Patina Lucretiana (Roman pork with onions): 900 AD

I seriously considered pretending I understood Latin for this one. Actually, I started learning it back in summer but then stopped when I went back to work having only just grasped the basic fundamentals of the nominative, accusative, dative and despair.

Still, I had enough to know that Patina Lucretiana does not mean ‘Roman pork with onions’. It’s actually named after a Roman contemporary of Cicero, Lucretius Epicuraeus, and loosely translates to The Lucretian dish. (I think. Despite having an amazing teacher I was better at the despair parts of my Latin lessons.)

This recipe is taken from a Roman cookbook called Apicius which is a collection of recipes organised really helpfully (genuinely!) into 10 books for each type of food: game, veg, poultry, fish etc. The first book is called ‘The Careful Experienced Housekeeper’ and is basically a 21 chapter long text on how to make sure your household doesn’t run out of the basics, and how to stop food from rotting. Before you get to that, though, the author thought that what a truly careful and experienced housekeeper needed to know was how to get properly pissed, and so the first 5 chapters are dedicated solely to making and keeping alcohol – including salvaging wine that probably should be thrown out, as in chapter 5 ‘To clarify a muddy wine.’

Patina Lucretiana is essentially braised pork belly cooked in onions and something called ‘liquamen’. This obscure term was totally lost on me and after a bit of research I found that no one truly knows what it is, but it’s likely to have been some kind of fish sauce, a bit like garum. Coupled with the fact that the recipe also mentions a broth I assumed it was meant to be more of a stock.

The recipe is also very specific in calling for salted pork belly. This is probably because, and I don’t think is common knowledge, the Romans didn’t have fridges. In order to preserve meat they might salt it, smoke it or air dry it, to draw the moisture out and make it last longer. Though I probably could have used the pork chops we had in already, (thanks to the freezer, which, in an annoying twist for the author, was invented just after the fall of the Roman Empire) I wanted to see what it would taste like with the proper cuts prepared as closely as possible to the original recipe.

So, armed with just over 500g of pork belly and a bag of sea salt, I carefully yet cluelessly began preserving the meat. It took ages because I employed the timeless chuck-it-and-hope-it-sticks method when applying the salt, which didn’t work as well as I’d hoped because the pork skin was quite dry and covered a lot of the area. In the end I had to salt some clingfilm, lay the pork on it and try and wrap it up as I poured more salt down the sides. Stuck it in the fridge and waited 2 days, an arbitrary number plucked out of the air and which I’ve since learnt would have given just enough time for the salt to do sod all as apparently it takes about 5 days to cure 1 inch of meat. So much for authenticity.

Delicious pointlessly salted meat

After 2 days I began on the rest of the meal. The recipe stated that onions needed to be added to a pan with some of the liquamen, but first they should be cleaned and the “young green tops of them rejected”. This was tough on me and the onions and I for one was in tears by the end. Afterwards I realised that the reference to young green tops probably meant I should have used spring onions, so if I did this again I’d use them, not ordinary onions.

I let 2 chopped onions cook for 10 minutes in olive oil while I made 150ml of liquamen by dissolving a fish stock pot in water with a couple more teaspoons of oil. I added this to the cooked onions and then added the very salty pork belly (I did scrape some off).

This bit I was quite nervous for, actually. I don’t really cook pork and the recipe didn’t make it clear whether to cook it on the hob or in an oven, or for how long. Since most Roman cooking was done over a hearth, with pans supported by tripods or grid irons, and the recipe had made no mention of roasting or ovens, I decided to cook it on the hob but in a dish with a lid so that it cooked in the steam of the stock and onions.

I was never more aware of how unpleasant food poisoning might be than at this point

To help me work out how long to cook this for I looked up some modern day recipes for braised pork belly. I found that it works best when left for a long time (lots of recipes suggested 2.5 hours for 1kg of pork.) With that in mind, I left my 500g (checking that the liquamen levels didn’t get too low) for about 1.5 hours. After about an hour I added a spoon of honey, about 150ml of water and a few dashes of vinegar and then left it to cook more before serving.

Potato should always form 50% of the plate

Honestly? It wasn’t as good as I’d hoped; perhaps the author wasn’t such a fan of Lucretius after all! Now, I hold my hands up and say that could well be down to my inferior cooking abilities, but I found it a bit tough and difficult to cut through. Unsurprisingly, salt was the predominant taste and only stopped short of becoming overpowering because the honey and water sweetened it slightly. Still, by everyday modern standards it was way too much.

The ancient Romans didn’t have mashed potatoes but we did, which was a bit of a saving grace for this meal, along with the onions which were delicious. The whole thing combined reminded me of an overdone gammon although the potatoes with a bit of the sauce on top worked well.

Despite the fact that I should have been in my element as this meal contained no green whatsoever, I wouldn’t rush to make it again. This is one that can stay in the past.

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