Globi: c. 160 B.C.

How do you pronounce ‘globi’? Is it glob-ee? Glow-bee? Glob-eye? Does it really matter when they all sound just as unappetizing as each other? When I saw the title of today’s experiment I assumed it would be for some sort of hideous fish, oozing mucous and slime and served on piles of raw seaweed – that sort of thing. I don’t know why I bothered to read the rest of the recipe, to be honest.

Luckily for me, it turned out that globi weren’t anything to do with mucous-y fish at all. In fact, once you got over the unfortunate name they actually sounded quite delicious: balls of fried cheese covered in honey and poppy seeds. ‘Globi’, meaning spherical in Latin, was therefore a description of the dish’s appearance rather than a gooey sea creature.

The recipe was from Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura, the oldest surviving work of Latin prose, which I found in The Classical Cookbook. It’s written in Cato’s usual uptight and stoic way and was intended to be a useful manual of the rules of farming and agricultural management for those rich enough to own large farms (or be looking to expand smaller farms), or those who wanted to create profitable agricultural businesses. The average large Roman farm would usually be staffed by slaves, as many profitable businesses in Ancient Rome were, and so parts of De Agri Cultura are also concerned with how to manage the slave-labourers. It’s here we can see the more jarring elements of Cato’s writing; he talks about the slaves on the farm as if they were any old farm tool rather than people, and advises masters to work slaves constantly before selling them alongside “worn-out” animals and objects when they become too weak, old or sick:

“Sell worn-out oxen, blemished cattle…old tools, an old slave, a sickly slave and whatever else is superfluous.”

De Agri Cultura, 2.7

Really nice guy, right? Though Cato’s thoughts on slavery should be viewed within the context of the Roman Republic – a society built on the belief that slavery was a necessary element to a successful civilization – his opinions were still considered extreme by some. As Rebecca Gove notes, the poet Seneca, for example, viewed slaves as conquered people who needed to be supervised in order to ensure efficiency, but deserved more dignity and compassion than was given to animals, warning overly harsh masters that “[Slaves] are not enemies when we acquire them; we make them enemies.” That doesn’t mean Seneca was sympathetic to slaves, just that he thought they worked better when they were well treated.

When he wasn’t advocating the sale of exhausted humans in the name of good farm management, Cato could be found loudly supporting laws designed to restrict women’s wealth. I know, I was shocked too. The Lex Oppia was the first in a number of sumptuary laws established in 215 BC which specifically banned women from owning more than half an ounce of gold, wearing purple clothes or ride in a carriage in the city of Rome (or any town within a mile of Rome). This might seem shocking now, but sumptuary laws were a very common way of controlling the status quo and maintaining social order and continued for centuries after the Roman Republic – and not just in Rome, either.

There’s a bit of debate surrounding the Lex Oppia and whether it was a “true” sumptuary law or whether, because it was introduced during the peak of Second Punic War between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian empire, it’s better to view it as an emergency wartime measure to protect the wealth of Rome. Either way, by 195 BC the people of Rome, having beaten the Carthaginians, felt it was time to repeal the law.

But who argued that women simply couldn’t be allowed to grow their wealth and wear fancy clothes again? Why, our man of the people – Cato. His reasons for upholding the law were varied but centered mainly around the argument that women would instantly resort to competitive dressing which would shame those who couldn’t afford the best clothes. Alternatively, he argued that all women were afflicted with an insatiable desire to spend money – an urge he likened to an incurable disease – and therefore the Lex Oppia was a kindly restrictive measure to prevent the poor unrestrained dears bankrupting themselves.

Not a fan of Cato, we get it.

I know, I know: it’s anachronistic to apply modern sensibilities to the past… sorry. Still, when he wasn’t working his slaves to the point of death or stopping women from wearing silk underpants or whatever it was he had a problem with, Cato came up with some pretty decent recipes.

I’d covered his libum (also from De Agri Cultura) with success so I had high hopes for globi in spite of their dubious name.

To begin with I needed ricotta cheese. Now that I’m a bit more experienced at cooking I thought I’d try and make my own. I felt pretty cocky about this; cheese-making always seemed so difficult and something that “real” cooks did. I swanned off to alert my husband to my newly acquired status as master chef.

“Oh yeah? Ricotta’s pretty easy isn’t it? Do you want any help?”

Not the reaction I’d hoped for.

I heated 1 litre of full fat milk until it was just under boiling and added 30ml of white wine vinegar. The Roman author Varro wrote about cheese making, stating that fig sap and vinegar could be used to coagulate milk into soft cheese. I didn’t have any fig sap and when I asked my mum if I could cut a twig off the ailing and temperamental fig sapling she’s been attempting to grow for years she hung up on me. So I just had to hope that the vinegar alone would do the trick.

Every instinct in my body told me not to eat this.

True, it looked like a yoghurt I once left in my locker over the summer holiday but I was confident it would all work out for the best. After ten minutes of it coagulating I poured it into an old muslin cloth and left it to drain overnight.

The next morning I had been rewarded with 150g grams of creamy, cheesy ricotta. Success! I added 80g of semolina to the cheese and mixed it together to form a thick paste, which I shaped into large olive sized balls.

Each ball fried in a pan of olive oil until it was golden brown before being transferred to a kitchen roll covered plate to mop up the excess oil. The globi were then drizzled with honey and rolled in poppy seeds before being “artfully” arranged on a plate.

Looks fancy, right? I had to lie on the cold kitchen floor and get my husband to squat above them, squeezing honey onto the plate to get just the right kind of drip. Less fancy now, I bet.

As you can see, they look pretty great. Elegant and easy – they only had to be tasty and I’d have pulled off a cooking hat trick. And they were!

The globi themselves were quite creamy and mild in a savoury kind of way, which made them very different to modern sweets. All of the sweetness came from the honey and the beauty of that meant they could be sweetened to personal taste by having only enough of it drizzled on to get the poppy seeds to stick, or by being served with a side bowl of it to dunk them in. It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that I opted for the sweeter option.

Texture wise they were slightly gritty, thanks to the semolina, but it was a grittiness that was enveloped in smooth ricotta, so it wasn’t very noticeable and certainly not unpleasant.

In the end I was actually a little put out by how easy it was to make these. What with the cheese-making and the frying, I’d sort of assumed these would safely earn me my place in the hallowed halls of advanced cookery but I felt a bit of a fraud by the end. Still, as I handed my husband the honey and told him to help with the photos I pretended to wipe sweat off my brow and sighed with the imaginary effort of it all.

I think he bought it because afterwards he offered to do the washing up and I got to sit on the sofa with my feet up, dipping globi into warm honey with reckless glee. Win!

E x

Globi

150g ricotta (or you can make your own by heating 1l of full fat milk until just below boiling and adding 30ml of white wine vinegar. Stir for a few minutes then leave to coagulate. After 15 minutes, pour the mixture into a cheesecloth with a bowl under it to collect the whey. Leave it for at least 30 minutes, or overnight for a firmer cheese.)
80g semolina
Olive oil for fying
Honey to taste
75g poppy seeds

  1. Mix ricotta and semolina together to form a paste.
  2. Heat olive oil in a frying pan until it is glassy and sizzles when globi are placed in it.
  3. Fry each globi, two at a time, in the oil until golden brown.
  4. Drain the globi on kitchen roll, then drizzle over as much honey as you like.
  5. Roll the globi in poppy seeds and enjoy.

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.

E x