Lenticulam de Castaneis

A recipe for a Roman dahl. It is quite delicious and well worth the effort. We had some techy issues which meant that the latter half of the film was lost. (Rod admits he had the second half on ‘slow mo.’ and it cannot be converted back to normal speed). Lucky really as we probably would have added the lentils and not quite realised how much the pounded chestnuts actually look like lentils. The 6 months between the 1st and 2nd half of the film were some of the worst days of covid here in the UK. We do hope our subscribers have faired ok in these terrible times.

There are just three lenticula recipes. One a genuine one (I have made it many times: it is pretty good see below. The other two may not have contained lentils at all but may have been lentil-like recipes i.e. when cooked they look like lentils: a creamy textured dahl. The chestnuts when cooked are remarkably similar in appearance and texture to the genuine article. I suspect that the lenticula ex spondilis sive fondilis was also made without lentils so that the mussels when cooked and pounded do look like dahl too, though I am loath to test this out and spoil all those mussels by pounding them. These recipes represent a common trait in Apicius for fake food: dishes that are made to look like something they are not. There is often an assumption that this is an elite affectation, a game that the host can play on his guests. “Guess what this is”? he would say and you may fear what you are being forced to eat. In the later lives of the Caesars we find that the fashion for fake food is taken to extremes with banquets of food all dyed the same colour or gems and pearls mixed in with the peas and lentils. On a simpler level we find recipes for salt fish with out salt fish – made with pounded liver – and other dishes appear to be named not by what it is made from but by what it is similar to: its appearance. This kind of fake food is not necessarily an elite affectation but a genuine attempt by the cook and caterer to use new or different terms to describe simple dishes.

The second attempt at the sauce was a great success too. The combo of fresh mint and coriander with cumin and coriander seed, with honey vinegar and fish sauce has an Asian piquancy that is also very fresh. You are supposed to add laser root to two of the lenticula recipes and as we have never been able to get this spice asafoetida will have to suffice. My fresh unadulterated laser from Kabul is too powerful and can over power everything else very easily as Rod reminded me, he did not like the first sauce at all! Using the henng: the Indian asafoetida mixed with turmeric did well on this occasion as it was relatively subtle. I am always wary of too much asafoetida. I do expect and hope that the root of this spice will give a different taste to dishes. I also have a hope that one day I will be able to cook with the root as I have made contact with a scientist in Turkey who has access to large numbers of plants and he will harvest the root for me soon. Whisper it not but he also believes he has found the original silphium so watch this space for news!

5.2.1. Lentils with mussels: take a clean pan, (put the lentils in and cook them– edit out). Put in a mortar pepper, cumin, coriander seed, mint, rue, pennyroyal, and pound them. Pour on vinegar, add honey, liquamen, and defrutum, flavour with vinegar. Empty the mortar into the pan. Pound cooked mussels, put them in and bring to heat; when it is simmering well, thicken. Pour green oil over it in the serving dish.

5.2.2. Lentils with chestnuts: take a new pan and put in carefully peeled chestnuts. Add water and a little soda, put it to cook. When it is cooking, put in a mortar pepper, cumin, coriander seed, mint, rue, laser root, pennyroyal, and pound them. Pour on vinegar, honey, liquamen, flavour with vinegar and pour it over the cooked chestnuts. Add oil, bring it to heat. When it is simmering well, pound it with a stick as you pound in a mortar. Taste it; if there is anything lacking, add it * When you have put it in the serving dish, add green oil.

*My favourite sentence in Apicius. The very essence of how to make things taste good. Knowing what it should taste like and what you should add comes with time and experience but in the case of Apicius it is largely fish sauce that does the trick.

200 gm chestnuts roasted and peeled (freeze and peel while still frozen, believe me its better than trying to do it while they are hot) 1 tsp. of soda 1 tsp. peppercorns 1 tsp. cumin seed 2 tsp. coriander seed 2 large sprigs of fresh mint a pinch of rue 1/4 tsp. asafoetida 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh pennyroyal (optional) 3 tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 heaped tbsp. honey
3 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp olive oil

Place the peeled chestnuts in water or wine to cover bring to the boil and simmer till tender. In a mortar roast and grind the cumin and coriander with the pepper, add the fresh mint leaves and the asafoetida and grind all to a fine powder Add the liquids and blend. Pour into the cooked chestnuts and stir vigorously till all the chestnuts have become a paste. Alternatively, as I did, take the chestnuts out of th4e cooking liquor and mash them and return to the pan with the sauce. Taste! and add it! Fish sauce probably, but also honey may need to be used to balance the sharpness.

The remaining lentil recipe is a genuine one.

5.2.3. Another lentil dish: cook (the lentils); when they have been skimmed, add in leek and green coriander. Pound coriander seed, pennyroyal, laser root, mint and rue seed. Pour on vinegar, add honey, liquamen, wine, flavour with defrutum, add oil and stir. If it needs anything, add it. Thicken with starch, pour on green oil, sprinkle with pepper and serve.

