Lenticulam De Castaneis: 1st century

That’s lentils and chestnuts to you and me.

Today’s experiment is from a work entitled De Re Coquinaria (now often just referred to as Apicuis), a 1st century Roman text full of recipes and instructions for the Roman cook. Though often attributed to the gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicuis, there’s actually not a lot of evidence that this was the case. Apicuis lived a life of luxury, sampling the finest food and drink the ancient world had to offer and generally sashaying around the Mediterranean like a 1st century Rich Kid of Instagram. According to Pliny, Apicuis considered himself an expert in top quality food: he advised that red mullet tasted best when it was drowned in a bath of fish sauce made out of red mullet blood and that pork liver was sweetest if the pigs were gently fed dried figs (aww) and then killed by overdosing on honeyed wine (argh), in a similar manner to foie gras. His devotion to excessive animal cruelty gourmet dining was extreme. Seneca wrote that having spent 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, Apicuis realised he was soon to be bankrupt and could no longer afford top-dollar food… so he chose to poison himself to death rather than, I don’t know, get a job? When I say bankrupt, by the way, I mean bankruptcy according to the standards of the uber wealthy: by Seneca’s own admission Apicuis still had 10 million sestercii left in his account.

Sally Grainger, author of Cooking Apicuis, notes that the intended audience (and therefore writer/s) of the recipes in Apicuis may well have been experienced cooks, including slave-cooks, rather than elite gourmands. It’s easy to think of slavery in Ancient Rome as being a one-size-fits-all type of situation; that there was no differentiation in status, ability or lifestyle between the slave population, but this was wrong. Slave-cooks had a higher status than slaves working as labourers and, as highly trained members of rich households, were expensive and valuable to their master. Their skills not only covered food preparation (including inventory and budgeting for ingredients), but also included reading and writing – which it’s often wrongly assumed all slaves weren’t taught in ancient Rome. It’s no secret that wealthy ambitious Romans used wining and dining as ways of networking, so it was imperative that the food served at banquets for the political elite be of excellent quality. In order to achieve that quality a rich Roman master would have to invest in the education and wellbeing of his cooks.

That’s not to say that slave-cooks were routinely educated to a very high level. The language of Apicuis is ‘Vulgar Latin’: the Latin of everyday workers. There is none of the refinement or polished poetry – ‘Classical Latin’ – in the recipes that one would expect to see if they had been written by a man as educated and elite as Apicuis. The recipes in Apicuis are particularly no-frills in terms of writing style. In addition to this there are also almost no quantities at all, no timings, no measurements. In some cases there are entire steps in the cooking process that are missed out – all of this suggests that the author expected his readers to be competent enough that they could fill in the culinary blanks without needing poetic devices to elevate any appreciation of the food. In short, it was a functional manual for the labouring masses rather than a literary work for the elite.

Going to talk about lentils or chestnuts any time soon?

Lenticulam de castaneis – which Google translate tells me actually means, in a weirdly jaunty way, “a spot of chestnuts” – is a deceptively delicious dish to make. Essentially it’s meant to be a meal of boiled lentils with a sort of mashed chestnut pureé addition, as Cathy K. Kaufman advises in Cooking in Ancient Civilizations.

The trouble with this recipe – which despite Google’s overly nonchalent reading translates as lentils and chestnuts – is that it doesn’t mention lentils. Not once. Not under a euphemism or assumed name. Not even in passing. It’s just a recipe for chestnut mush, which does admittedly sound quite nice in a foraging/back to nature kind of way, but doesn’t constitute a whole meal in my book.

The recipe that comes after this one is called ‘Lentils another way’. Putting aside that we’re yet to receive the first way, this second recipe appears to follow on from the first and provides clear instructions on how to prepare lentils, but nothing about chestnuts. It may be that both recipes were originally part of one whole recipe that somehow become fragmented over time, or that they were indeed two separate recipes and the author assumed cooks would be competent enough to prepare lentils without needing instructions, but either way I used both for this experiment.

