Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Roman Dinner

On Saturday, Kristin and I hosted a Ancient Roman dinner for our friends.  We've done Roman dinners before, as Kristin has discussed in detail on her blog.  Once again, Kristin did most of the cooking, and I did most of the dishes.  Which is not to say I did none of the cooking--I prepared the hydromel (honey water) and sorted lovage seeds, for example.

Ah, lovage seeds.  Roman meals use a number of ingredients which are not easy to get in the New World.  Among them are lovage seeds.  You can buy lovage seeds in the grocery store, but these aren't really lovage seeds--they're either celery seeds or ajwan seeds, which are different plants entirely.  You can't buy food-grade real lovage seeds, but you can buy them for planting.  And if you get organic seeds, they're untreated and edible.  So we ordered some lovage seeds.  However, while they're not treated, the seeds are only 99% pure--you also get a good bit of dirt and twigs in the package.  In addition, you can't be sure that they've been stored properly as a spice should.  So Kristin was kind of reluctant to use the seeds, but I went through them and painstakingly separated a teaspoon-full of seeds from the twigs and dirt, and convinced her to use them in one dish.

Lovage is not the only hard to get Roman spice.  Rue and pennyroyal are, unfortunately, slightly poisonous herbs.  Kristin's eager to try them--after all, if the Romans could eat them, can't we?  But I insisted that we not feed poison to our friends (besides, rue is supposed to be used fresh, not as seeds, and while Kristin has gotten some seeds, she still hasn't planted them), so we substituted dandelion leaves for the rue.  And don't get me started on myrtle berries--our myrtle bush didn't bloom this year.

Still, we managed to produce a very nice three course meal.  For the appetizer, we had flatbread, olives, sheep and goat cheese (the Romans considered cows beasts of burden, not milk or meat animals), and an assortment of olives and salami (which Kristin considers to be pretty close to Roman sausages).

The real work went into this appetizing main course:
Kristin enjoying the main course.
From the bottom to the top, there's squash seasoned with real lovage (the only one we had enough real lovage seed for), pan-seared fish, Indian chapati (a reasonable approximation of Roman flatbread, we understand), highly-seasoned pork belly, and even-more-seasoned parsnips.  Kristin wasn't too happy with the parsnips, thinking they were too salty, but they turned out to be a favorite, and the only thing we ran out of.  There are also two bottles, one containing conditum paradoxum, and the other containing the hydromel which I made.

The dessert course consisted of honeyed fritters, grapes, and figs.

Most of the recipes came from Sally Grainger's Cooking Apicius (shown left), which is our favorite of the various Roman recipe books.  For one, it's the most modern, and has the best understanding of what ingredients are available to a modern kitchen.  For another, there's a lot of scholarship involved, a lot of it based on the work that went into her and her husband's new translation of Apicius (the most extensive of the Ancient Roman cookbooks).  It seems to us to be pretty accurate, and Kristin thinks it agrees very well with her research in the area.

We did use a somewhat different recipe for the conditum paradoxum, but I've discussed that in detail before.  The hydromel also came from a different source, namely Mark Grant's Roman Cookery (shown right).  The original recipe comes not from Apicius, but from Bassus's Country Matters.  It mixes one part apple juice, two parts honey, and three parts water.  In Grant's recipe, these are boiled rather than aged the way they were in Ancient Rome.  We used apple cider rather than apple juice, since the cider's closer to what the Romans would have had.  The cookbook recommends chilling and serving as an apertif, but I preferred something that could be drunk with a meal.  It was too sweet to drink straight in quantity, but we mixed the hydromel with three parts water, as we had done with the conditum paradoxum.  Unfortunately, this was still too sweet.  Kristin, who's a much better cook than I am, suggested adding some vinegar.  Adding one-and-a-half teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to a serving was just what was needed.  It tastes more of apples that way, and the acid of the vinegar prevents the sweetness from being overwhelming.  Since the Romans usually let the mixture age long enough to ferment, I figure that the result is probably pretty close to what the Romans drank.  According to my calculations, adding one-and-a-half teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to a serving results in a ratio of 1 part apple cider vinegar, 2 parts apple cider, 4 parts honey, and 6 parts water, but Kristin prefers 50% more vinegar, for a stronger acidity.  If I make it again, I'll use my proportions.  It's easier to add a little vinegar later than to take it out.

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