire history of Greek cuisine, as does the humble lemon and honey was the traditional sweetener in all of their dessert courses.

Greek drinking habits were as restrained as the rest of their diet. Drunkenness was comparatively rare, and never a matter for boasting (as opposed to our customary approval of being “a little tight” though here in Ireland they take it to 11!). Only wine was used (beer and spirits were seen, like butter, as equally barbarous) and was regularly diluted with water. To drink neat wine was considered loutish and was greatly watered down in large receptacles (Hollywood though did manage to conflate Rome and Athens in their drinking binges scenes). The large bowls used for this purpose were called craters, literally ‘mixers’, and their broad shape gave a name to the mouth of a volcano. Most visitors to Greece, or Greek restaurants, will have come across ‘retsina’ – wine to which pine-resin has been added. It is, to put it mildly, an acquired taste and it is probably the oldest surviving relic of ancient life to be found in modern Greece. Why the Greeks first “resinated” their wine is not clear. It may have been a means of reducing its acidity, or of preserving it for longer, or perhaps simply of improving its lack of sugar.

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Now switching to the Romans with their iconic lampreys and flamingos, the famous words of Caesar: “I came, I saw, I conquered” were indicative of the ideology of the Roman Empire. Food was certainly one reason that the Romans expanded their territory. They built the first highway system to transport goods like food quickly and easily and helped make the ancient Romans a very important part of the European trade system. Because of this trade and its advanced technology, ancient Rome became powerful and successful throughout Europe though one can safely say that in earlier times their normal food and drink was as simple and healthy as that of the Greeks.

They may have eaten more meat and less fish, but in general they followed the natural diet of a rural society in the Mediterranean. But before long they faced problems which had never tested the Greeks: the acquisition of a huge empire and the plethoric wealth that it gave to the ruling class and their cronies. At the height of the Roman empire the rich and the powerful fell into unseemly and often competitive extravagance at the table. These were the targets of the famous satirists of the period (as seen in Fellini’s Satyricon where the vulgarian ex-slave Petronius serves dishes such as dormice with poppy-seeds and wild boar stuffed with live thrushes).

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A cooking book was written for these Roman gourmets and gourmands by Apicius (see pic above), possibly one of the best-known of Latin cookery books (since I think it is the sole survivor from that era), which includes recipes for jelly-fish, ostrich and sterile sow’s womb (I kid you not). However the Romans are most famous not for their foods, but their spices and sauces that they put on top, especially liquamen. To make liquamen, Romans collected heaps of small fish, saturated them in salt, and let them ferment in the sun for a few months, sometimes adding wine. Imagine the smell. The resulting liquid was strained, and put on almost everything. It was more common of a spice than salt itself. Liquamen is still used today in southeast Asia, but under a different name (tuk trey, muoc mam, or nam pla, depending on which country you are in).

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