Do we still eat like the Romans?

 
Seabass with fig and serrano ham; coriander; game and goose liver terrine; oysters Sea bass with fig and goose terrine with pickled beetroot make use of favoured Roman ingredients

Stuffed dormouse is off the menu, and lounging at dinner is no longer socially acceptable. But there are more similarities between modern British cuisine and what was eaten by the Romans than you might think.

Chefs at one restaurant in Bath - a city famed for its recreational status in ancient times - created a Roman Britain-inspired menu for the Great Bath Feast festival this month.

"[The Romans] used a lot of smoking techniques and pickling techniques and curing... and salting," says owner of Gascoyne Place, Marty Grant, who helped create the feast.

"Obviously [they] used different ovens and urns to do that in but essentially the techniques are not a million miles from what we employ here in our kitchens."

Give a dish a Roman twist

Figs

Add figs to a home-made prosciutto pizza

Make a posh pie packed with oysters

Whip up a tasty grape, beetroot and feta salad

Seasonal food such as sea bass, wild mushrooms and beetroot are what Romans in Britain would have been eating he says, along with imported favourites such as figs.

Like modern-day foodies, wealthy Romans wanted to taste new flavours from around the world, and cookery was about "exciting use of spices and daring mixes of flavour," says Andrew Dalby, co-author of The Classical Cookbook which explores ancient cuisines.

And like us, they were concerned about food and health. "I was really surprised to find that the attitude to food was so similar," he says.

"[Romans] were taught by doctors and dieticians that the wrong choice of foods would make them ill and that a better choice could restore them to health... Some at least acted on it. And sometimes it worked."

But despite the Romans' obsession with food almost 2,000 years ago, their cuisine "wasn't transmitted to later Britain".

"The Britons and Saxons had other priorities than gastronomy, and hardly any access to the exotic spices known to the Romans."

Beef tenderloin with smoked bone marrow and mushroom filling Gascoyne Place served beef tenderloin and smoked bone marrow crust. Beef became Britain's dominant meat in place of mutton when the Romans arrived

So the culinary legacy that could have been, was lost in time.

Yet modern British cooking as we now know it, with its influences from around the world, is "much more the kind of cooking Romans would have appreciated", argues Mr Dalby.

Every-day food such as pears, damsons, cherries, lettuce, cabbage and broad beans - all previously unknown foods in Britain - were introduced by the Romans. And wealthy settlers are credited with popularising "luxury" flavours such as coriander and black pepper.

"Romans loved oysters. Archaeologically you can tell when the Romans arrive because you just get these massive layers - heaps and heaps of oysters... that's very characteristically Roman." says Dr Richard Thomas, a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Leicester.

Two thousand years ago, most people in Britain were cooking pottage (a thick soup or stew). But after the Roman invasion in 43 AD the elite were dining on carefully-presented three course meals.

Romans and beer

  • Food in Roman Britain varied from region to region. For example beer was a different colour depending on the area you were in
  • In ancient Britain's south people drank wheat beer while in northern England they drank barley beer
  • Wine was probably the preferred drink for Romans, but the legionary armies, who didn't get it every day, made do with beer as well

"There [was] probably as much elite dining going on in the Cotswolds area as there is probably now because it was just as rich. Serious, serious villas there," says Hilary Cool, author of Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain.

Roman cooks are thought to have taken great pains over the way their dishes looked. "They moved more away from the common stew pot. With the Romans you're moving more towards presentation of various dishes," says Meghann Mahoney, one of Dr Thomas' PhD students at the University of Leicester.

Table etiquette was important to the Romans, but bears no resemblance to British dining today.

"[It was] much more like feasting in Greece, Turkey, India or China: a big selection of dishes... no nervousness about spices; always plenty to choose from, always something new arriving," says Mr Dalby.

Delicacies included dormice and a fish sauce condiment made from fermented fish offal as well as more familiar fruits, vegetables and meat.

But exactly what Romans in Britain ate is difficult to tell. While archaeological evidence has uncovered plant and meat remains, few recipes have survived.

Those that have are "central Mediterranean… it doesn't really relate to Roman Britain," says Ms Cool.

The most famous of these cookbooks books is De Re Coquinaria (On Cooking) attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, who is thought to have lived during the 1st Century. The manuscript, containing around 450 recipes, gives no clue of ingredient amounts but is often used to in attempts to recreate Roman food.

Roman baths in the city of Bath Recreation was a big part of Roman culture. Bath spa has drawn crowds since ancient times

Any Roman-inspired banquet would be incomplete without the presence of wine.

"The Romans were responsible for spreading knowledge and appreciation of wine throughout the empire," says Mr Dalby.

"Romans in Britain drank wines from Gaul and Italy when they could afford them."

As well as importing wine, they were the first to plant vines in Britain. However how successful these were in producing alcohol is debated.

Today England and Wales boast over 400 vineyards producing grapes for still and sparkling wines, and the industry has taken off over the past five decades.

But intrigue still surrounds the ancient Roman version of the drink.

Earlier this year, archaeologists in Italy started to make wine exactly as the Romans did, following ancient manuscripts and using terracotta pots, the Guardian reported.

For his Roman-inspired feast, Mr Grant served white wine made from an ancient Roman recipe. But to suit modern tastes he mixes the sweet, fortified liquid with prosecco.

"Those wines were sweeter, and spiced and fortified to preserve them," he explains.

"Roman wines were actually fortified till about 20%. So if you drank it neat it would be like having a martini or a glass of port."

Follow BBC Food on Pinterest and on twitter: @BBCFood

 

More on This Story

More from Food

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Comments

Be the first to comment

  • SconesSuper scones

    Perfect with dried fruit or cinnamon then slather on the jam


  • Homemade chocolate Easter eggsHomemade Easter eggs

    Maximise taste and fun with handmade chocolate gifts


  • Slow cooker split pea dalSplit pea dal

    Slow cook a satisfying dish using store cupboard ingredients


  • Cake representing BBC Food on Facebook Like us

    Join us on Facebook for top cooking tips, tricks & treats


  • Chocolate cookies

    Bake a batch of soft and fudgy teatime treats

  • Tuna pasta

    Add a little zing with lemon juice and rocket

Programmes

BBC iPlayer
  • Spring Kitchen with Tom Kerridge  Spring Kitchen with Tom Kerridge Watch

    Celebrating the best of seasonal food

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.