This one is just brilliant as a side dish. Here is the modern recipe from Cooking Apicius:

35 Lentil Pottage, Apicius 5.2.3

Another very popular dish at my demonstrations. The sweet and spicy blend of seasonings it a perfect compliment to the lentils. I sometimes omit the asafoetida as it is not always to my taste but, for those who already like its pungency go for it! Lentils of different types were quite common in Roman Italy but we know of only one type in Britain. An archaeological dig in Roman London revealed the remains of burnt red lentil, in this case red lentils with their brown skins.

250 g whole red/brown lentils
3 medium sized leeks
large handful coriander leaf (½ catering bunch)
3 tsp. chopped fresh mint or 2 tspn dried mint
1 tsp. chopped fresh or dried rue
generous freshly ground pepper
20 g coriander seed
pinch of assafoetida resin or ¼ tsp. assafoetida powder (optional)
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 heaped tbsp set honey
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp defrutumsaba = or balsamic
2 tbsp olive oil

Soak lentils in water overnight, drain and cover with fresh water or if you like use white wine instead for a richer mix. Bring to the boil and simmer till just beginning to soften. Add the cleaned and sliced leeks and continue cooking. Add the olive oil, vinegar and honey and defrutum. Dry roast the coriander seeds and the asafoetida, grind them to a fairly course powder, add to the pan. Add the dried mint. When fully cooked add the fish sauce and the fresh coriander and mint. Bring back to heat, thicken with a little cornflour, sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and serve.

Episode 6: Pullum Parthicum

Welcome to the new video. It is worth waiting for. Parthian chicken is one of the simplest dishes in Apicius, easily made in a modern setting. Its very tasty indeed and demonstrates that asafoetida was and is delicious in the right recipe.

I have previously researched the roasting technique I use here, using the clibanus – portable two piece oven/casserole, in a blog for the British Museum. From Parthian chicken to flat breads: experimenting with a Roman oven – British Museum Blog

This discussion was posted during the exhibition  Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum from 2013 at the British Museum. (For some reason the first section of this blog has disappeared of the web and I have failed so far to find the original doc as it was three computers ago! ) The original vessels were found in the store at the Naples archaeological museum by Paul Roberts current Roman curator at the Ashmolean, during preparation for the exhibition in 2012 and I was subsequently able to have the vessel replicated by Chris Lydamore, in order to experiment with them.

The replica clibanus courtesy of Chris Lydamore

More about that stinky spice..

There are times when consuming asafoetida is a glorious experience where you find complex garlicky pungency with spice elements and a sweetness that is quite magical but there are other times when the flavour seems to grate on the pallet and to my mind it spoil many a Roman sauce and understanding why is a complex issue and one that has intrigued me for years.

This recipe is one of the few that works for me and I thoroughly recommend it. Its very simple and straightforward.

6.8 3. Parthian chicken: draw the chicken from the rear and cut it into quarters. Pound pepper, lovage, a little caraway, pour on liquamen, flavour with wine. Arrange the chicken pieces in a ceramic dish, put the sauce over the chicken. Dissolve fresh laser in warm water² and put it straightaway on the chicken and cook it. Sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Modern recipe

1 medium chicken, 1/2 tsp lovage seed, 1 tsp caraway seed, 1/2 tsp asafoetida powder or a small lump of resin the size of a pea, generous black pepper, 250ml sweet wine, 1-2 tbsp olive oil, 3 tbsp fish sauce

Joint the chicken and place in an oven dish. Dry roast the seeds and the asafoetida resin together, grind together with the pepper. Add the liquids and pour over the chicken. Roast in the normal way and baste regularly to crisps the skin.

The Latin calls for laser vivum which reflects a fresh resin recently harvested and able to melt and dissolve as I demonstrated on the video. I do not expect many of you will be able to access this kind of asafoetida. The dry aged resin does dissolve eventually in hot water but it can also be dry roasted and ground and I find this is beneficial as it caramelizes the flavour .

Below I have cut the information about asafoetida from my Apicius volume:

Silphium Also known as laserpicium, laser, sirpe. See asafoetida. The miraculous spice of legend, uniquely grown in Cyrenaica in northern Libya, it was said to have great healing powers, to be an aphrodisiac and digestive. According to Pliny, it was never properly cultivated and eventually died out through over-cropping. He also tells us that, within his memory, the last stalk was delivered to Nero, suggesting a date of AD 41–68 for its extinction.1 In the time of Alexander (c. 328/7 BC), the asafoetida that eventually replaced silphium in the kitchen had been identified in Afghanistan and used as a tenderizer for meat by his soldiers. 2   Given this early date for the recognition of asafoetida as a substitute, it is not impossible that both varieties of the spice were available in Rome together for some time before silphium proper died out.

