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).

4 thoughts on “Episode 5 ‘Isicia omentata’ Apicius 2.1.7”

  1. In the video for this recipe, you note that you use cornflour for a starch thickener. Does the product called (rather confusingly) called wheaten cornflour not exist in the UK? It is white wheat flour, milled super-fine to resemble cornflour.

    1. Hi

      I am sorry to have missed your comments. I don’t get many and so I don’t check in as often as I should. I have not seen that in the uk but will look for it now. I did try making the amylum from Pliny (18.76) but it is very labour intensive and it did not make a great thickener. It needs considerably more natural heat then I am able to get here, while cornflour or for that matter arrowroot is a very good alternative.

      all the best sally

  2. On the subject of terminology, in the Jerusalem Talmud siqiar is the name for a sausage maker. Sausages in the Talmud are nuqaniqa or luqaniqa (from the Latin lucanica).
    There is a 4th century Greek papyrus from Egypt with accounts of purchases on a journey made via Palestine to Syria, which refers the purchase of sausages as eissikiaria, ie made by an eisikiar. Loukanika seems to be used in the same Greek papyrus interchangeably with eissikiaria. This anyway is the conclusion of the editor of the papyrus: but perhaps they were buying meat balls, not sausages, some of the time.

    1. Susan Hi good to hear from you, I hope you are well and safe. We are doing ok still in full lockdown and such grim news. I am sorry to have missed your comments. I don’t get many and so I don’t check in as often as I should. That is useful to know. I do wonder about shape in re these as i suspect a sausage may be what is meant.

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