I began with the chestnut pureé. The chestnuts I had bought had already been cooked, so I just put them in a pan and added a splash of water to heat them through in.

To the chestnuts I added crushed black pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, mint and dried rue. The recipe also called for ‘laser root’ and ‘fleabane’ to be added. ‘Laser root’ was also known as silphium – a highly prized plant used in ancient cookery that we don’t have in today’s world. It was considered so useful and precious that it became literally worth its weight in gold. Its sap was dried and grated over food and its petals were crushed for their perfume. Its stalks were eaten as a vegetable and, like all disgusting yet inexplicably expensive things, its juice was considered a powerful aphrodisiac. Pliny the Elder wrote that in his lifetime only a single stalk was discovered, such was its rarity. The stalk was picked and sent to the emperor Nero, but history is quiet on whether it was used for edible or bedible (ha) reasons.

I, like everyone else in the world, didn’t have any ‘laser root’. I also didn’t have any ‘fleabane’ – a furry kind of daisy – mostly because its names made me suspicious that it was a fictional herb from the Harry Potter universe rather than an actual ingredient, but also because it wasn’t stocked in Sainsbury’s herbs and spices aisle. I guess Apicuis was more of a Waitrose kind of guy.

A needlessly large close up of some herbs and spices I probably won’t use again for months. You know how it is.

To this chestnut and herb mixture I added a little white wine vinegar and honey. For my version of liquamen – Roman fish sauce – I used nam pla, which is made in exactly the same way by fermenting the whole fish – including its guts and bones rather than just its blood – and is an excellent substitution if you lack the nasal capacity to ferment your own fish guts at home. I added olive oil and heated the lot until it had just started to bubble. The recipe then said to “taste to see if something is missing, and if so, put it in…” Something like, oh I don’t know, lentils? It was time to start on recipe two.

Lentils were enjoyed all across the ancient world and not just in Italy. I used red lentils for this because they were what we had in, though I think the Romans probably would have used the more commonly available brown lentil. Having said that, red lentils may have been used too and were actually perfect for this dish, which talked of reducing them to a purée, as one of their properties is forming into a thick paste when cooked.

Having boiled about 180g of lentils until they were almost cooked, I added chopped leek, coriander and various herbs with honey, vinegar and liquamen to them and stirred over a low heat until all combined and cooked. The recipe then said to “bind with roux”, which seemed odd given that it was all pretty much bound anyway but perhaps furthers my theory that brown lentils, which don’t form a paste when cooked, were the Roman lentils of choice. In any case, I added a tablespoon of roux in an effort to keep as closely to the instructions as possible.

To quote Beyoncé: “To the left, to the left. Lentil/leek purée in the pan to the left.” (Chestnuts to the right.)

I had a choice in terms of serving suggestions: serve it as two dishes – as written out in the recipes – or as one combined dish. Kaufman suggested the chestnut and lentils should be combined in one dish and because she is “a scholar-chef and Adjunct Chef-Instructor, Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City” and I am just a greedy armchair historian with too much time, I took her word for it.

Now would be an honest time to admit that I’d been a bit worried about this meal. My last foray into Roman cooking using liquamen had not ended well – in fact, I still feel a bit queasy when I think of it. However, this time was different. Oh boy, was it different. This was good – really, really good.

Thanks to the roux, which I’d incorrectly assumed wouldn’t do much, the lentils were very creamy and rich. The leeks, which were just cooked through but still had a bit of a crunch, had an alium tang that cut through the creaminess and worked really well with the sharpness of the vinegar and herbs. In comparison, the chestnut puree was sweeter than I’d expected – maybe I’d added a touch too much honey? – and there was a slightly fiery aftertaste in the back of the throat because of the pepper and coriander seeds, which was delicious swirled through the lentils in a marbled effect.

Yes, I ate it with a spoon. It seemed like that kind of a meal.