Asafoetida – Parthian laser Ferula asafoetida, family umbelliferae. Also known as ‘hing’, ‘devil’s dung’ and ‘food of the gods’: the resin or gum obtained from the root of a plant native to Afghanistan. It is available in the UK, imported from India as a powder. The resin is ground and mixed with bean meal or flour; it is weaker in flavour and has a shorter life than the pure resin (which is less readily available here). In Apicius, laser is either from Cyrenaica in North Africa or from Parthia (Iran/Afghanistan/Iraq/Armenia). African laser was known as silphium but, confusingly, writers also called the other types of resin from Parthia silphium or laser . When silphium became extinct in the mid-first century AD, products from the plant from Parthia replaced it: there are recipes in Apicius which give the reader a choice, but the majority of recipes give no indication as to whether Parthian or African laser was intended.

In the countries of origin the stalk, leaf, resin (opos in Greek) and the root were consumed. The root and resin are likely to be the only products that travelled to Rome. In Apicius various terms are used to indicate this plant and we cannot be certain of their meaning or derivation. It seems clear that silphium was the name of the plant in Greek, but it was also the word used for the root. Galen tells us that ‘people call the root of silphium by the same name as the whole plant’.3 In Apicius the recipes also talk of laseris radix, ‘laser root’, which is equated with silphium in 3.4.1. It is our belief that the dried root and resin reached Rome and were both used in cooking and may have contributed to the demise of the original African spice. One of Columella’s recipes confirms this distinction. He lists the ingredients for an oxyporium which include seminis unciae duae laseris radicis quod silphium Graeci vocant (1½ oz of laser root which the Greeks call silphium).4 He then lists an alternative kind of digestive, which he suggests is made more valuable if mixed with the previous one, but if you have Syrian laser rather than silphium you will do better to add ½ oz of it.’ We think that Syrian laser is the resin and that it is being suggested as an alternative to the root and in much smaller quantities. The resin has a powerful, pungent flavour and would be used in far smaller quantities than the root, hence the need to reduce the quantity. We cannot be certain about these products, but suspect that the root was a far more common item of commerce than the resin, and that the statement silfi id est laseris radicem found at 3.4.1 in Apicius should be taken literally: when silphium appears in (some) of the recipes it does mean the root.

Asafoetida root harvested in Kabul

I have never been able to taste the root and I suspect that it was somewhat less intense in flavour and this difference is the explanation for the fact that some recipes work with the resin while others seem to fail. It is also not clear to what extent the root and resin from asafoetida differs from that of silphium in terms of flavour. The true silphium is said to be far less pungent and to be almost sweet in flavour without that sulphurous edge that is such an acquired taste. These issues would seem to be the reason why asafoetida alone often disappoints.

In Latin sirpe, laser and laserpicium are all terms for the resin. In Apicius the resin can be uiuum – ‘living’ – which we interpret as the fresh resin, which is moist and still in the process of drying out. It would have been unadulterated and unground, and liable to decay: it was apparently unstable and did not travel, according to Pliny.1 This is in contrast to a fully dried resin, which had been shaken with bean meal to ‘fix’ it for travel. Both these kinds of laser were dissolved in warm water, though the dried variety takes some time, as our own experiments have confirmed. Laser uiuum must surely have been the most expensive variety, followed by the pure resin, unground. The resin could also be pre-ground before sale, as Pliny suggests when he says that Parthian laser was often adulterated and of a much inferior quality. It is likely that the variety of laser most readily available then, as today, would have been a pounded resin mixed with flour or bean meal in various quantities depending on quality.

New research on Silphion . A new article recently made available on Open access has revealed that there is the possibility that silphium has survived in Anatolia Read it here Plants | Free Full-Text | Next Chapter in the Legend of Silphion: Preliminary Morphological, Chemical, Biological and Pharmacological Evaluations, Initial Conservation Studies, and Reassessment of the Regional Extinction Event (

For the purposes of reconstructing the recipes, whether they call for silphium or laser or laser radix or laser uiuum, the cook has little choice but to use the resin sold as ‘asafoetida mass’ from Indian shops or the resin which is pounded and mixed with bean meal and turmeric and known as hing. This is precisely what the Romans of the first century AD did too. Alternatively, any acquaintance you may have who travels to the Middle East or India should be cultivated. Whichever form of the spice is available to you, care must be taken, as the spice can ruin a dish if used to excess.

Grocock and Grainger 2006 Apicius page 331f)

1 Pliny, HN. 19.35-38, 22.100-6; Theophrastus, History of Plants 6.3, 9.1.7; see also Dalby, Food in the Ancient World, pp. 303-4.

2 See p. 333 n. 3 above; Dalby, Food in the Ancient World, p. 20.

3 Galen, Commentary on ‘Diet in Acute Diseases’ 15.877-8, a ‘Hippocratic’ text of the late fifth century. See particularly Andrew Dalby, ‘Silphium and Asafoetida: evidence from Greek and Roman writers’, in Spicing up the Palate: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1992 (Totnes, 1993), pp. 67-72

