The Roman Dinner Party

Our most important source on Roman gastronomy is the cookbook of Apicius, compiled in or around the late 4th century AD, and containing recipes for such delicacies as larks’ tongues, sterile sows’ wombs, and milk-fed snails. The Apicius in question is not to be confounded with Marcus Gavius Apicius, the gourmet extraordinaire of the 1st century AD, who fed dried figs to his pigs to make the porcine equivalent of foie gras. According to Pliny, Apicius was ‘born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived’ (ad omne luxus ingenium natus). It is said that he committed suicide after having spent 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, and discovering that he had only 10 million sestertii left.

By the late Republic, Roman meals consisted of breakfast or ientaculum at dawn, a small lunch or prandium around noon, and a large dinner or cena in the evening. A simple dinner with the family normally took place in the atrium, and may have consisted of vegetable courses and salads accompanied by eggs, cheese, and beans, and rounded off with fruits and nuts. By the end of the Republic, the cena consisted of three distinct courses, and, in the presence of guests, could segue into a late-night drinking party or comissatio—the Roman equivalent of a Greek symposium. On these more formal occasions, the feasting took place in a dining room called a triclinium (from the Greek τρικλίνιον, ‘three couches’), with couches arranged on three sides of a central table. The fourth, open side usually faced the entrance of the room, and afforded a space for slaves to service the table. Each couch admitted of at most three diners, reclining on their left elbow with their head pointing at the table; in some cases, a fourth diner—usually an intimate friend or a minor of high social standing—could also be seated. The required posture would have been uncomfortable had the couches not been covered in cushions and positively inclined towards the table. The various positions around the table were not all equal, with the host seating his guests according to social status and closeness or intimacy. Unlike in Greece, women could be present; in the Republic they usually sat on chairs, but in the Empire they could also recline on a couch. Grander houses often featured a second, summer triclinium in or overlooking the garden, and the grandest houses had three or four or even more triclinia.

Upon arrival, guests at a dinner party removed their sandals and washed their hands. The host did not provide any napkins, and each guest had to bring his own. Napkins served to wipe the hands and mouth, of course, but also to take home leftover tit bits and even, in some cases, a gift or souvenir from the host. During the meal, food was taken from plate to mouth with three fingers or with one of two spoons, the larger lugula for soups and pottages and the smaller, prong-like cochlear for eggs and shellfish. Between the three principal courses, diners rinsed their fingers in perfumed water whilst slaves washed the table and swept away the bones and shells that had been tossed onto the floor. After the second course, the host made an offering of something like meat, cake, and wine to the Lares of the house. Conversation made up the bulk of the evening’s entertainment, and could be supplemented with a recital of literature or poetry, and even with performances by acrobats, conjurers, musicians, singers, or dancers—although the diners themselves never got up to dance. At the end of the evening, guests called for their sandals (whence the expression, soleas poscere, ‘to ask for one’s sandals’—to prepare to leave) and maybe received a gift or souvenir to take home in their napkin.

The Roman dinner party is a popular and recurrent theme in Roman literature. In a letter, Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) chides his friend Septicius Clarus for not turning up to his dinner party,

All ready were a lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, porridge, with mulsum and snow … olives, beetroot, gourds, bulbs, and a thousand other things no less appreciated. You would have heard comic actors or a poetry reader or a lyrist, or, such is my generosity, all three. But you chose to go to someone else’s for oysters, sows’ wombs, sea urchins, and dancing girls from Cadiz.

The best if most lurid description of a Roman dinner party is Trimalchio’s Feast (Cena Trimalchionis) in the Satyricon, a rather salacious novel attributed to Petronius, a courtier in the time of Nero. Trimalchio’s Feast is arguably the most celebrated section of the Satyricon, even though—or perhaps because—it has done untold harm to the reputation of the Roman dinner party. Trimalchio, a freedman who has come into enormous wealth, entertains his guests with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance. For example, he brings out Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 180 years prior, and serves a course with a multitude of disparate ingredients each representing one of the signs of the zodiac: a lobster for Capricorn, the udder of a young sow for Virgo, testicles and kidneys (which come in pairs) for Gemini, and so on. The evening culminates with his entire household gratifying him with an enactment of his funeral.

