Time for a Roman one.
I’m working my way up to dormice but I’m not quite there yet. One day, I promise. Maybe.
The Romans were, like most ancient civilisations, extremely resourceful when it came to food. I suppose if famine was a very real threat, and you didn’t have supermarkets to just pop in to for bits and bobs, you’d learn pretty damn quickly how to use every part of an animal or which flowers were pretty and edible. To the modern cook, the Romans do seem to have taken that survival instinct to the extreme though; they didn’t just know how to survive on the weird and wonderful – they seemed, at times, to revel in it. In 2005, archaeologists excavating a food quarter in ancient Pompeii discovered the bones of a giraffe leg – complete with butcher marks – in the gutter of an ancient diner. Similarly unnervingly, the most famous Roman cookbook, Apicius, had not one, but two recipes for roasted flamingo and added, as a footnote, that if one fancied, “parrot [may be] prepared in the same manner.”
Of course, that’s not to say that every Roman ate this sort of nonsense everyday. Far from it. Flamingo tongue, for example, was considered a delicacy even for the wealthy – and the poor were lucky if they got within 10 feet of the grease of the plate (I’m assuming; I don’t actually know how greasy flamingo tongue is?)
Most Romans ate a diet of fish and meat or cheese, legumes, vegetables and bread; fairly normal stuff. Dormice didn’t appear on menus as frequently as popular history would have you think. Though Apicius appears to have been a manual used by experienced cooks (including slave-cooks), only the wealthier classes would have had access to some of the more frivolous recipes in it, and even then some of these recipes would have been enjoyed only at very special occasions; like eating caviar as a canape instead of in a sandwich (unless you’re like my husband’s grandfather, who was given some caviar as a gift but had no idea what to do with it and unknowingly created the most expensive butty in the world for his work packed lunch…)
I’ve talked a little bit about the background of Apicius here, but the headlines are basically that it was an instructional work to guide the accomplished cook in the preparation and cooking of everyday meals – as well as meals for banquets – for their wealthy masters. The name Apicius has been attributed to the 1st century gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, though historians now doubt he wrote the manual himself. More likely is that thanks to his reputation as an unrelenting glutton of the most expensive food (Pliny wrote that Apicius was “equipped for every ingenuity of luxury”), his name became a byword for “gourmand” and seemed a fitting title for the work, which was probably composed by a series of educated cooks.
Goat isn’t anywhere near the same “unusual food” league as flamingo tongue or giraffe. In fact, it’s relatively common in parts of the UK with high African and Caribbean populations, and in other countries it’s as easy to get hold of as chicken is here. My dad, who lived for a few years in Nigeria as a boy, enjoyed it regularly in curries. Unfortunately for me, the nearest butcher that sold goat meat (I couldn’t find it on Sainsbury’s shelves) was in Leicester, which is still in a strict lockdown. Much as I love historical cooking, I wasn’t about to take a jolly into a city still very much in the grip of a pandemic, so looked elsewhere and found that I could get goat meat delivered from the Dorset Meat Company, an ethical grass-fed, outdoor-reared butcher in my second favourite county. Win!
And…I could end the post there. You’d all be thinking that this was a lovely, educational experiment using ingredients I was unfamiliar with to create a semi-authentic Roman meal. But you’d be wrong. So, so, dead wrong. I almost didn’t write this post up, believing that the end result was so disastrous that there was nothing anyone would gain from reading it. Alas, my ego and need for attention spurred me on.
The recipe I attempted was one of 10 possible recipes in Apicius for goat. It was essentially a roasted dish, with an accompanying sauce. Some of the other recipes were pretty simple, such as kid stew which was cooked in chunks with onion, wine and various herbs and if I’d only stuck to these ones, there may have been a very different outcome to this experiment. The recipe I chose to follow, however, lured me in because of its precise measurements and quantities. That’s right, it was that most rare of historical recipes: one with exact instructions. I should have known it was too good to be true.