4 Columella 12.59.4.

Episode 5 ‘Isicia omentata’ Apicius 2.1.7

Hi all

This time we have tackled the eponymous Roman burger. The pounded meat pate wrapped in caul fat, which clearly isn’t a burger, but the link with modern fast food is useful nonetheless. I recently discovered just how divided the US and the UK is in relation to our common language. I called these items faggots after the British delicacy with a long tradition. Chopped meat and offal bound with breadcrumbs and wrapped in caul fat before often being spit roasted and served in a rich gravy. The caul fat adds a wonderful flavour and also holds the chopped meat in a ball. This is why I chose faggot as the term to define isicia in this context. This is not what it means in the US but we wont go there…. Isicia itself is a complex term that defines definition with a single English phrase. They or it is effectively meat either chopped or pounded into a fine paste and then formed into various shapes and cooked They are made of any and all kinds – lamb, beef, chicken, , offal, sea food and fish. The mixture can be used to make individual balls or flat shapes and it can also be cooked as one large piece which is then cut up into pieces. In Britain there are hideous ready made food items which are described in the small print as ‘chopped and shaped.’ It basically means a cheap poor quality processed meat that is formed into shapes associated with sausages, burgers chicken nuggets (yuk!) and the like. I loath such things but I should really have a little more perspective. The Roman were doing such things centuries ago! More on the nature of these things later but first the recipe

Apicius 2.1.7 ‘Forcemeat faggots’ you pound chopped meat with fresh white breadcrumbs soaked in wine, with pepper and with liquamen: if you wish you can pound crushed myrtle berries with them . You shape the faggots with pine nuts and pepper placed inside. Wrap them in caul fat and roast them with caroenum .

Much of the meat would have been low quality and cut from the carcass after the best meat had been removed. It required first to be cut up and then pounded to tenderize it. You don’t have to pound if a food processor is to hand though it does make a much wetter and softer paste which requires more bread and less wine. I did forgot to add the whole peppercorns to the mixture in this film.

The recipe is pretty simple but the origin and evolution of the term interest me far more. The Latin term is very flexible but it also means that we have to use a number of English terms depending on the context: meat balls, faggots, forcemeat, paté, stuffing, meat paste, chopped or minced meat (bearing in mind that the Roman did not appear to mince as such technology is absent), the list is endless. The term seems to be, uniquely in culinary terminology, of Latin origin from inseco/insectio meaning to cut up. This does not mean that the concept of finely chopped and shaped meat was unknown in Greek cuisine but we do not appear to have a dedicated term for it until Latin sources. In the 2nd century AD in Athenaeus isicia was ‘ chunks of meat cut up fine and worked into a paste with pepper’ (ix. 376d). He is writing in Rome but in Greek, where the fact that isicia was Latin was definitely seen as vulgar and non pc by the Greek guests at the imaginary feast. That is was a common place item and well understood was acknowledged because Paxamus, another culinary writer working in Rome but writing in Greek, in the late 1st BC/early 1st AD had already mentioned isicia. 500 years later and contemporary with the our Apicius, Macrobius’ encyclopaedia has a dedicated passage on the ill effect of isica on the digestion. I include it in full as it appeals to my British sense of humour.

” Please explain why it is hard to digest isicia – I mean the dish that got the name insicium from the process of cutting up (insectio), then lost the n to get the name it has now isicium – even though the thorough grinding involved on its preparation should have done a lot to aid in its digestion by removing whatever was heavy in the meat and largely completing the process of breaking it down…

Darius replied ‘ The thing that causes you to suppose that this food’s digestion is cared for in its preparation is just what makes it difficult to digest. For the lightness that the grinding producers causes it to float in the moist food it encounters……so too when it is tossed in water right after it has been ground and shaped, it floats……furthermore, while the meat is ground quite energetically a lot of gas becomes wrapped up in it and the belly has to dispose of that first, so that what remains of the meat can finally be digested when it is free of gas!” (Macrobius Sat 7.8.4)

Who knew that one could find such a detailed description of the causes of that scourge of post Christmas lunch: the stuffing fart!?

Seneca has little time for these labour intensive items. “Simple meats are out of fashion, and all are collected into one; so that the cook does the office of the stomach; nay, and of the teeth too; for the meat looks as if it were chewed beforehand: here is the luxury of all tastes in one dish” (Seneca On a happy life XI. 203).

In Diocletian’s Price Edict, isicia appears to be listed as a pre-prepared mixture of chopped or pounded meat either of beef or pork.1 Thus defined, it is raw and formless. When isicia occurs in Apicius it does not appear to mean this flavourless formless meat, but appears to have been made up with potentially fish sauce and pepper at least, which seems in addition to have a specific shape which I have assumed is round: therefore ‘meat ball’ is the basic concept indicated by the term. These could just as easily be flat and the concept becomes a burger.

These forcemeat shapes can be wrapped in caul fat (omentum) from which they are named (2.1.4, 6,7). In the recipes for minutal, which we define as a ‘stew’ or ragout, made of various components but invariably flavoured with isicia and other kinds of meat, we find the words isicia minuta (4.3.4), isiciola minuta (4.3.5), isiciola ualde minuta (4.3.2). The question is, are these small, smaller and very small! meatballs, following the model found in Apicius Book 2 where the isicia are cooked in a specific but undefined shape; or are they made into meatballs of a regular size, cooked and then chopped into these various sizes of piece; or (as we thought in our edition of Apicius is the forcemeat very finely reduced or ground into a paste, not unlike a course pâté, which is added to the minutal raw and it flavours and to some extent thickens the sauce as it cooks? If the forcemeat is uncooked when it used, as appears to be the case, then the latter theory seems the most likely. The name minutal seems to corroborate this, and suggests that the dish should be regarded in the modern sense of a ragout of mince.