The Romans ate all sorts of food. Rather than itemizing all the ingredients available to the Romans, it is simpler and easier to itemize all the ingredients not available at the height of the Empire. The principal items on this list of absentees are sugar, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, rice, butter, tea, coffee, chocolate, bananas, peanuts, and chili pepper. The Eastern conquests of Alexander the Great had brought back to Greece such delicacies as citrus fruits, peaches, pistachio nuts, and even the prized peacock. As they became increasingly rich and cosmopolitan, the Romans left behind their diet of emmer wheat gruel and adopted and adapted the sophisticated Greek cuisine. In time, Roman cuisine became even more exciting and exotic than the Greek—not entirely dissimilar, in fact, to modern Indian cuisine, with any one Roman dish enhanced by up to 15 different herbs and spices. The Romans had something of a sweet tooth, and many of their dishes involved balancing the sweetness of honey or concentrated grape juice (defrutum) with the acidity, sourness, or bitterness of vinegar, fish sauce (garum or liquamen), and a vast array of fresh and dried herbs and expensive spices—including even, from the first century AD, the pepper of south India and the cloves of the Spice Islands. Fish sauce, which was not dissimilar to Thai nam pla, was made from whole small fish such as anchovy, sardine, mackerel, sprat, and herring. The fish were macerated in salt and left to liquefy over a period of several weeks. This liquefaction resulted not from bacterial putrefaction, which the salt would have prevented, but from proteolysis by the enzymes contained in the viscera of the fish. Meat was relatively expensive. The cow was seen as a draught animal, and pork, rodents such as rabbit and hare, foul, and fish were much preferred to beef. Red mullet, which, upon dying, assumed a variety of colours and shades with which to entertain guests, was particularly sought after, as were dormice, which were typically stuffed with minced pork, pepper, pine kernels, and garum. Indeed, one of the many dishes to feature in Trimalchio’s Feast is ‘a row of dormice, glazed in honey and rolled in poppy seeds’. Despite such extravagances, many Romans took great pride in the freshness and simplicity of their produce—and all the more if it has been sourced from their country farm.

Of course, many people could not afford extravagant ingredients, and had to make do with a staple of wheat bread augmented with some fruit and vegetables and whatever else they could find or afford. In imperial times, many Romans lived in cramped apartments without access to a kitchen or open fire. Rather than cook at home, they bought food from street stalls and food shops, or else ate out in taverns and restaurants. In his Letters to Lucilius, Seneca the Younger complains about the constant noise from the street outside his apartment, ‘the cakeseller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation’. The poorest Romans could not even afford street food, and came to rely on the free bread ration issued to inhabitants of the city. After the suicide of Cleopatra and annexation of Egypt, vast grain ships ploughed the route from Alexandria to Ostia to supply Rome with the immense quantities of wheat required for the bread ration. After being shipwrecked on Malta, it is on such a ship that St Paul reached Italy.

A Brief History of Wine

Early foragers and farmers made wine from wild grapes or other fruits. According to archaeological evidence, by 6000 BC grape wine was being made in the Caucasus, and by 3200 BC domesticated grapes had become abundant in the entire Near East. In Mesopotamia, wine was imported from the cooler northern regions, and so came to be known as ‘liquor of the mountains’. In Egypt as in Mesopotamia, wine was for nobles and priests, and mostly reserved for religious or medicinal purposes. The Egyptians fermented grape juice in amphorae which they covered with cloth or leather lids and then sealed up with mud from the Nile. By biblical times, wine had acquired some less dignified purposes. According to the Old Testament, Noah planted a vineyard, and ‘drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent’ (Genesis 9:21). Skip to the New Testament and here is Jesus employed as a wine consultant: ‘And no man putteth new wine into old wineskins: else the wine bursts the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins: but new wine must be put into new skins’ (Mark 2:22).

Many of the grape varieties that are cultivated in modern Greece are similar or identical to those cultivated there in Ancient times. Wine played a central role in Ancient Greek culture, and the vine—which, as in the Near East, had been domesticated by the Early Bronze Age—was widely cultivated. The Minoans, who flourished on the island of Crete from c.2700 to c.1450 BC, imported and exported different wines, which they used not only for recreational but also for religious and ritual purposes. Wine played a similarly important role for the later Myceneans, who flourished on mainland Greece from c.1600 to 1100 BC. In fact, wine was so important to the Greeks as to be personified by a major deity, Dionysus or Bacchus, and honoured with a number of annual festivals. One such festival was the Anthesteria, which, held in February each year, celebrated the opening of wine jars to test the new wine. Active in the 9th century BC, the poet Homer often sung of wine, famously alluding to the Aegean as the ‘wine dark sea’. In the Odyssey, he says that ‘wine can of their wits the wise beguile/ Make the sage frolic, and the serious smile’. In the Works and Days, the poet Hesiod, who lived in the 7th or 8th century BC, speaks of pruning and even of drying the grapes prior to fermentation. The Greeks plainly understood that no two wines are the same, and held the wines of Thassos, Lesbos, Chios, and Mende in especially high regard; Theophrastus, a contemporary and close friend of Aristotle, even demonstrated some pretty clear notions of terroir.