Aliter haedus sive agnus syringiatus: lactis sextarium unum, mellis unc. IV, piperis unc. I, salis modicum, laseris modicum. Oleum acetabulum, liquaminis acetabulum, mellis acetabulum, dactilos tritos octo, vini boni heminam, amulum modice.
“Another kid or lamb syringiatus: one pint of milk, 4 ounces honey, 1 ounce pepper, a little salt, a little laser. Oil, liquamen, a spoon of honey, 8 [ounces] crushed dates, a good glass of wine, a little starch.Apicius, Book VIII
(Huge apologies for dodgy translation, I used a combination of Google translate and already translated versions to try and get as accurate picture of the original recipe as I could.)
Anyway, Sally Grainger’s version seemed to have converted most of the original quantities to modern day equivalents, so I used her translation as guidance. The first thing to do was to roast the goat. Underneath the original recipe was another recipe which appears to have become disjoined from the first, but clearly belongs to it as it gives instructions for preparing the raw goat. I was to rub the meat with oil and pepper and sprinkle on liberal pinches of salt and coriander seeds before roasting. So far, so simple and even delicious; the smell of meat as it roasted with coriander was mouthwatering.
Having never cooked goat before I’d done a little research and knew that there was a danger, thanks to the low fat content, of it becoming too dry and tough. In order to combat this, modern cooks (as well as Apicius!) advised regular basting throughout the cooking process. Some cooks even suggested cooking the meat in a tin foil tent to trap any escaping moisture. I rolled my not-technically-authentic foil out and dutifully shaped it so it would fit over the meat before setting regular timers on my phone to remind me to baste it.
The Romans took a lot of their understanding of insanity from the Ancient Greeks, and certain schools of thought taught that madness was a divine punishment; a common trope in Greek mythology or epics. The 1st century Roman physician Celsus subscribed to the belief that insanity could be visited upon a person by “phantoms” which could cause a person to descend in to one of two types of madness: the “depressed” or the “hilarious”.
I’m telling you this so you’ll understand why I decided, halfway through roasting the goat, to remove the cot sides from my toddler’s bed – a task that in itself took over half an hour – and then expected her to go to sleep without any issues. Whatever phantom it was that inspired me to do this was clearly a fan of schadenfreude.
I sat on the floor of the landing as the smell of roast goat grew stronger and shepherded my daughter back into her new bed when she appeared at her doorway, wildeyed and wailing, every 45 seconds. To add to the madness, the alarm on my phone went off every ten minutes to remind me to baste the meat. I ignored it nine times; the foil tent would have to do on its own.
After just over an hour and a half of battling the world’s most resistant toddler there was silence. I checked in on her: she had pulled her pillow and blanket onto the floor and had fallen asleep under the bed…we clearly had much work to do. The work would have to be done another night, though, because by this point it was almost 9pm and I hadn’t even started on the sauce to go with what I presumed was now incredibly burned goat.
As I headed back into the kitchen, I saw that the foil covering I’d been relying so heavily on to stop the meat from drying out had been left in a neat tent on the side – in my mad rush to take the cot-sides off my toddler’s bed I had forgotten to actually cover the goat with it. Any “hilarious” aspects of the phantom madness that had gripped me earlier began to fizzle away and were quickly replaced by “depressed” ones.
Truth be told, by this point I was ready to jack it all in and order a takeaway – I’d try a goat curry in the spirit of it all if necessary. But the masochist historian in me forced me to see this thing through to the bitter end, so I began work on the sauce.
I added the milk, pepper, honey and salt to a pan along with a little asafoetida. The ingredient “laser” was an ancient herb that has since become extinct, but was believed to be closely related to asafoetida, which made a reasonable substitute. While it was heating enough to dissolve the honey, I blitzed the dates with more honey, oil and liquamen – I used nam pla as a modern alternative. Nam pla has a very distinctive smell and despite being used in countless Thai recipes, it’s a smell I just can’t get used to. I fully understand that it transforms dishes with its umami flavour but once I smelt this I just couldn’t get the scent out of my unsophisticated nose and I knew I was going to struggle to eat dinner. Unfortunately for me, Grainger’s reading of the recipe called for a full 70ml of it – not an inconsiderable amount.
