Monday, June 04, 2012

Conditum Paradoxum

As I mentioned last week, I have a book coming out soon, and I've been spending some time thinking about the release party. Of course I'll have a release party. We'll probably do something local, for friends whom I can guilt into buying my book. In addition, we'll probably do something at some of the local cons: Readercon and/or Boskone, if we can. One question we've been pondering is what we can do to make it distinctive and original. Well, my book has Romans in it, so what can be more distinctive than Ancient Roman food? To that end, Kristin and I have been taking a close look at some Ancient Roman recipes, and trying to see what we can make. First up, conditum paradoxum, or paradoxically spiced wine. The recipe is from Apicius, who describes it thus:
Conditum paradoxum: conditi paradoxi compositio: mellis pondo XV in aeneum vas mittuntur, praemissi[s] vini sextariis duobus, ut in cocturam mellis vinum decoquas. Quod igni lento et aridis lignis calefactum, commotum ferula dum coquitur, si effervere coeperit, vini rore compescitur, praeter quod subtracto igni in se redit. Cum perfrixerit, rursus accenditur. Hoc secundo ac tertio fiet, ac tum demum remotum a foco postridie despumatur. Tum [mittis] piperis uncias IV iam triti, masticis scripulos II, folii et croci dragmas singulas, dactylorum ossibus torridis quinque, isdemque dactylis vino mollitis, intercedente prius suffusione vini de suo modo ac numero, ut tritura lenis habeatur. His omnibus paratis supermittis vini lenis sextarios XVIII. Carbones perfecto aderunt duo milia.
In English, with modern measurements:
Conditum Paradoxum: The composition of this excellent spiced wine is as follows. Into a copper bowl, put 15 librae (10.8 lbs) of honey and 2 sextarii (1.08 L) of wine; heat on a slow fire, constantly stirring the mixture with a stick. At the boiling point add a dash of cold wine, retire from stove, and skim. Repeat this twice or three times, let it rest till the next day, and skim again. Then add 4 unciae (4 oz) of ground pepper, three scruples (3/24, or 1/8, oz) of mastic, a drachma (1/6 oz) each of aromatic leaves  and saffron, 5 roasted date pits, the dates themselves soaked in wine, having been steeped beforehand in wine of sufficient quality and quantity so that a sweet mash is produced. When you have prepared all this, pour over it 18 (9.72 L) sextarii of smooth wine. The resulting mixture is treated with charcoal.
The English, but not the calculated amounts, is a combination of a couple of different translations, but mostly Giacosa's A Taste of Rome.  The mixture would, of course, be strained.

We decided to try this wine after finding a modern interpretation on this German website. It uses 4 L of Retsina wine, 500 g of honey, 60 g black peppercorns, 8 pitted dates, 1 teaspoon of anise, a pinch of saffron and as many bay leaves as would be covered by the liquid. Looking over it, we realized two things. First, they substitute anise for mastic, and second, they use proportionately a lot less honey, and a lot more of most everything else (with the exception of saffron). We figured we'd try something closer to the original, with gum mastic ordered from Amazon. However we did have to scale everything down, since we didn't want 11 liters of spiced wine.  We decided that the recipe would work best for 1.5 liters of wine (2 bottles).  So the proportions we used were:

  • 1.5 liters (3.2 pints) wine
  • 1.5 lbs (682 grams) honey
  • .55 oz (15 g) pepper
  • 1 roasted date pit
  • 1 pitted date soaked in wine
  • 1/43 oz (0.63 g) aromatic leaf
  • 1/43 oz (0.63 g) saffron
  • 1/58 oz (0.48 g) gum mastic
Some of these are very small quantities.  Well, except for saffron, which comes in jars of 0.5 g (technically, a jar containing a plastic bag with the saffron--but even so, it is really a lot of saffron, since it's a strong spice).  We just used one whole jar of saffron.  For the leaves, we used a couple of leaves of tejpat (though bay leaf works too).  The gum mastic, which is a tree resin, comes in beads of varying size, and after some math, we came up with 9-10 mastic beads (assuming a normal size distribution) as the proper amount.  We did use Retsina for the wine.

So, more accurately, our recipe contained:
  • 1.5 liters (3.2 pints) Retsina
  • 1.5 lbs (682 grams) honey
  • .55 oz (15 g) black pepper
  • 1 roasted date pit
  • 1 pitted date soaked in wine, along with the wine
  • 1-2 tejpat leaves
  • 0.5 g saffron
  • 9-10 gum mastic beads
I'll leave it to Kristin to give the full recipe she used, since she did the cooking (I just did the calculations).  If you do decide to make conditum paradoxum based on this information, the most important warning I should give is that like all Roman wines, it should not be drunk straight.  The Romans diluted their wines with anywhere from one to seven times as much water.  We found three parts water (or soda water, if you don't mind being anachronistic) to one part conditum paradoxum to be about right to give a sweet and spicy drink, tasting strongly of honey, pepper, and saffron. So you may think you're only making 2 liters of conditum paradoxum, but it's really 8 liters worth.  Share it with some friends.

Update (9/29/2012): Kristin's finally put the recipe up on her blog.  And I have another post on Ancient Roman food here.

Update (10/6/2012): Kristin pointed out that I left the black pepper out of the ingredient list.  I put it in.

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