The recipe may not have been written by Apicuis but it would definitely have been one he would have enjoyed, I’m sure. It was also kind of nice that it had the added bonus of not requiring any animal to be drowned in the blood of its kin. In the end the quantities made enough for two very large lunches or three modest ones, so obviously I chucked a cheese sandwich at my toddler, and my husband and I enjoyed a huge portion each. Delicious!

E x

Lenticulam de castaneis

160g cooked chestnuts
180g lentils (any is fine, really)
1 medium leek
Black pepper
Coriander seeds
Cumin seeds
Rue (or sorrel, chicory or any other bitter herb. Certain people – including pregnant women – may want to avoid using rue.)
Mint
White wine vinegar
Nam Pla
Honey
Plain flour
Olive oil

  1. Heat the chestnuts in a pan with a little water – a couple of tablespoons. In another pan, add boiling water to the lentils and cook.
  2. In a mortar, grind a few good twists of black pepper with a good pinch of coriander seeds, cumin seeds, rue (or other herbs) and a couple of leaves of mint.
  3. To the herbs and spices add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, half a teaspoon of honey and half a teaspoon of nam pla. Set aside.
  4. When the chestnuts are heated through, mash them to a pulp with a masher and add the herb and spice mixture. Stir and then remove from the heat.
  5. By now the lentils should be almost cooked through (after about 10-15 minutes), add the leek, finely chopped, to the water with the lentils and continue cooking for another 10 minutes or so.
  6. While the lentils and leek continues cooking, start on the roux. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a pan and add 2 tablespoons of plain flour. Over a low heat, whisk this together and add about 125ml of milk. Whisk constantly until the roux thickens to the consistency of buttercream, then take off the heat. You may need to add more milk or flour to achieve this thickness.
  7. In a mortar crush coriander seeds, cumin seeds, rue (or other herbs) and a couple of leaves of mint, as you did in step 2 (without the pepper). Add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, half a teaspoon of honey and half a teaspoon of nam pla.
  8. Once the lentils have cooked, drain them and add the herb and spice mixture to the pan. Stir to combine.
  9. Take a couple of tablespoons of the roux and stir it through the lentils, making sure it’s combined. You can add more, if you like, to create a creamier texture.
  10. Pour the chestnut purée into the lentils and stir through, making sure not to combine it too thoroughly. You could leave a dollop of it on top.
  11. Chop some mint finely and sprinkle on top.

Lord Woolton’s Pie: 1940’s

It’s been a long first week back to work for both of us. Those 6:00am alarms had not been missed and their return was not welcome. Having crawled through Monday to Friday, I decided that what we could all do with was a delicious treat at the weekend to pick us up. Surely a dish named after a lauded member of the aristocracy would fit my needs?

Having wrestled my toddler into bed for a much needed nap, (though whether it was her or I who needed her to have one isn’t clear), and waited until her protestations – all of them eloquently well argued and not at all like wordless sirens – died down, I turned to the pages of history to find inspiration.

Lord Woolton was the Minister of Food from 1940 to 1943 and his job was essentially to prevent the nation starving during World War Two when food was scarce and could not be easily imported. At this point, I’ll admit, alarm bells were ringing because I had a sneaking suspicion that my decadent pie was possibly not going to be as indulgent as I had hoped, but I’d picked it now so tough luck to me. “Lunch might be a little bit simpler than I’d planned”, I told my husband. Poor, innocent man; I felt I had to break it to him gently.

In January of 1940, the British government introduced rationing in an effort to ensure food was shared out fairly between all. In order to maintain group poverty at a level where everyone was suffering equally, Lord Woolton’s department distributed ration books, which were small booklets filled with coupons and given to every man, woman and child in Britain. Housewives had to register their family’s ration books at certain retailers in an effort to stop duplication. Certain foods could only be purchased with the coupons and once they were gone, they were gone. Woolton himself described it in 1940 when he told the Evening Express: “I suppose I am going to run the biggest shop in the world.”

