Sunday, January 13, 2008

Was Apicius a Roman gourmet or glutton?

"The oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity, De Re Coquinaria ("The Art of Cooking") is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, the famed epicure who flourished during the reign of Tiberius early in the first century AD. (Renaissance humanists mistakenly ascribed the book to a "Apicius Caelius" from an attempt to reconstruct the letters API and CAE that appear on the damaged title page of one of two ninth-century manuscripts that preserve the document.) The recipes themselves were not compiled until late in the fourth or early in the fifth century and derive from a variety of sources, although about three-fifths are Apicius' own, some of which are quite elaborate. Apicius was said to have discovered how to treat the liver of sows, just as those of geese, stuffing them with dried figs and, then just before the animal was killed, giving it honeyed wine (mulsum) (Pliny, VIII.209, cf. recipe 259).

The ten books are arranged, much like a modern cookbook, by the ingredient to be prepared and include recipes for meats, vegetables, legumes, fowl, meat, seafood, and fish. Almost five hundred are given, presumably to be used by an experienced cook, as there is little indication of the quantity of ingredients, their proportions, or how they should be used. Over four hundred of these recipes include a sauce, invariably made with fermented fish sauce (garum). The preparation of most sauces began with pulverized spices and herbs, usually pepper, which often was combined with cumin, although it sometimes is difficult to determine whether spices or herbs were to be fresh or dried, leaf or seed. After being ground in a mortar, fruits (plums, dates, raisins) and nuts (almonds, pine nuts, walnuts) were added (and often pounded as well) and then liquids, including garum, water, stock, milk, honey, oil, vinegar, and wine, both plain and reduced to increase its sweetness. Thickening usually was by wheat starch but also included the yolks and whites of eggs, pounded dates, and steeped rice or the water in which it had been boiled. Fish sauces tended to be particularly elaborate; boiled murena (likely eel), for example, called for pepper, lovage, dill, celery seed, coriander, dried mint, and rue, as well as pine nuts, honey, vinegar, wine, and oil (451)...."

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