Ancient Rome: Non-stick Cookware and Honey-Dipped Dormice

Wall painting (1st century AD) from Pompeii depicting a multi-generational banquet

Nothing tickles my fancy more than a good food-history related unearthing.

Recently a treasure trove of pottery was uncovered from a Roman pottery dump just outside of Naples Italy at the site of the ancient city of Cumae. Roman engineering never ceases to amaze. Here we are 21st century snobs smug in our modern day conveniences. Concrete, roads and highways, sewers and sanitation. These essential aspects of life were in fact created by Ancient Romans millennia ago.

The modern day kitchen is no exception. Frying pans, ladles, strainers and now we can say for certain non stick cookware were all part of a Roman’s kitch

The Pottery:

Cumanae testae or Cumanae patellae, meaning pans from the city of Cumae were mentioned in the 1st century AD cookbook Apicius De Re Coquinaria in which the author states that this no fuss cookware is perfect for chicken (pullum) stew. Although the name Cumanae testae/Cumanae patellae was known to historians, it was thought to be a term for Pompeian Redware, a pottery known for it’s heavy red glaze. However it would now appear that the name is in fact referring to a higher quality version of non stick cookware , manufactured in the ancient city of Cumae during the reign of Augustus and Tiberius, between 27 B.C. and 37 A.D.

This dump of pottery is thought to be defective goods thrown out by the workers. Thank you litterbugs!

Roman Food:

Inspired by this ancient pottery, I decided to make a dish from the aforementioned cookbook. As I delved deeply into the world of Ancient Roman fare, my google searches were returning results that would make Andrew Zimmern blush. Heads of parrots, flamingo tongue , camel heels, cockscombs and my personal favorite, dormouse (Glis glis). Although we cannot imagine eating a rodent in modern society, dormouse was a common snack, so much so that the Romans kept terracotta pots called glirariums. These pots were buried underground in a Roman’s garden where the little mice would fatten up by binging on fruit scraps. The Glis glis would then be eaten as an adorable snack or dessert, commonly dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seeds.

Diagram of a Ghirarium

The Recipe:

The following is an authentic recipe taken from Apicius. As you will see below the recipe is a bit extravagant and calls for a few ingredients that are not very common in my kitchen.

Minutal Apicianum, or Apician stew:

It starts with a list of ingredients that go into a pot: oleum, liquamen, vinum, porrum
capitatum, mentam, pisciculos, esiciola minuta, testiculos caponum,
glandulas porcellinas, which translates as “oil, garum, wine, leeks,
mint, small fish, capon’s testicles, suckling pig sweetbreads.”

Cook all this together. Pound pepper, lovage, cilantro, or coriander seed, moisten with garum, add a bit of honey and some of its own broth. Temper with wine
and honey. Heat it up and break in tracta to thicken, stir it up and
sprinkle on pepper and serve.”

Tracta was a common dried dough used in Ancient Rome as a thickener for stews. Some historians believe it is the ancestor of Lasagna noodles others say it is nothing like pasta

I set out to find an Apicius recipe that made sense, something with a little less balls and a little more coq. What I found was Pullum Particum or Parthian Style Chicken. Although it does not sound terribly Roman it is a dish that appears in the cookbook nonetheless. The recipe’s origin is uncertain but I like to think of it as a cross cultural inspiration, like how Chicken Tikka Masala is the national dish of Britain today.

If you care to try your hand at this ancient recipe, check out my take on Pullum Particum. The resulting dish was a rich, flavorful stewed chicken that tasted even better the next day, but don’t they always?

Genevieve Robitaille

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