BAR’s Ancient Test Kitchen: Something Sweet from Ancient Rome
The next item on BAR’s Test Kitchen menu—a sweet custard—derives from ancient Rome. Roman cooking presents a set of challenges to the modern chef. The Romans used many ingredients (especially spices) from Asia and Africa, which can be difficult to obtain. Roman recipes, moreover, did not always include precise measurements, unless those recipes were medicinal in nature. Thus, we have selected a recipe that can be duplicated and stomached—the Romans tended to eat things that would make some of us squirm, such as fish eyes and wombs—by the modern cook.
The only Roman cookbook that has survived from antiquity is De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), written by Apicius—a pseudonym, as Apicius was a nickname for “gourmet.” Nothing is known about the person behind the nickname other than that the text was written in fourth-century “vulgar” (i.e., popular) Latin, implying that an average person—perhaps even a chef—wrote the text, not a noble. The nickname comes from the legendary epicure Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius (14–37 C.E.).1 Apicius was apparently such a gourmand that, when his fortune dipped down to a measly 10 million sestertii, he took poison rather than live a life eating ordinary food.
In Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome (First Ed.: 1936), Latin scholar and professional chef Joseph Dommers Vehling published the first English-language translation of De Re Coquinaria. Below is Apicius’s Latin text (7.11.7) and Vehling’s translation:
accipies lac, adversus quod patinam aestimabis, temperabis lac cum melle quasi ad lactantia, ova quinque ad sextarium mittis, si ad heminam, ova tria. in lacte dissolvis ita ut unum corpus facias, in cumana colas et igni lento coques. cum duxerit ad se, piper adspargis et inferes.
Estimate the amount of milk necessary for this dish and sweeten it with honey to taste; to a pint of fluid take 5 eggs; for half a pint dissolve 3 eggs in milk and beat well to incorporate thoroughly; strain through a colander into an earthen dish and cook on a slow fire [in hot water bath in oven]. When congealed sprinkle with pepper and serve.
At BAR, we modified a variation on Apicius’s custard.2 Whether the custard recipe BAR sampled derives from the legendary Marcus Gavius Apicius or from one of the many chefs who followed in his wake will forever be a mystery. The custard is delicious, though, and regardless of the recipe’s originator, the chef achieved the main goal—delighting the diner.—J.D.
The next item on BAR’s Test Kitchen menu—a sweet custard—derives from ancient Rome. Roman cooking presents a set of challenges to the modern chef. The Romans used many ingredients (especially spices) from Asia and Africa, which can be difficult to obtain. Roman recipes, moreover, did not always include precise measurements, unless those recipes were medicinal in nature.
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