1 Diocletian’s Price Edict 4.14 (ed. Laufer p.104).

Episode 3/4 libum # 1 and # 2

Welcome back after a pause in film making. (I had first proofs of my book to contend with and these films do take so much more time than I imagined). I am also entirely reliant on and extremely grateful to Rod for all production and editing and he had other things to do!

The idea of libum functions on many levels in the ancient evidence . It can be a generic idea of ‘cake’ of potentially many different recipes and styles or it can be the specific sacrificial cheese-cake that is found in the recipe that survives in Cato’s agricultural manual. It is not always clear from the evidence whether we should always think in terms of the Cato recipe, which appears in this manual precisely because such cakes were considered necessary to please the gods and allow the farm to prosper. It rather depends on the context. The earliest sources such as Varro, define these cakes entirely as sacrificial offerings:

Libum cake because  after it was cooked as an offering there was an offering of some of it to the Gods before it was eaten’ Varro, De Lingua Latina 5.106.3

they are so named because part of them are offered to the gods at sacrifices, and part eaten by the celebrants. That these cakes were made sub testu with a testum – a portable oven for baking single cakes, one at a time and therefore fresh – is made clear by Varro too

Testuacium (libum)’ testum cake because it was baked in an heated testum as even now the matrons do this at the Matralia‘ (in celebration to Mater Matuta in June)

The Roman God that was originally given these cakes was called Liber unsurprisingly! In ancient Roman religion Liber was the equivalent of Bacchus, and was similarly associated with wine, fertility and freedom. Ovid explains why Bacchus is offered honey cakes, it is simple that he delights in sweet things. (Fasti III.735). He also asked why it was that old women make these cakes: It is because at the time of the first popular strike in Rome, the plebs fled to the sacred mount in 494BC and as they had no bread they survived by being fed cakes served hot to them by Anna Perenna (Ovid fasti III. 670). He also explains that old women continued to traditionally make these cakes to sell fresh at festivals.

In comparing the town and country style of living Horace says

‘like the priest’s runaway slave, I reject libum, I want bread and prefer it to honied placenta’ Horace Ep 1. 10. 10

That priests owned slaves that worked for them at the temple precinct is made clear and also clear that these slaves were fed on the sacrificial cakes left by the celebrants. The reference to placenta is intriguing. It is another sacrificial cake from Cato’s agricultural manual which has both a religious significance as an offering and also a potential place at the feast – we shall return to placenta in the months to come.* Other sources talk of birthday ‘libum’ again ‘offered’ as part of the religious celebration of birth and its anniversary, but also brought as a gift, dripping with honey and one has to assume desirable, and consumed by the family (Tibullus, Elegiae 1.7.54). What seems clear from the experiments so far is that when made with fresh cheese, consumed freshly baked, and with warmed honey they are quite exceptionally delicious and fit for a feast but when allowed to go cold and when made with firmer cheese and courser flour they are some what stodgy and dense and as a result far less appealing.

75. Recipe for libum: crush 2 pounds of cheese thoroughly in a mortaria. When it is thoroughly crushed, add 1 pound of wheat flour or if you wish the cake to be more dainty 1/2 pound of fine flour, and mix thoroughly with the cheese. Add 1 egg and work the whole well. Pat into a loaf shape, place in leaves, and bake slowly on a warm hearth under a testum’

Bear in mind that 1 ancient pound is equivalent to 12 of our ounces so the recipe works out as follows.

2 Roman pounds = 24 oz = 1lb 8oz cheese. = 650 gm cheese 1 Roman pound = 12 oz flour = 325 gm flour OR if finer cake required 6 oz flour or = 160 gm 1 egg

A full modern recipe is at the bottom of the page.

Cato’s recipe comes in two qualities depending on the quantity and quality of the flour added and also the cheese. One could end up with a beautiful delicate soft cake dripping with honey or a hefty dense course and salty loaf that might and probably did hang around on the alter for some time and some of the offerings may never have been consumed in reality. A standard cake is made with 2 lb of wheat flour and we may assume that, as the other kind of flour is finer, the standard cake was probably made with a courser grade of flour and even whole-wheat flour. The alternative finer flour is not only finer but it is added at half the quantity of the whole-wheat version.

What can we say about the cheese ? It is likely to be goat or sheep’s cheese simply because cows were not milked as much as today. i could of sought out either but i was luck to have access to goats milk in the village. A goats cheese could be fresh and sweet or salty, crumbly and aged. I have replaced the cheese with various substitutes in the past mascarpone as I tried in the first film and ricotta – which is by far the best for trying this at home – and as you will see with the second film a freshly made goat or sheep cheese is best of all.

