This is one of the very first recipes that I made when I first started diving into the cookbook Apicius as part of my research for FEAST OF SORROW. It calls for caroneum which is a bit tricky to know exactly what it might have tasted like but it was a reduced grape syrup of some sort. I recommend that you substitute sapa (sometimes called saba) or vincotto, which are essentially just different names for grape must, and either would be delicious in this dish. They are easily acquired at specialty food shops or Amazon.com.
Tasting Life Twice
Author Crystal King muses on life, history, writing and food.
Posts about Apicius:
According to the ancient Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, "Apicius, the most gluttonous gorger of all spendthrifts, established the view that the flamingo's tongue has a specially fine flavor." The poet Martial, who was born a few years before Apicius died, agreed, saying: “My red wing gives me my name, but epicures regard my tongue as tasty. But what if my tongue could sing?” They don't actually sing, however. They tend to honk and squawk.
Writing a book set in Ancient Rome means that I have to work with a lot of names that are probably unfamiliar to people, such as Thrasius, Sotas, and Ruan. And, ironically, when I included ancient Roman names that have survived the centuries, such as the name Melissa, my readers told me that the name felt too out of place.
Back in 1987, archaeologists discovered a treasure trove in a floor drain of the Roman Forum. This "treasure" was 86 loose teeth, all intact but with cavities in various stages. Three decades later, they've finally determined that they were all extracted by a highly skilled dentist of the time. Also of interest, up in England, researchers have pinpointed the advanced stages of dental decay in a young Roman toddler, to excessive consumption of honey.
Medicine was quite advanced in Ancient Greece and Rome. Surgeons regularly practiced lobotomies, Caesarean sections (didn't you ever wonder where that name came from?) and amputations, and were the inventors of tools such as forceps, catheters, scalpels and bone drills. Along with all of this fancy "technology" the Romans also relied heavily on herbs and the beneficial properties of food. Pliny writes (in addition to telling us how bees manage their colonies) that honey is good for afflictions of the mouth, pneumonia, pleurisy and snake bites.
This is a very good and easy ancient recipe, included in Apicius' cookbook. We make this often as a side dish. It goes particularly well with the recipe for Parthian Chicken! You may have been making beets this way and not even known that the recipe was at least 2,000 years old!
The original recipe:
When researching my book, FEAST OF SORROW, one of the fun bits was trying out various ancient recipes. The book is about Apicius, a first century Roman whose name appears as the title of the oldest known cookbook. One of the recipes in Apicius is for Parthian chicken. Parthia was part of ancient Persia, now in a region of north-eastern Iran. Much to my delight, it turns out that the Parthians really knew how to make chicken. Hands down this is one of the best chicken dishes I've ever had. It's juicy and tender with a perfectly crispy crust. The original recipe calls for a spice called silphium (also called laser) which went extinct in the first century. Emperor Nero is rumored to have had the last sprig. Asafoetida powder or resin, common to Middle Eastern cooking, is believed to be the closest approximation to the taste. If you can't find that, just substitute garlic.
If not, now you can! This video was set about 200 years after my novel's central character lived, but it still gives a great flavor of what Rome would have been like in ancient times. While the Colosseum wasn't there, nor the Circus Maximus, most of the other major buildings were there in the time that Apicius lived. He would have walked on the stones of the Roman Forum, visited the Temple of Jupiter, looked up through the oculus of The Pantheon. Such power there is in history!
In my novel, one of the treats served up by Apicius to his guests (from De Re Coquinaria, Chapter IX, 396) is stuffed dormice. They were generally eaten as snacks and were a favorite at the tabernas and popinas (taverns and bars) but were also popular with the upper class. Nowadays the lucky little dormouse isn't eaten (although apparently they are still in Slovenia!) but way back then they were often stuffed, fried and eaten whole, bones and all. Below is the recipe found in the cookbook which bears Apicius' name.
Awhile back I posted on one of my blogs about Roman honey cakes, which were primarily used as sacrificial cakes, but versions may have also been used as a snack in the tabernas and popinas.
Sally Grainger is one of the most well-known food historians, especially when it comes to the recipe book that bears Apicius' name. She is also the co-author of The Classical Cookbook, and in that book there is a recipe for Libum, a classic ancient sacrificial cake, first mentioned in Cato's On Agriculture.