What did they eat? The Roman Triad
The three staples of Roman cuisine were grains (the chief of which was barley, along with millet, spelt and wheat), olive oil and wine. This was supplemented with seasonal vegetables, fruit (figs, dates, grapes, apples, pears, plums, cherries and peaches), legumes like lentils and chickpeas, eggs and dairy. Rich Romans could also afford meat. The food was seasoned with sauces made with olive oil, vinegar, honey, herbs and fermented fish.
The day began with breakfast (ientaculum) at dawn. Bread flour was barley, spelt and wheat. Loaves were served with eggs, cheese, and fruit like dried figs or grapes. A simple porridge (like oatmeal) called puls was made with cooked grains of millet, barley, spelt or wheat was the breakfast of poor Romans who could not afford bread. It was seasoned with herbs, vegetables, figs and raisins.
Lunch (prandium) was quick and simple. Served at mid-day, it included salad, fruit, and protein like eggs, fish or meat, for those who could afford it.
Supper — or “cena” — was the biggest meal, with protein (meat or fish) and vegetables. For wealthy Romans (the patricians), this could be a banquet with many guests. They would often recline while eating, and were served by their slaves. But for the vast majority of poor Romans (plebians), supper included barley, olive oil, wine and vegetables. Some were able to add eggs or dairy. Pottage was a common vegetable stew.
Mmensa Secunda was a dessert course that followed the main dinner course for wealthy Romans. These included fruits laced with honey, sweetened egg-based desserts, puddings, fruit cakes and cheese cakes.
Comissatio was a hearty wine course served at the end of the day — though wine was served at every meal.
Apicius, Cato and Galen are ancient Romans who wrote about food. Cato describes globi, treats made with sesame and cheese, and sweetened with honey. Galen describes pancakes made with sesame seeds and honey.
Roman flatbreads may have been precursors of modern pizza, but pasta had not yet been invented. Cicero and Apicius mention dishes that were probably made with fresh noodles. Early Romans made lagane (the root of modern lasagna) from simple flour and water dough.
Noodles that could be dried and stored — modern-day pasta — were not invented until the Middle Ages. They were created by Arab traders for food on long desert journeys. The Arab historian Al Idrisi first described dried pasta in 1138. Arabs brought them to Sicily and later, to Italy.
Eggplant and spinach from Asia also arrived during the Middle Ages with Arab traders. Tomatoes, peppers and zucchini which we equate today with Italian cuisine didn’t make their way across the Atlantic until much later.
Roman Pottage Stew
(As I imagine it)
You will need a large stew pot, knives and cutting boards to cut up vegetables.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 or 2 carrots (about 1 cup sliced)
1 or 2 parsnips (about 1 cup sliced)
1 large onion (about 1 cup sliced)
2 or 3 turnips (about 1 cup sliced)
1 teaspoon salt
1 leek, white part only (about 1 cup sliced)
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
1/4 head of cabbage, sliced
2 quarts broth, water or combination
1 cup red wine
Herbs: 1 large bay leaf, 1/2 teaspoon each of dried thyme, dried rosemary, sage, and black pepper
1 cup barley
1 cup lentils
1 1/2 cups cooked or canned garbanzo beans (1 15 oz. can, drained and rinsed)
1 or 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 cup fresh minced parsley
In bottom of your soup pot, heat the oil. Slice or dice the carrots, parsnips, onion and turnips. Add to the oil, sprinkle with salt, and cook on low, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add about a half-cup of broth and simmer another 5 to 10 minutes.
Slice and add leeks, mushrooms, and cabbage and add to the pot. Add 2 quarts of broth or water or combination and the wine. Add the herbs and bring to a boil.
Add barley and lentils and simmer 20 minutes, or until cooked through.
When everything is cooked through, taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in garbanzo beans, balsamic vinegar and parley. Serve with fresh loaves of rustic bread.
Option: Use 1 cup rolled oats or barley flakes towards the end of cooking in place of pearl barley.
Roman Sesame Globi
(Cato’s favorite treat)
1/2 cup soft white cheese, such as Ricotta or goat cheese
1/2 cup flour, preferably spelt, whole wheat or barley flour
Pinch of salt (about 1/4 teaspoon or less)
Olive oil for frying (or other oil, or lard, but Romans used olive oil)
1/4 cup honey
1/4 to 1/2 cup sesame seeds
In a small bowl, combine cheese, flour, and salt. Mix to form soft dough.
Heat honey in microwave or in a small pot on the stove until warm. Set aside.
Sprinkle sesame seeds on a plate; set aside.
Over medium heat, heat about 1/2 or 1 inch of oil in a cast-iron or other heavy skillet.
Form small balls (about 1/2-inch) of dough and cook, 2 or 3 at a time, in the oil, turning to insure even cooking. Cook until golden brown.
Remove from skillet and allow to cool. Dip to coat with honey, then roll in sesame seeds (or other seeds) to coat.
Makes about a dozen globi.
Option: use other seeds, such as poppy seeds or sunflower seeds.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook at Words Are My World.