We are surely looking for a Queso fresco here which can be mild, soft, or some what crumbly and similar to a mild feta. Its also called pot cheese and farmer cheese, Indian paneer and Eastern European quark, all of which are defined as ‘new’ and with a short shelf life. A harder saltier cheese is possible too but this necessarily has far less moisture and with that single egg as well – that I have such problems with – the resulting cake is going to be a pretty firm and dense again. Add the concept of a course whole-wheat flour and the denseness increases again. The recipe for the flat cake known as placenta * includes detailed instruction to render a cheese suitable for making cakes and while this is not included in the libum it is interesting to consider the nature of the cheese before the process begins.

‘soak 14lb of sheep’s cheese (sweet and quite fresh) in water and let it soak, changing the water three times. Take out a small quantity at a time, squeeze out the water thoroughly with the hands, and when it is quite dry place it in a bowl. When you have dried out the cheese completely, knead it by hand to make it as smooth as possible. Then take a clean flour sifter and force the cheese through it into the bowl’ (Cato de re rustica 76)

This is quite a c0mplex procedure to engage with even with a cheese purporting to be sweet and fresh, and one has to imagine a cheese stored in brine or one that is firm in texture and crumbly in order for this to be necessary.

I have most often made this cake with a ricotta but I have also used feta and as with the first film a mascarpone. This makes a very rich but quite flat cake. It does require more flour to prevent the cake from spreading but then it loses its soft texture. For the purpose of duplicating this at home ricotta is best by far but the feta is interesting too. The cake using feta is salty and firm and one might say a savoury option as apposed to the soft honey cake. This is how I originally interpreted these cakes in the Classical cook book. We were very lucky to find that our neighbours kept a few goats and were willing to be filmed. Cheryl Jackson was a great sport and helped immensely with advice about cheese making. Incidentally that glorious view she has over her valley is the same valley as ours, we share that sense of peace that comes with woodland living.

To make the cheese I employed the simplest basic method I could find, which could not be include on the film. I warmed 4pts of the milk to 27°C (80°F), added an acidifier – 3-4 tsp vinegar, lemon juice, or in the case of the instructions from Columella, the milky juice from freshly torn fig leaves – and waited for it to coagulate. The latter was not as easy as it sounds as the juice is very difficult to extract in that quantity and I gave up after a while of waiting and added a little extra lemon juice and it curdled straight away. 2 tsp of salt is also added at this point.

After leaving the milk to cool and coagulate I passed it through a muslin sieve and left it to fully drain for a 3-4 hours. At this point you can gather the edges of the muslin up and tie in a knot. Place weights on top such as a few cans to express as much whey possible. I left mine under weights for 12 hours but you can leave it for long and remove vastly more moisture. At this point I used my cheese but one can envisage a cheese that has been salted more heavily, stored in brine and even dried out and allowed to form a thin crust. Such cheeses were almost certainly made for sale at markets for others to use and had to be salted to preserve them. I suspect in the case of our sacrificial cakes, the cheese was largely made fresh for the purposes of making the cake offerings in a domestic and rural setting where goats and sheep were available but cheese had to be purchased in an urban setting.

Previous libum from re-enactment days.

A modern recipe using ricotta.

325 gm ricotta 160 gm or 80 gm of plain white flour . or 160 or 80 gm of whole-wheat flour 1 very small egg (you can use a standard size and use half but its not really necessary) 3 tbsp of honey warmed

Beat the cheese, add the flour, well sieved if using plain flour, using a spoon combine and then lightly knead. add the egg and stir to combine. Cover your hands in flour and form into a ball. To duplicate the baking technique – to get that lovely crust – try using a le creuset casserole dish. Preheat the oven to 200 ° C. Place the casserole, clean and dry, in the oven and heat for at least 45 mins. When ready to bake, place bay leaves on the base of the casserole and put the cake on top. Return the lid and place in the oven for 25-30 mins, After 20 mins check the colour and setting texture of the cake. Meanwhile warm the honey. When golden brown and set take the cake out and put on a plate. Cut into 8 pieces and pour the honey over. Sprinkle with pepper too it makes it especially delicious and eat as soon as possible!

Try using feta instead of ricotta. soak the cheese in water and change a few times. Beat smooth and even sieve as described for the placenta * above. Use the same ratio of cheese to flour and bake as a savoury cake and serve with smoked meat and pickles.

* The name of this cake and its origins is fraught with problems as we are inevitably compelled to think of the human organ that feeds the embryo. Its a long and complicated story which we will attempt to tell when placenta becomes the topic of a film.

As we may move into a possible lockdown in the next few days in the UK and the rest of Europe is dealing with this growing crisis in a similar way I send best wishes to all. Take care to be safe. Hands, face space.

Sally Grainger xx

Episode 2. Patina versatilis – turned out frittata (Apicius 4.2.2 and 4.2.16)

Greeting to all. Thankyou for the increasing views and comments. It has been quite a rollercoaster as the need to create a film at least every fortnight to keep up with demand is quite an ask. I have hardly had a chance to stop and breath since we started. Rod my camera man, editor, graphic artist and occasional director? has been adding wonderful credits and titles to the films and we have plans to involve filming the process of sourcing local ingredients from suppliers of the rare and exotic. More of which anon so watch this space.

