A Dark Age meal

Last weekend, I got together with a few friends to try out recipes outside my comfort zone. We settled on Late Antiquity as our area of choice, and I dug out my copies of Anthimus, Vinidarius, and Gregory of Tours. None of the dishes prepared are finished recipes. Most of them at this point can at best be considered ‘proof of concept’. But they worked and even turned out tasty.

Honey-roast pork

The combination of honey with pork is frequently attested in Roman recipes, and there is archeological evidence for honey used in cooking meat from analyses of potsherds. I had already tried using honey as a cooking liquid with both goose and pork, with mixed success. This time, I used a smaller amount as a baste.

Honey-basted pork roast

We got a piece of strongly marbled pork, put it on a bed of onions to keep it from sticking to the bottom, rubbed it with salt, larded part of it with pieces of bacon (this is not attested, I just wanted to see how it would work out), and poured about a quarter cup of honey over it. Some ramps went into the roasting pan, and we basted it regularly with the honey and juices while cooking at a low temperature.

The result was tender, juicy, firm meat. It went well with our side dishes, but lacked the distinct character that honey-roasted goose had.

Beets with bacon

Turnips are good. They can be eaten boiled in salt and oil, or they can be cooked with meat or bacon, provided that vinegar is added to the recipe for flavour.

Anthimus, de observatione ciborum 52

This has, if not exactly a recipe, then at least basic guidance. I was lucky to get a bunch of Mairübchen at the market that day, so we chopped them into pieces and boiled them in a small amount of water with chunks of bacon, which Anthimus thinks of highly (But if bacon that has been boiled and cooled is eaten, it is more beneficial, regulating constipated bowels and being well digested. 14)

It turned out somwewhat insipid despite the amount of meat in it, but pleasant and definitely something I will repeat. This dish would also work well slowly cooked in a pottery vessel by the embers.

Millet and beans

In his comprehensive study Early Medieval Italy, Chris Wickham refers to donations made to churches to go towards feeding the poor. Several such documents referred to a porridge made of beans and millet flour (panicum) with either bacon or oil added. There are no detailed instructions, but we went ahead using fresh fava beans and coarsely ground millet meal. On the assumption that fresh beans would not be available when bacon was plentiful, I added olive oil and, of course, salt. The result was satisfying, though not brilliant.

Millet and beans – made with dried beans and bacon, this would be a winter / spring dish.

Asparagus patina

This is not a probable dish for the ‘Dark Ages’, but the offer of asparagus at a very good price on the day prompted its inclusion on the assumption that a) Roman culinary traditions probably survicved in the upper classes and b) asparagus season only lasts for so long. Apicius contains the following:

IV.14.6 Another patina of asparagus: Put the offcuts of asparagus that would otherwise be discarded into a mortar and grind them. Add wine and pass it through a sieve. Grind pepper, lovage, fresh coriander,savory, onions, wine, liquamen, and oil. Pass the mash into a greased pan and, if desired, stir in eggs into it to bind it. Strew on ground pepper.

This tasted much better than it looked (it became infamous under the name ‘asparagus snot’ in the kitchen). We cooked it in the oven, though, instead of over a fire.

Bread and moretum

These were added purely for aesthetic reasons, not for plausibility or authenticity. The bread is just plain flour prepared with water, olive oil, salt, and yeast. Real Late Roman bread, even of the finest variety, would have been made with coarser flour and most likely with sourdough.

The moretum, based on a thoroughly classical pseudo-Vergilian source, is a standby in the event that main dishes end up unsatisfying. It was not needed in this case, but it is always good to have. Cheese mashed with garlic and herbs, with a little oil for consistency – they still make things very much like it in the Eastern Mediterranean today.

And that was it. All told, a satisfying experience, and the basis for more demanding reconstructions of probable dishes.

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