Once the dates and liquids had been transformed to a runny paste, I transferred it to a pan, added a small glass of wine and heated the mixture slightly. I strained the warmed milk and combined the two and stirred like a madwoman to try and stop it from curdling too much. Once I was sure I could stop stirring, I added a tablespoon of cornstarch to thicken it slightly over heat. I may have added too much because after a while the sauce became as thick as wallpaper paste, which did nothing to add to my anticipation of the meal.
The goat had been roasting on a low heat for about two hours now. I took it out, drained the pitiful amount of meat juice into the date sauce and rested the goat under foil to reach the warm but not hot temperature that it would have been served at.
Roman diners often ate roasted meat in slices and dipped each slice into small bowls of sauce, rather than cover the meat entirely. I decided to copy this method of serving: partly for authenticity reasons but also on the off chance that, if the goat wasn’t too tough, I didn’t ruin it by drenching it in cheesy smelling sauce. Despite being called stuffed goat, it actually wasn’t clear where the stuffing occured, and I wasn’t about to risk it by filling the meat with the dubious sauce.
We sat, apprehensive, in front of our plates until my husband went first and took a bite. He chewed thoughtfully. He chewed some more. After what felt like a solid minute of chewing, he stood up and wordlessly made his way to the kitchen to put some chips in the oven.
“Oh God, is it that bad?” I asked.
“No,” he lied (still chewing). “I just thought it would go with chips.”
I took a bite. The quality of the meat had been very good, so this tasted very similar to lamb with only a subtle “goaty” hint to it. However, my fears of it being too tough were right – it was so chewy that I felt like the stereotypical image of Henry VIII, tearing meat off in chunks with his teeth and eating with his mouth open, as I ate.
The sauce, though not as bad as I’d thought, failed to save the meal. It was too thick, for one, and clung to the meat rather than soaked it which therefore did nothing to alleviate the dryness. It was faintly sweet and creamy, but with an alcoholic tang. Though you couldn’t taste the fish sauce on its own, there was a lingering scent of it (I couldn’t work out if it was from the sauce or from remnants in my nose), and so with each bite there was a slightly cheesy retronasal smell that I found pretty off-putting.
In the end we continued determinedly through about 1/3 of the meal before giving up and sharing the bowl of chips. Late into the evening I made brownies, too; it seemed like that kind of night. I was determined not to waste the leftover goat, though, so I have plans to mince what was left and add it to a ragu.
Overall, the night did not end as I thought it would. My toddler was asleep on the floor, all the windows were open to drive the smell of fish sauce out and our dinner lay mostly uneaten on the side. I’m not saying an experiment with flamingo tongue would have been better, but it couldn’t have been much worse.
1kg goat (or lamb) leg
Small handful of coriander seeds
12g black peppercorns
300ml whole milk
Pinch of asafoetida powder
70ml fish sauce
70ml olive oil
150ml white wine
- Rub the goat with olive oil and cover in salt, pepper and coriander seeds. Roast, under a foil tent, for 2 hours at 160 degrees C. Baste regularly.
- When the goat is roasted, take out and keep covered in foil. Begin the sauce.
- Crush 6 peppercorns and add them and the rest of the peppercorns to a pan with the milk. Add 40g of honey, the asafoetida and some salt. Heat gently.
- Grind the dates in a food processor with the rest of the honey, the fish sauce and oil. Transfer to a pan and add the wine. Heat.
- Strain the milk and add it to the date sauce, stirring whilst adding.
- Take the meat out of the oven and allow to rest a little. Pour the meat juices into the date sauce and stir.
- Transfer the sauce to small dishes, carve the meat and serve at just above room temperature.