These patinae are so interesting as they can be simple and commonplace food for the masses and also elite dining fare depending on the ingredients. Eggs do appear to be fairly readily available. Egg shells are found in many urban sites within the empire in waterlogged conditions and it would seem that in modest urban settings keeping chickens would not have been that difficult in terms of the economic outlay. The frittata would seem to be ideal as easy meal for ancient people living simply as it can be cooked with relative ease and can turn very modest left overs into a hot meal with just a small fire. You can find very simple vegetable frittatas using nettles and other forms of Mediterranean weeds so common in Greek cuisine and with minimal spices such as pepper. Pepper was far more readily available among the middle ranks and even lower orders than was once believed. For a more delicate custard you can find such things as the tough ends of asparagus and even old curled up vegetables leaves being used. The juice is extracted and the residue thrown away.

At its most basic the principle seems to be that all manner of ingredients – often largely left overs of high or low quality – are combined in a dish and eggs, often flavoured with a combination of pepper, oil, wines and liquamen: a basic fish sauce which is described as an oenogarum, are poured over the ingredients and the whole is set in or over embers until firm. These oenogara sauces will have an entire film and blog post soon so keep watching. The finished patina can be cut up and eaten with the finger so this dictates the number of eggs and the volume of the other liquids as these are often not stipulated. There are a few recipes that do stipulate the ingredients precisely and in a number of these recipes, such as the asparagus patina 4.2.6 and 4.2.4 this is described as fusilis soft. This results in a very soft savoury custard which must be eaten with a spoon.

The idea of a patella seems to be very similar to a patina as eggs are used in these too. Both terms are Greek in origin and so must be the food itself. A patellam thyrotaricam (Apicius 4.2.17) was a Greek dish using salt fish and cheese set with eggs which was familiar to Cicero, who identifies it as common fair (cf. Cicero, Ad. fam. 9.16.7, 9; Ad Att. 4.8.1). He claims that he was content to eat this kind of thing until invited to a fancy feast by his friends Hirtius and Dolabella. Both terms were often used to convey a kind of ceramic dish that these items were both cooked and served in (sometimes it is difficult to know whether the word is meant to convey the food or the dish itself). Some patinae and some patellae are made without eggs and instead just adding a sauce to the left overs and heating them, which can be a little confusing. It seems to have been a habit to name these side dishes because of their role within the meal regardless of the ingredients. These dishes were round shallow and course ceramic with a curved base with minimal contact with the surface beneath. They didn’t stand up without support from the embers beneath.

The cooking technique used for these kind of frittata are varied, Some recipe simple say cook it, others say allow it to thicken. There is some suggestion that rather than a frittata some must have resembled scrambled egg in that they are stirred and may have been rather more difficult to eat without a spoon or bread. The technique I used with this frittata is illustrated with two recipes 4.2.33 and 4.2.36. In the former apple puree and cooked brains are blended with eggs and an oenogarum (made with pepper, liquamen and wine) and the mixture poured into a greased patinam which is then placed in the embers and the cook is instructed to allow the hot embers to be above and below. It is hard to imagine such a thing without a lid and a particular lid with a turned up edge to protect the content from ash. These vessels are recognised from archaeological finds across the empire. The drawing below is based on the North African ware form 465 and 766 in Riley, 1979

An illustration of this technique from our edition of Apicius with grateful thanks to the artist Dan Shadrake. He is a very fine graphic artist. At the time it had not occurred to me that the lids recess could also take embers but it is in fact a crucial part of the technique. At the other end of the culinary divide you can find elaborate elite patinae such as the patinae Apiciana (4.2.14) which has udder – eventually I am going to get my head around udder! -, chicken meat, flaked fish, figpeckers or thrush breast meat and ‘quaecumque optima fuerint’ whatever finest quality things there may be – left over from another feast. They are complex structured cakes that may be turned out or cut within the dish. This is the recipe that has connections to the idea of a lasagne and is made with what we call a proto pasta. I have plans to cook this on film so we will postpone any discussion.

Here is one of the original recipes from the film, it is repeated at 4.2.16 with virtually the same Latin.

[4.2.2] aliter patina uersatilis: nucleos nuces fractas; torres eas et teres cum melle pipere liquamine lacte et obis; olei modicum.

4.2.2. Another patina, omelette-style: roast pine nuts and broken nuts and pound them with honey, pepper, liquamen, milk and eggs; add a little oil.

Hear is the modern recipe from 4.2.16 called Honey nut omelette from Cooking Apicius which is designed to be cooked at home on modern equipment.

