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Eating as the Romans

Before the assassinations and conspiracies galore of 44 B.C., the Ides of March was a time of celebration. We discover the auspicious foods of old and their modern interpretations.

When it came to the Ides of March, the Romans had two rather contradictory philosophies: beware and celebrate. The former came from Julius Caesar, famed Roman general. On March 15th, he was stabbed to death by 40 conspirators – and it forever tarnished the once joyous month. 

Up until 46 B.C., early calendars designated March 1st as the start of the year. Akin to February for the Chinese in Singapore, the Romans delighted in March as a period of festivities, culminating in the Feast of Anna Perenna – goddess of annus, meaning year – during which the people would sing, dance, and, most importantly, indulge wholeheartedly in food and drink.

Most of what we know about Roman cuisine comes from De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), heralded as the oldest known cookbook in existence. Its authorship is unknown, though widely attributed to the ancient gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius. Its pages contain over 500 Greek and Roman recipes. Indeed, one can only assume it was staples like sow’s udder stuffed with salted sea urchins, flamingos boiled with dates, and ostriches cooked whole which led Classics scholar Joseph Dommers Vehling to remark: “Anyone who knows anything worthwhile about the private and public lives of the ancients should be well acquainted with their table.”

In an introduction to that very table, we present a short round-up of recipes inspired by the Ides of March, lest you suffer a fate worse than Caesar’s: bad food!

1. PASSUM

(Image courtesy of iStock)

In an age where water was full of refuse – remember, rudimentary plumbing systems ­– it was often safer to drink alcohol. And that is precisely why we start off with passum, a raisin wine from Carthage, without which no Roman feast would be complete. It is made from well-ripened grapes, which are then dried, fermented, combined with fresh must, and fermented again, in a process painstakingly detailed by Carthaginian writer Mago. Without the hybrid grapes we now cultivate, the wines of old were particularly bitter. The Romans thus diluted generously with honey, water, and sometimes even vinegar, resulting in a refreshing “wine” of very low alcohol content. 

Any sweet, fruity Southern-Italian red would likely suffice, but we would be remiss not to mention Singapore’s first meadery, Rachelle the Rabbit Meadery. Made by fermenting honey, water, and yeast, mead impressively resembles the lightness and sweetness of passum. And, though we are not sure if the Romans would approve, Rachelle the Rabbit also offers traditional flavours like the rosy goodness of Rachelle’s Bandung.

2. EGGS

(Image courtesy of iStock)

It was lyric poet Horace who coined the phrase ab ovo usque ad mala, meaning ‘from the egg to the apples,’ in reference to the progression of a standard Roman meal. Eggs, it seemed, reigned supreme when it came to gustatio, the appetizers. One of Apicius’ most reiterated recipes called for medium boiled eggs with pepper, lovage, and pine-soaked nuts. The aromatic dish was then topped with honey, vinegar, and garum fish sauce. Though you would be hard-pressed to find lovage in grocery stores today, the ancient herb can be replaced with celery.

3. GARUM FISH SAUCE

(Image courtesy of iStock)

Garum fish sauce appears in quite literally every recipe of De Re Coquinaria. According to Apicius, it is made by marinating fatty fish, most commonly sardines, in herbs like dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, and oregano. After seven days under the sun, the concoction is then stirred for another 20 until it becomes liquid. Its closest modern substitutes land close to home with the Thai fish sauce nam pla and its Vietnamese counterpart known as nuoc nam. Both offer a delightfully umami element, crucial to a host of Southeast Asian dishes, including shrimp curry, pad see ew, and more. 

4. MUSSELS

With an empire that spanned both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, the Romans took full advantage of their access to seafood, splurging on the likes of shellfish, crayfish, crabs, scallops, and oysters. But few can compare to Apicius’ recipe for mussels. In quintessentially Roman fashion, the mussels are boiled in a rich reduction of water, passum, cumin, coriander, and chopped leeks. Passum’s trademark sweetness, coupled with the salty brininess of the mussels, make for a flavourful and balanced primae mensae, the Latin equivalent of an entrée. Given the ubiquity of the ingredients – passum can be easily swapped for a moscato or vin santo – this recipe could certainly find a place in the kitchens of contemporary Mediterranean and seafood restaurants.

5. PEAR PATINA

It appears that the Romans’ fondness for wine and spices extended even to secondae mensae, the saccharine culmination of a hearty feast. Apart from puddings and cheesecakes, it was fruit which dominated the dessert menu. Pear patina, for example, is a curious combination of wine-boiled pears with cumin, honey, oil, and, yes, even garum fish sauce. Apicius also insists that it be served with a sprinkle of pepper. The final product could be best described as a custard, due to the viscous consistency of the mashed fruit. All in all, it perfectly embodies the sweet-and-sour palate with which Romans were so enamoured.

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Claire Quan

Editorial Intern

Small in stature, large in appetite. Likely to be found loitering around secondhand bookstores, frequenting dance studios, and petting other people's dogs. Dislikes complete sentences.

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