8 May 2015




Featured Classical Recipes: 
Sapa - Roman Cookery, Mark Grant
Honey Omelette - A Taste of History, Jane Renfrew

A reconstructed Roman Kitchen from the Museum of London. Source.

I suppose I should begin by saying that I am not an expert in Historic Cooking. BUT, I have a deep passion for history and an (arguably) deeper love for food. An interest in historic cooking began early in my career as an archaeologist. While on a site in central Jordan, we dug up buckets of animal bones and jar stoppers each day. Clearly, we were excavating an area in which mass amounts of food preparation (and during other occupation phases, disposal) took place. In a random thought, I wondered how they spiced their meat. What did it taste like? What preparation and serving techniques did they use? On another dig just north of Rome, I would uncover grave deposits of semi-whole jars from tumuli (mound tombs) that contained substantial residue of foodstuffs. How I craved to be able to taste Etruscan cooking! Not too long ago, I happened to listen to a podcast which featured two archaeologists who had recreated a Mayan cacao drink. Their conversation explored how knowing the taste and difficulty of preparation significantly nuanced their theories and understanding of ancient Mayan culture.

Over the next few months, I invite you to join me in my journey, and to check out the wonderful communities found within this subject. For example, the Culinary Historians of Canada celebrate Canada’s rich history of cooking from First Nations through all the cultures who have immigrated and added their own flavours to Canadian cooking. On their website are digitized copies of historic recipes, and online versions of their monthly digest. Other resources include Food History News, as well as Carolyn Blackstock's amazing journey through the Berlin Cookbook

To create this column, I've scoured food blogs and scholarly articles, library shelves and thrift store aisles.  I hope you enjoy the line up of recipes about to unfold! (Realizing of course that many ingredients and technologies in the modern world will not be able to exactly authentically recreate each recipe.) The first few posts will feature classical recipes from Greece and Rome. As my skills improve, I look forward to exploring other ancient cultures in the coming year! There is much to look forward to.

My foray into classical cooking over the next two posts will explore the following books specifically:
  • Grant, Mark, and Jane Smith. Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens. London: Serif, 1999. Print.  

  • Dalby, Andrew, and Sally Grainger. The Classical Cookbook. 2nd (rev.) ed. London: British Museum, 2012. Print.  

  • Renfrew, Jane. “Roman Britain,” in A Taste of History: 10 000 years of food in Britain. Brears, Peter, Maggie Black, Gill Corbishley, Jane Renfrew, and Jennifer Stead. London: English Heritage in association with British Museum Press, 1993. Print.
And now for the first recipes!

Many of the upcoming recipes require sauces of wine or fish, items that one has to make well ahead of time. In this prep stage, I will be making one of these ingredients.

Sapa – Roman Cookery, Mark Grant.

Sapa defructum defrutum roman historic cooking
Sapa. Photo by Leah Moncada

1L red grape juice

Boil 1L of red grape juice until it is 1/3 the original volume. Cool. Seal in a sterilized jar.

Not meant to be consumed on its own, sapa was used in food conservation and flavouring. This item reflects the differing cooking practices found in Rome from today. The Romans would reduce their wine (boil it down) before adding it to sauces, hence the sapa recipe, while today we tend to add wine to our recipes first, and then reduce. Due to the fact that the wine is boiled in huge lead vessels, a popular (and disputed) theory has risen that the fall of the Roman Empire was exacerbated by severe lead poisoning amongst the populace. Likely lead was simply one factor amongst many, but it remains that Imperial Roman skeletons have been found with extremely high lead content!

This recipe book helpfully provides the primary source from which each recipe is adapted. Hints and tips are given, as well as some brief historical facts about each author.

After doing this prep work, (and how strenuous that sapa recipe is, eh?) one gets a little peckish! A nice simple dinner is in order:

Honey Omelette – A Taste of History, “Roman Britain,” Jane Renfrew.

honey omelette ingredients eggs pepper roman historic cooking
Honey Omelette Ingredients. Photo by Madeline Smolarz.
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp honey
275mL milk
4 eggs

Mix the eggs, milk and oil together. Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan, heat. When it is lightly sizzling, add the egg mixture. Thoroughly cook on one side, slide onto a round dish. Drizzle the honey, heated, onto the omelette and sprinkle with pepper.

This book, A Taste of History, is a rich historical source. Each chapter fully explores food styles, preparation techniques, delicate cultural practices, and corresponding archaeological evidence. However the recipe instructions are extremely sparse, and don't always easily connect to specific historic mention in the previous text.

honey omelette pepper eggs roman historic cooking
Maybe not the most graceful omelette I've ever made...Honey Scrambled Eggs?
Unfortunately I found this omelette not to my preference. The mix of pepper and honey was certainly an interesting taste (and was actually why I choose to recipe,) but the texture was both oily and airy, and uncut by the addition of roughly chopped items. (However, there is a Roman Nut Omelette whose texture I may enjoy more. Maybe another day!)

Next Time on Historic Kitchen: I explore a variety of historic dishes, and discover new elements to Greek and Roman life through their flavours, ingredients, and methods of preparation!

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