30 g flaked almonds 30 g walnuts or hazelnuts 30 g pine kernels 1 tbsp honey 40 ml white wine 40 ml milk 1 tbsp fish sauce – I advice Red boat fish sauce buy it here 4 eggs Generous freshly ground black pepper 1 tbsp olive oil

Combine all the nuts and roast them in a medium oven until lightly coloured.  Shake them a few times to ensure an even colour.  Grind them or process until you have a coarse texture and combine with the pepper, milk, wine, honey, oil and fish sauce and the eggs and beat together.  If you are baking the patina, grease a ceramic dish with olive oil and pour the ingredients in.  Bake in a medium oven (350°F, 180°C, gas 4) until firm to touch. Allow to cool a little and serve covered in warm honey. Sprinkle with ground pepper.

The following is the recipe for one of the soft patinae using asparagus juice to make a lovely green custard. The gallery below takes you through the process in pictures from left to right

4.2.6. Another patina of asparagus: put in a mortar the trimmings of asparagus which are thrown away, pound them, pour on wine and strain them. Pound pepper, lovage, green coriander, savory, onion, wine, liquamen and oil. Pour the liquor into a greased dish and if you want stir eggs in over the fire so that it thickens, sprinkle with ground pepper.
(4.2.7.) This is how you make a patina from wild herbs, black briony, mustard greens, or cucumber or spring greens. If you want, put a layer of fish or chicken beneath.

Don’t forget to subscribe on You Tube and please do request your favourite recipes and I will attempt a reconstruction.


Hi to all my new friends and subscribers.

It has been amazing to find that within one week of posting the first film on You Tube I have had so many views and subscriptions. The first film was a real experiment in that I simply did not know what would happen. Thankyou for your interest and enthusiasm Here is the link to the YouTube film if you have come to my site direct. The recipe and a brief discussion about the techniques are below.

We (Rod Hughes my camera man and I) have a plan to make one film a week but that may be difficult to fulfil over time and while I am told consistency is everything there will be weeks when we wont be able to. As I write I have 5 in the bag so we should be ok for a while! Rod has a production company – Golden eye productions – and is a craftsman in many media. He is a sculptor designer film maker and bladesmith. Check his site.

Our production values will improve too as we progress. Rod is experimenting with opening and closing titles and we have already added music. Please check out the music of Michael Levy, a very innovative Lyre player who has composed music in a Roman style and we will use his music often as he has been kind enough to allow me too.

And finally to the sauce….. This sauce has always been my favourite as it encompasses the essence of what the Roman liked to taste. Its dense and rich, sweet, sticky and moreish. It reminded me of a satay sauce and that is what dictated the amount of nuts. It can also be a thinner sauce – more like our concept of sauce – but I suspect most of these kinds of sauces that contain nuts or fruit in Apicius and beyond were designed to be thick sticky and clinging so that guests could pick up the meat pre covered.

[8.1.4] in aprum assum iura feruentia facies sic: piper cuminum frictum apii semen mentam timum satureiam cneci flos, nucleos tostos uel amigdala tosta, mel uinum liquamen acetum, oleum modice.

8.1.4. You make hot sauce for roast boar like this: pepper, roasted cumin,
celery seed, mint, thyme, savory, safflower, roasted pine nuts or roasted almonds,
honey, wine, liquamen, vinegar, a little oil

This is my adapted recipe from Cooking Apicius Prospect books. This is the modern kitchen version and assumes you will probably use a food processor. (You can find a supplier for a Roman mortaria here)

26  Toasted pine kernel sauce for roast boar or pork Apicius 8.1.4

100 g pine kernels

1 heaped tsp cumin seeds

1 level tsp celery seed

generous freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp dried mint or 2 tsp fresh mint

½ tsp dried thyme

½ tsp dried or fresh savory ( or 1 tspn thyme if no savory)

a good pinch of saffron strands

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp fish sauce – Red boat (Buy Red boat here

2 tbsp white wine vinegar

2 tbsp olive oil

60 ml white wine

Place the pine kernels in a dry frying pan and put on a medium heat.  Toss and shake the pan regularly until they are an even light brown colour.  Take care not to burn them  as the taste will be bitter.  Tip them out and cool them.  In the same pan put the cumin and celery seed and roast them until they give off their flavour.  Grind them in a mortar or coffee grinder with plenty of pepper.  Put the herbs, saffron and the cooling pine kernels in the mortar and pound or process the mixture to a fine texture.  Add the honey and the oil and pulse or grind again.  Tip out into a small pan and add the vinegar and fish sauce. Blend smooth and bring to heat.  Assess the consistency and add the wine to achieve the correct consistency. If you want to serve it separately add more wine and if you are going to use like I did it needs less wine to remain sticky and clinging.  Taste.  Adjust the seasoning if necessary: It should be neither not too sweet not too sour.  Cook a piece of pork, chops are ideal or use wild boar meat and finish the meat in the sauce. Alternatively serve the sauce separately, hot with pieces of roasted meat with cocktail sticks or do as the Roman and dig in and get sticky.  


The savoury is available dried but you can simply increase the amount of thyme as they tend to taste very similar. Safflower is a member of the daisy family is known as American saffron. It has little or no flavour but adds a colour and was often used as an alternative. Its not readily available and ironically in this age it can be replaced with saffron.