In Ancient Greece, vines were left to their own devices, supported on forked props, or trained up trees. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder describes the Ancient Greek practice of using partly dehydrated gypsum prior to fermentation, and some type of lime after fermentation, to remove acidity—but this was no doubt a relatively recent or infrequent practice. The wine was neither racked nor fined, and it was not uncommon for the drinker to want to pass it through a sieve or strainer. Additives such as aromatic herbs, spice, honey, or a small part of seawater were often added both to improve and preserve the wine—which could also be concentrated by boiling. Finished wine was stored in amphorae lined with resin or pitch, both substances that imparted some additional and characteristic flavour. Generally speaking, wine was sweeter then than it is today, reflecting not only prevalent tastes, but also the ripeness of the grapes, the use of natural yeasts in fermentation, and the lack of temperature control during fermentation. At the same time, wine did come in a wide variety of styles, some of which were markedly austere. To drink undiluted wine was considered a bad and barbarian practice—almost as bad as drinking beer like the Babylonian or Egyptian peasant classes. Wine was diluted with two or three parts of water to produce a beverage with an alcoholic strength of around 3-5%. The comedian Hermippus, who flourished in the golden age of Athens, described the best vintage wines as having a nose of violets, roses, and hyacinths; however, most wine would have turned sour within a year and specific vintages are never mentioned.

Together with the sea-faring Phoenicians, the Ancient Greeks disseminated the vine throughout the Mediterranean, and even named southern Italy Oenotria or ‘Land of Vines’. If wine was important to the Greeks, it was even more so to the Romans, who thought of it as a daily necessity of life and democratized its drinking. They established a great number of Western Europe’s major wine producing regions, not only to provide steady supplies for their soldiers and colonists, but also to trade with native tribes and convert them to the Roman cause. In particular, the trade of Hispanic wines surpassed that even of Italian wines, with Hispanic amphorae having been unearthed as far as Britain and the limes Germanicus or German frontier. In his Geographica (7 BC), Strabo states that the vineyards of Hispania Beatica (which roughly corresponds to modern Andalucia) were famous for their great beauty. The area of Pompeii produced a great deal of wine, much of it destined for the city of Rome, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD led to a dramatic shortage. The people of Rome panicked, uprooting food crops to plant vineyards. This led to a food shortage and wine glut, which in 92 AD compelled the emperor Domitian to issue an edict banning the planting of vineyards in Rome.

The Romans left behind a number of agricultural treatises that provide a wealth of information on Roman viticulture and winemaking. In particular, Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura (c. 160 BC) served as the Roman textbook of winemaking for several centuries. In De Re Rustica, Columella surveyed the main grape varieties, which he divided into three main groups: noble varieties for great Italian wines, high yielding varieties that can nonetheless produce age-worthy wines, and prolific varieties for ordinary table wine. Pliny the Elder, who also surveyed the main grape varieties, claimed that ‘classic wines can only be produced from vines grown on trees’, and it is true that the greatest wines of Campania, such as Caecuban and Falernian, nearly all came from vines trained on trees—often elms or poplars. Both Caecuban and Falernian were white sweet wines, although there also existed a dry style of Falernian. Undiluted Falernian contained a high degree of alcohol; so high that a candle flame could set it alight. It was deemed best to drink Falernian at about 15-20 years old, and another classed growth called Surrentine at 25 years old or more. The Opimian vintage of 121 BC, named after the consul in that year Lucius Opimius, acquired legendary fame, with some examples still being drunk more than 100 years later.

The best wines were made from the initial and highly prized free-run juice obtained from the treading of the grapes. At the other end of the spectrum were posca, a mixture of water and sour wine that had not yet turned to vinegar, and lora, a thin drink or piquette produced from a third pressing of grape skins. Following the Greek invention of the screw, screw presses became common on Roman villas. Grape juice was fermented in large clay vessels called dolia, which were often partially sunk into the ground. The wine was then racked into amphorae for storing and shipping. Barrels invented by the Gauls and, later still, glass bottles invented by the Syrians vied as alternatives to amphorae. As in Ancient Greece, additives were common: chalk or marble to neutralize excess acid; and boiled must, herbs, spice, honey, resin, or seawater to improve and preserve thin offerings. Maderization was common and sought after; at the same time, rooms destined for wine storage were sometimes built so as to face north and away from the sun. Following the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Church perpetuated the knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, first and foremost to provide the blood of Christ for the celebration of Mass.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 176 other followers

%d bloggers like this: