Cook Real Recipes from Ancient Rome: Ostrich Ragoût, Roast Wild Boar, Nut Tarts & More

Mar­cus Gav­ius Api­cius, who lived in the first cen­tu­ry AD, was as fine an embod­i­ment of Rome’s insa­tiable excess as any of his fel­low cit­i­zens. While some men gained infamy for wan­ton cru­el­ty or feats of courage, Api­cius came to be known as Rome’s most prodi­gious glut­ton, with Pliny call­ing him “the most riotous glut­ton and bel­lie-god of his time.” (An alter­na­tive, and equal­ly delec­table trans­la­tion, is the “most glut­to­nous gorg­er of all spend­thrifts.”)

Among Api­cius’ most impres­sive culi­nary exploits was sail­ing to Libya to pick up some craw­fish:

Hear­ing too that [the craw­fish] were very large in Africa, he sailed thith­er, with­out wait­ing a sin­gle day, and suf­fered exceed­ing­ly on his voy­age. But when he came near the place, before he dis­em­barked from the ship, (for his arrival made a great noise among the Africans,) the fish­er­men came along­side in their boats and brought him some very fine craw­fish; and he, when he saw them, asked if they had any fin­er; and when they said that there were none fin­er than those which they brought, he, rec­ol­lect­ing those at Minturnæ, ordered the mas­ter of the ship to sail back the same way into Italy, with­out going near the land.

Some would say that sail­ing all the way to Libya for fish and refus­ing to set foot ashore because you weren’t impressed with some fishermen’s wares might be called petu­lant. They would be wrong. It is gas­tro­nom­i­cal­ly dis­cern­ing. No less, how­ev­er, would be expect­ed of a man who end­ed his life when, as Mar­tial remarks, his purse could no longer sup­port his stom­ach:

Api­cius, you have spent 60 mil­lion [ses­ter­ces] on your stom­ach, and as yet a full 10 mil­lion remained to you. You refused to endure this, as also hunger and thirst, and took poi­son in your final drink. Noth­ing more glut­to­nous was ever done by you, Api­cius.

Only fit­ting, then, that one of Rome’s best known gour­mands became the attrib­uted author of the old­est sur­viv­ing cook­book. Api­cius’ De re coquinar­ia, which emerged between the 4th and 5th cen­turies AD, is a com­pi­la­tion of almost 500 Roman recipes arranged, much like con­tem­po­rary cook­books, by ingre­di­ents. This culi­nary gold­mine, which includes instruc­tions on prepar­ing brains and udders, was inac­ces­si­ble to Eng­lish speak­ers until the advent of Bar­bara Flower and Eliz­a­beth Rosenbaum’s The Roman cook­ery book: A crit­i­cal trans­la­tion of “The art of cook­ing” by Api­cius, for use in the study and kitchen (1958). Here’s a sam­ple from Book 9, From The Sea:

- Mus­sels: liqua­men, chopped leeks, pas­sum, savory, wine. Dilute the mix­ture with water, and boil the mus­sels in it.

- (Sauce) for oys­ters: pep­per, lovage, yolk of egg, vine­gar, liqua­men, oil and wine. If you wish, add hon­ey.

- (Sauce) for all kinds of shell­fish: pep­per, lovage, pars­ley, dried mint, lots of cumin, hon­ey, vine­gar, liqua­men. If you wish, add a bay leaf and foli­um indicum.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for the aspir­ing Roman chef, nei­ther De re coquinar­ia nor Mmes. Flower and Rosen­baum includ­ed the nec­es­sary quan­ti­ties of the ingre­di­ents. While one may choose to parse the trans­la­tion inde­pen­dent­ly to arrive at the appro­pri­ate mean­ing of “lots of cumin,” there is help for those look­ing for a quick fix.

