Dining with Antiques – Ancient Roman Pottery

Simple terracotta pieces like this four-inch, two-handled cup from the 2nd century A.D. can be surprisingly affordable.

In the previous installments of “Dining with Antiques,” we have so far covered a variety of vintage recipes and collectible dinnerware dating from the 1800s to the 1960s. This article, however, features some of the oldest collectibles on earth, along with some of the oldest recorded recipes.

It is hard to believe, but ancient Roman dinnerware, dating from as far back as the first century A.D., can be affordably purchased from auction houses and various dealers who specialize in antiquities. And many people collect it. Small, simple, unadorned clay pieces like the ones pictured here can sell in the $100 to $300 ranges. Terracotta bowls, mugs, rimmed plates, dippers, pitchers, strainers, cheese presses, jugs, mortars, vases and oil lamps (to light the dinner table) are fairly easy to find because this coarser tableware was produced locally in very large quantities for everyday use. (The more decorative, finer pieces were glazed and reserved for formal dining. They were often imported from specialized workshops within the Roman Empire and naturally bring much higher prices.) As with any collectible, be sure to buy from a reputable source because modern reproductions abound.

Collectors who want to reenact a Roman feast don’t eat out of their dishes, of course. However, these pieces can be artfully displayed in the center of a long table while authentic recipes are served around them. Many of the foods identified with the Mediterranean basin today (such as tomatoes and pasta) did not exist 2,000 years ago. But luckily, we do know the kinds of foods that were enjoyed.

A collection of Roman recipes called “Apicius” was compiled in the late 4th century A.D. and named for a Roman gourmand who lived 300 years earlier. It was first translated into English in 1936. “Apicius” is a masterwork—geared for experienced cooks from the wealthier classes and arranged in 10 sections including subjects on meats, garden vegetables, legumes, fowl and seafood with almost 500 dishes detailed. Most of the recipes call for a pungent broth called garum which is a mixture of fermented fish and strong spices.

The contents of the cookbook are immensely interesting. It reveals just a couple of desserts and very few breads (although there is an exact recipe for what we call French toast today). That is probably because bread, cakes and pastries were widely sold by a large variety of professional bakers and confectioners so home cooks rarely took the time with them. Also, porridges and mush made from wheat and cereal grains were often eaten in place of bread. There is no sugar in the book—all sweetness came from fruits, wine and honey. Starches like rice and potatoes are non-existent. And, there are very few salads.

An early 3rd-century A.D. shallow dish (six-inch diameter) with pedestal foot.

A seven-inch pottery wine jug, 2nd century A.D.

A 2nd century A.D. four-inch oil lamp.

Foods that still appeal to us today include versions of lamb stew, fried parsnips, meatballs, crab cakes, roasted ham, baked squash, omelets, stewed fruit and pork cutlets. But other dishes, such as stuffed dormouse, parboiled flamingo and pickled sow’s udder, are quite happily left in antiquity.

For those who wish to replicate an authentic ancient Roman meal, here is a three-course example. No proportions were included in the recipes, so add the listed herbs and ingredients to your taste. Many modernized versions can be found that have been adapted and changed for our palates, but the recipes here are the most authentic. Necessary translations, substitutions or clarifications are shown in parentheses.

A four-inch bowl from the 4th century A.D.

Gustum Versatile (Moveable Appetizers)
The movable appetizers (are) a composition of small white beets, cockles (clams), snails, mature leeks, celery root, chicken giblets (and) chicken wings cooked in oil, wine, vinegar, ginger, pepper and tarragon. (Do not overcook. Drain the appetizers after cooking and cool slightly).

Oil a pan and line it with mallow (endive) leaves (and then the warm appetizers). Add Damascus (dried) plums, tid-bits (meatballs) and sliced sausage. (Carry appetizers from person to person).

Locustas Assas (Broiled Lobster)
If broiled, they should appear in their shell, which is opened by splitting the live lobster in two. Season with pepper and coriander. Moisten with oil and broil them on the grill. When they are dry, keep on basting them more and more with oil or butter until they are properly broiled.

Lus in Locusta (Lobster Sauce)
(Boil together) chopped scallions fried lightly, crush(ed) pepper, lovage (celery leaves), caraway, cumin, (chopped) figs and dates, honey, vinegar, wine, garum and oil. While boiling add mustard.

(Garum can still be made, but it is time-consuming and unpleasant to ferment fish. Modern cooks can make an easier version by boiling down a quart of grape juice to a little over 1/3 cup and then adding 2 tablespoons of anchovy paste and a pinch of oregano. Some cooks also substitute a Vietnamese fish sauce called Nuoc Mam that can be found in the Asian section of your grocery store.)

Authentic accompanying vegetables include simmered asparagus, carrots, cabbage or peas flavored with any combination of the spices used above. Sliced fresh mushrooms and morels can also be added.

Patina Versatilis Vice Dulcis (Nut Custard Turn-Over)
Toast pignolia (pine nuts), hazelnuts, almonds and walnuts. Crush them with honey. Beat well and mix in milk, eggs, honey and oil. Thicken slowly on fire without boiling. Fill in molds, taking care that the nuts do not sink to the bottom. (Make any modern recipe of milk and egg custard to pour in with the nut mixture). Bake in a hot water bath. When cold, unmold.

It is not too hard to run across modern translations of “Apicius.” A 1958 edition was easily found in the Worthopedia price guide with a selling price of $23. It even included the original Latin text. Many collectors of ancient Roman pottery enjoy working their way through these unusual recipes.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books. “Dining with Antiques” is an ongoing feature in which she highlights usable collectible dinnerware, along with vintage recipes.

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