Nut Custard or ‘Aliter Patina Versatilis’: 1st century AD

What do you get if you mix old socks, cat vomit and honey? Something that smells like patina, looks like patina and tastes like like patina. Mmm, delicious!

Actually, I’m going to hold my hands up to this one and say I’m pretty sure it’s my poor skills that led to the kitchen abomination you’re about to bear witness to. For a patina that you’d actually want to eat check out Farrell Monaco’s pear patina, also from Apicuis. I know – it’s a bold move to usher all 2 of your readers off to the blog of someone who’s absolutely nailed what you were trying to do when your own attempt at it has failed so badly, especially only 2 paragraphs in, but you deserve to see what a good patina looks like. Once you’ve seen Monaco’s amazing creation you’ll understand that I can’t compete for culinary ability, or historical accuracy, or photo skills but damn it I won’t be beaten on amateur enthusiasm and not knowing when to quit.

I’ve attempted an Apicuis recipe already, but haven’t yet really looked into the background of who or what Apicuis was. Turns out that it’s not particularly clear but some historians think the recipe book Apicuis was possibly linked to a famous gourmet called Marcus Gavius Apicuis who it turns out is famous for a couple of things: sailing round the Med looking for the biggest prawns he can find (I like him already) and poisoning himself at a banquet when he realised he’d spent most of his money on food and dining; clearly he preferred to die rather than live a life where he couldn’t have big prawns whenever he wanted. In fact, such was his devotion to food and excess that Roman authors such as Seneca frequently used him in moralizing contexts as the archetypal glutton. At some point the book Apicuis became linked with Marcus Gavius Apicuis, although there isn’t concrete proof that he himself wrote it.

And so on to the dish itself – what is it actually called? In Apicuis itself it’s described as ‘another dish, which can be turned over’. Helpful! Google translate, that falsest of friends, says that Aliter Patina Versatilis means “otherwise pan shifting”. Doubly helpful. As you can see I didn’t need any assistance with translating this dish, but I felt I should double check with Sally Grainger’s Cooking Apicius just to see what she thought. Grainger indicated that a patina is a type of cooking dish – a bit like a modern day pudding steamer – as well as a meal, and that the patina mixture could be cooked over heat in the patina bowl either like an omelette or in an oven like a baked custard – hence ‘nut custard’.

Also helpfully, none of these are patina bowls

The version of Apicuis I used had a footnote attached to the patina recipe. It said: “It is characteristic of Apicius for incompleteness and want of precise directions, without which the experiment in the hands of an inexperienced operator would result in failure.” Inexperienced operator? Me? I scoffed at the possibility and ploughed on.

First, I toasted 100g chopped walnuts and hazelnuts in a frying pan – an arbitrary number which happened to match up to 50% of the packet of nuts I had in anyway. I admit, I had to do this twice because I burned the first lot while watching a trailer for This Country, which I admit isn’t a problem Marcus Gavius Apicuis had, but was totally worth it. Once the second batch had toasted (to perfection), I added honey.

True to form, there were no quantities given. For a moment I wavered as the editorial Words Of Doom whispered around the kitchen: “Inexperienced Operator…operator… Failure…failure… Hands…hands…” I pulled myself together and went back to Grainger. She used a tablespoon for her version, with more poured on once cooked, so I followed those instructions.

This actually looked and smelled pretty good! I was excited; so far, everything appealed to me. On to the next part – the liquamen. For those who don’t know (she said, as if she herself did), liquamen was a type of fish sauce. In the last Apicuis dish I made I used a fish stock pot for a broth, but I’ve since learned that liquamen is very different. It was made by layering anchovies and salt in a pot and then leaving the mixture to ferment for several months, before skimming off the layer of clear liquid that rose to the top. The closest thing we have today is nam pla, which to be fair is pretty bloody close – the ingredients are literally just ‘anchovy, salt, sugar’.

I’d never used nam pla before. I felt so cultured that I walked home holding it in my hand rather than putting it in a shopping bag, just in case some high end foodie spotted me and we could share a knowing nod of pomposity. As per Grainger’s advice, I added a tablespoon to my heavenly smelling nut and honey mixture. And stopped. This new smell was intense. Nam pla may do wonders in terms of being the ‘umami’ flavour once incorporated into a meal, but while it was just sitting in the bottle it smelt like the inside of my toddler’s shoes.

Still, the Romans thought liquamen was good and nam pla remains a staple ingredient in much East Asian cuisine so clearly the problem was with me. Peg on nose, I stirred it in, trying not to care too much as my much loved toasted nut flavour evaporated fast.

To the nutty, fishy mixture I added pepper, milk and 4 eggs and then poured it into a pyrex bowl that had been lightly greased with olive oil and put it all in the oven for 30 minutes at 180 degrees. By this point I was actually looking forward to trying this – I knew that the nam pla wouldn’t be a key flavour on its own once cooked, but I had no idea what it would taste like or how it could enhance the dish without just making it taste of fish. After half an hour, the bowl was ready to take out and be upturned onto a plate – a Roman egg blancmange.

Well. I mean, you can see the photos yourself. As soon as I saw it on the plate I booked myself the best divorce lawyer I could, knowing full well that I had just baked my way to the end of my relationship. If you look up ‘Reasonable Grounds’ in the divorce lawyer dictionary, it’s just a picture of this. I tried every light available to me and my limited skills to save my marriage and make this look less like a mound of reconstituted dog food. In previous dishes I’ve tried not to add my own plate decorations and garnishes so that you can see what the actual food looks like, but with this one I feared Google would ban it under ‘Offensive Images’ if I didn’t do something – hence the ground walnuts and pointless knife.

I was trying to be very positive, but I do have to admit that there was still a scent of cheesy feet coming off the steam. Taking a big breath – figuratively! – I cut a slice and bravely waited for my husband to try it first.

If you didn’t look or smell this, you would probably think it wasn’t too bad. It was not great – probably because it was mainly just overbaked scrambled eggs – but it had some subtleties to it. The honey, for example, gave it just a hint of sweetness and the pepper a definite spiciness. The nuts were still a prominent flavour, which I was glad of, but if you tried to pass this off as a ‘custard’ in a restaurant you’d get your license taken away for mislabelling.

As predicted, the nam pla wasn’t a flavour on its own. I can’t really describe what it did to the meal, other than lend a very meaty/savoury element to the dish. It seemed to work with the flavours in the patina rather than against them, without trying to take over. Unfortunately, though, this dish has taught me that I’m one of those people who tastes with their eyes and nose and I couldn’t escape the smell. Even after I moved to a different room, to be sure that it wasn’t just a bit that had splashed on a surface I was smelling, I could still smell it – an olfactory indication of my newly certified status as Inexperienced Operator. I guess one positive is that once you have the quantities, whatever the hell they’re meant to be, sorted you could easily adjust the recipe to feed as many people as you need. Good news for someone recently single.

E x

Honey nut custard

4 eggs
1 tablespoon of honey
1 tablespoon of nam pla
50g finely chopped walnuts
50g finely chopped hazelnuts
pepper
100ml milk
Olive oil (to grease a pyrex or oven proof bowl)

  1. Toast the nuts in a pan.
  2. Add the honey to the nuts and stir.
  3. Add the nam pla and pepper and stir.
  4. In a bowl, beat the eggs and milk together and add to the pan.
  5. Pour the mixture into a greased pyrex or oven proof bowl
  6. Bake at 180 degrees for 30 minutes or until the top is firm to the touch and a wooden skewer comes out clean.

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