What did the ancient Romans eat? Was it true that they were all sophisticated gourmets? What did they write about in the first cookbook in the world? And what did modern cuisine inherit from Ancient Rome food?
Initially, food of the ancient Romans was quite unpretentious. The active development of culinary art begins in the 3rd century BC under the influence of the Greeks. As the state expanded, the Roman gastronomic assortment was replenished with new dishes and products from the East and other conquered territories. The basis of the diet of ordinary inhabitants of Rome was grain (spelt wheat, barley), which was used to cook bread, noodles, porridge and stew.
The Romans clearly separated the products "for the rich" and "for the poor," and the rich tried their best to avoid the "inappropriate" ingredients so as not to smack their faces in the dirt. Food was not just “fuel”, it became part of the image.
The prominent Roman comedian Plautus called the Romans “porridge eaters” - and he was absolutely right. Porridge was the basis of the ancient Roman diet for both the poor and the rich. Only the products from which it was prepared differed. The most popular cereal was spelt, a thick porridge from it was called a "pulse". It was boiled in water or milk and served with vegetables.
But only poor people ate porridge from chickpeas, beans or peas, for a rich man it was considered shameful to touch it. An exception to all legumes was made only for lentils, since it was an imported exotic product. Porridge from barley served as a punishment! It was considered much less nutritious and given to guilty legionaries.
The second staple food was bread. Initially, people baked bread and flat cakes at home (slaves did this for wealthy owners), but already in the 2nd century BC, common bakeries appeared in Rome and immediately began to be very popular. As in the case of porridge, different types of bread were intended for different layers of society. For the poorest people, the so-called "panis plebeius" hard brown bread was baked, and the rich preferred bread made from white flour.
Bakers showed imagination by adding a variety of ingredients to the dough: bay leaf, honey, fat, celery, sesame seeds. The ancient Romans were able to make pies and casseroles. However, at the same time, they did not differ in accuracy, so the sand in baking was a familiar thing. Legionnaires baked themselves bread on their own hikes: first they ground flour manually on the stones, and then they made hard crackers that were stored for a long time.
The Romans ate everything that was given by the fertile Italian land. Vegetables were cheap, so they were present on every plate. Onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, radishes, lettuce, asparagus, cucumbers were familiar and loved by the Romans. Vegetables were eaten raw, fried or boiled. True, onions and garlic after some time were recognized as "vulgar" vegetables that defiled the breath, and ceased to know to eat them raw. The cabbage, which was often served with vinegar, was a very popular one - the real Vitamin salad of those times.
Other products that are now traditional for Italian cuisine were very popular: olives, olive oil and cheese. The latter was inexpensive, and almost everyone could afford it, and cheese powder was added to pies and other pastries. The diet of the poor, as a rule, consisted of cereals and vegetables, since these products were the most affordable.
Meat was a product for the well-to-do. It was prepared and served in small pieces or in the form of sausages. Black pudding, which was traded on the streets, as well as hot smoked pork sausage, was popular. Very similar still cooked in the south of Italy. The most favorite meat of the Romans was pork: it was baked, fried, dried or cooked. Beef was not much appreciated: then the cows were livestock, and the meat was not very soft. They also loved the bird: from the usual chicken, duck and goose to storks, nightingales and exotic pheasants, peacocks and parrots, which generous hosts surprised guests at feasts.
No less expensive was the fish: tuna, sturgeon, cod, flounder, red mullet, moray eel. Seafood was well known to the Romans: mussels, octopuses and even oysters! Some rich people even bred them in special pools in their estates. There was also a special kind of bread that was served specifically with oysters.
Feast for ancient Romans were not just a place to eat - they serve as an analogue for a social network, an opportunity to tell the world about one's wealth and ingenuity. There is a cookbook written by the ancient Roman gourmet Apicius that survived till our time. It describes, for example, flamingo tongues as one of those exquisite dishes served during such feasts.
The imagination of cooks of those times knew no boundaries. How do you like, for example, a wild boar stuffed with blackbirds holding two twigs in its teeth, on which baskets with olives hang? Each owner tried to impress friends than he could, and the number of food changes could exceed a dozen. And this is taking into account that the Romans did not know the side dishes in the usual sense of the word, and they could well put some sausage in the meat.