In 2003, a chef and food his­to­ri­an named Patrick Faas pub­lished Around the Roman Table: Food and Feast­ing in Ancient Rome. While some of the con­tent con­cerns Roman table man­ners, the heart of the book lies in the recipes. Faas pro­vides over 150 recipes, most of which he sources from Flower and Rosenbaum’s trans­la­tion (along­side a few dish­es men­tioned by Pliny and Cato). Eight are freely avail­able on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press web­site, and we’ve pro­vid­ed a few as an amuse-bouche:

Roast Wild Boar

Aper ita con­di­tur: spogiatur, et sic asper­gi­tur ei sal et cuminum fric­tum, et sic manet. Alia die mit­ti­tur in fur­num. Cum coc­tus fuer­it per­fun­du­tur piper tri­tum, condi­men­tum aprunum, mel, liqua­men, caroenum et pas­sum.

Boar is cooked like this: sponge it clean and sprin­kle with salt and roast cumin. Leave to stand. The fol­low­ing day, roast it in the oven. When it is done, scat­ter with ground pep­per and pour on the juice of the boar, hon­ey, liqua­men, caroenum, and pas­sum. (Api­cius, 330)

For this you would need a very large oven, or a very small boar, but the recipe is equal­ly suc­cess­ful with the boar joint­ed. Remove the bris­tles and skin, then scat­ter over it plen­ty of sea salt, crushed pep­per and coarse­ly ground roast­ed cumin. Leave it in the refrig­er­a­tor for 2–3 days, turn­ing it occa­sion­al­ly.

Wild boar can be dry, so wrap it in slices of bacon before you roast it. At the very least wrap it in pork caul. Then put it into the oven at its high­est set­ting and allow it to brown for 10 min­utes. Reduce the oven tem­per­a­ture to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4, and con­tin­ue to roast for 2 hours per kg, bast­ing reg­u­lar­ly.

Mean­while pre­pare the sauce. To make caroenum, reduce 500ml wine to 200ml. Add 2 table­spoons of hon­ey, 100ml pas­sum, or dessert wine, and salt or garum to taste. Take the meat out of the oven and leave it to rest while you fin­ish the sauce. Pour off the fat from the roast­ing tin, then deglaze it with the wine and the hon­ey mix­ture. Pour this into a saucepan, add the roast­ing juices, and fat to taste.

Carve the boar into thin slices at the table, and serve the sweet sauce sep­a­rate­ly.

Ostrich Ragoût

Until the 1980s the ostrich was con­sid­ered as exot­ic as an ele­phant, but since then it has become avail­able in super­mar­kets. Cook­ing a whole ostrich is an enor­mous task, but Api­cius pro­vides a recipe for ostrich:

In struthione elixo: piper, men­tam, cuminum assume, apii semen, dacty­los vel cary­otas, mel, ace­tum, pas­sum, liqua­men, et oleum modice et in cac­cabo facies ut bul­li­at. Amu­lo obligas, et sic partes struthio­n­is in lance per­fundis, ete desu­per piper aspar­gis. Si autem in con­di­tu­ram coquere volueris, ali­cam addis.

For boiled ostrich: pep­per, mint, roast cumin, cel­ery seed, dates or Jeri­cho dates, hon­ey, vine­gar, pas­sum, garum, a lit­tle oil. Put these in the pot and bring to the boil. Bind with amu­lum, pour over the pieces of ostrich in a serv­ing dish and sprin­kle with pep­per. If you wish to cook the ostrich in the sauce, add ali­ca. (Api­cius, 212)

You may pre­fer to roast or fry your ostrich, rather than boil it. Whichev­er method you choose, this sauce goes with it well. For 500g ostrich pieces, fried or boiled, you will need:

2 tea­spoon flour

2 table­spoons olive oil

300ml pas­sum (dessert wine)

1 table­spoon roast cumin seeds

1 tea­spoon cel­ery seeds

3 pit­ted can­died dates

3 table­spoons garum or a 50g tin of anchovies

1 tea­spoon pep­per­corns

2 table­spoons fresh chopped mint

1 tea­spoon hon­ey

3 table­spoons strong vine­gar

Make a roux with the flour and 1 table­spoon of the olive oil, add the pas­sum, and con­tin­ue to stir until the sauce is smooth. Pound togeth­er in the fol­low­ing order: the cumin, cel­ery seeds, dates, garum or anchovies, pep­per­corns, chopped mint, the remain­ing olive oil, the hon­ey, and vine­gar. Add this to the thick­ened wine sauce. Then stir in the ostrich pieces and let them heat through in the sauce.

Nut Tart

Pati­na ver­sa­tilis vice dul­cis: nucle­os pineos, nuces frac­tas et pur­gatas, attor­re­bis eas, teres cum melle, pipere, liquamine, lacte, ovis, mod­i­co mero et oleo, ver­sas in dis­cum.

Try pati­na as dessert: roast pine nuts, peeled and chopped nuts. Add hon­ey, pep­per, garum, milk, eggs, a lit­tle undi­lut­ed wine, and oil. Pour on to a plate. (Api­cius, 136)

400g crushed nuts—almonds, wal­nuts or pis­ta­chios

200g pine nuts

100g hon­ey

100ml dessert wine

4 eggs

100ml full-fat sheep­’s milk

1 tea­spoon salt or garum


Pre­heat the oven to 240°C/475°F/Gas 9.

Place the chopped nuts and the whole pine nuts in an oven dish and roast until they have turned gold­en. Reduce the oven tem­per­a­ture to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Mix the hon­ey and the wine in a pan and bring to the boil, then cook until the wine has evap­o­rat­ed. Add the nuts and pine nuts to the hon­ey and leave it to cool. Beat the eggs with the milk, salt or garum and pep­per. Then stir the hon­ey and nut mix­ture into the eggs. Oil an oven dish and pour in the nut mix­ture. Seal the tin with sil­ver foil and place it in roast­ing tin filled about a third deep with water. Bake for about 25 min­utes until the pud­ding is firm. Take it out and when it is cold put it into the fridge to chill. To serve, tip the tart on to a plate and pour over some boiled hon­ey.

Col­umel­la Sal­ad

Col­umel­la’s writ­ings sug­gest that Roman sal­ads were a match for our own in rich­ness and imag­i­na­tion:

Addi­to in mor­tar­i­um sat­ureiam, men­tam, rutam, corian­drum, api­um, por­rum sec­tivum, aut si non erit viri­dem cepam, folia latu­cae, folia eru­cae, thy­mum viri­de, vel nepetam, tum eti­am viri­de puleium, et case­um recen­tem et sal­sum: ea omnia parti­er con­ter­i­to, ace­tique piperati exigu­um, per­mis­ce­to. Hanc mix­tu­ram cum in catil­lo com­po­sur­ris, oleum super­fun­di­to.

Put savory in the mor­tar with mint, rue, corian­der, pars­ley, sliced leek, or, if it is not avail­able, onion, let­tuce and rock­et leaves, green thyme, or cat­mint. Also pen­ny­roy­al and salt­ed fresh cheese. This is all crushed togeth­er. Stir in a lit­tle pep­pered vine­gar. Put this mix­ture on a plate and pour oil over it. (Col­umel­la, Re Rus­ti­ca, XII-lix)

A won­der­ful sal­ad, unusu­al for the lack of salt (per­haps the cheese was salty enough), and that Col­umel­la crush­es the ingre­di­ents in the mor­tar.

100g fresh mint (and/or pen­ny­roy­al)

50g fresh corian­der

50g fresh pars­ley

1 small leek

a sprig of fresh thyme

200g salt­ed fresh cheese



olive oil

Fol­low Col­umel­la’s method for this sal­ad using the ingre­di­ents list­ed.

In oth­er sal­ad recipes Col­umel­la adds nuts, which might not be a bad idea with this one.

Apart from let­tuce and rock­et many plants were eat­en raw—watercress, mal­low, sor­rel, goose­foot, purslane, chico­ry, chervil, beet greens, cel­ery, basil and many oth­er herbs.

via Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press and De Coquinar­ia

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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