From January of 1940, butter, bacon and sugar were rationed. In March, more meat was added to this list. For a nation that was the home of the Sunday Roast and the Full English, (yes, I’ve capitalised these national treasures), suddenly finding that meat was not as available as it had been was staggering. Combine this with the fact that in July of 1940 tea became a victim of rationing too and it’s a wonder Britain had the morale to go through with the war at all.

Subsequent years saw the rationing of foods such as jam, cheese, eggs, tinned tomatoes, sweets and chocolate. Other items were also rationed on a points system. Dried fruit, cereal and baked goods like biscuits and cakes were given out according to consumer demand and how available these items were. People would queue for hours in long lines at the shop only to be told that certain items had run out when they eventually got to the front. Milk was also given out on a priority basis to those deemed most in need of it: children and expectant mothers.

Some foods weren’t rationed. I’m sure that children in the 40’s who could only half remember what chocolate tasted like would have been comforted by the knowledge that seasonal local fruit and vegetables were usually readily available, although any fruit that was imported would have faced dwindling supplies.

It was with this national backdrop that the government came up with the ‘Dig for Victory’ scheme – an initiative designed to get people converting their gardens into allotments in order to become as self sufficient as possible. Many public spaces, such as parks, were also converted. Propaganda posters began to be created encouraging, and at times cajoling, those who were slow to start the process.

Truly patriotic mothers sent their unaccompanied babies into the wild with metal tools twice the size of them

Reproduced from the IWM

Historically, the people of Britain have viewed vegetables with the same level of mistrust and wariness that one might have if a rabid cheetah somehow broke through the back fence and was waiting in the borders of their garden. Oh, we grew them and even cultivated them, but in the past vegetables tended to be cooked until all the green had seeped away and those nasty dangerous vitamins had been boiled out.

To help people adapt to their slimmed down pantries and to encourage them to actually eat all the veg that was now being grown, Lord Woolton and his department devised a collection of recipes to inspire housewives to make the most of the ingredients available to them. Lord Woolton’s Pie, as it became known, is perhaps the most famous of these Ministry dishes.

By now, any lingering hope of a luxurious Saturday lunch was gone and had been replaced with despair when I read that journalist William Sitwell, who had recreated this recipe as part of his article into Lord Woolton and rationing, had described the meal as “grim and dull”. I went back to my husband and told him that as well as being simpler than he was expecting, lunch was also going to be a historical twist on the types of spiritual and energising meat free meals served in 5 star yoga retreats and was therefore, if he thought about it, Very Exciting Indeed.

For the pie filling I chopped and diced just over 1lb of potato, swede and carrot and mixed it with 4 diced spring onions. I tipped the vegetables into a saucepan of water, into which I added 1 teaspoon of Marmite. Food historians might argue this addition was part of the recipe because it was a quick way of ensuring additional nutrients were added to people’s sparse diet during the war; as a member of Team Hate It, I think it was just another way of making the public miserable.

The steam kept fogging up the camera, which was probably not a bad thing for this meal

While all this was simmering I began on the pie crust. Now, I am a big believer that if you’re going to advertise something as a ‘pie’, it needs to have a crust on the top, sides and bottom. Anything else is just a stew with a bit of pastry on top: disappointing, deceitful and downright insulting. Lord Woolton must have thought this would be perfect for this meal, then.

The crust consisted of 8oz wheatmeal flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, a pinch of salt and 1/4 pint of cold milk (or water, depending on your sadist percentage). I mixed all the ingredients together into a sticky dough and rolled it out into a disk just big enough to disguise a stew as a pie before tipping the vegetables into a dish and covering with the pastry. It cooked at 180 degrees until the crust had turned golden brown.

It’s hard to put into words the range of emotions that flickered on my husband’s face when I presented lunch to him. To his everlasting credit he attempted a compliment when he described it as “simple waste not want not food”, which is exactly what the point of the meal was. It’s easy for me to mock now, but at the time this dish became popular because of how surprisingly filling it was as well as how quick, easy and cheap. If you were a woman trying to feed your children properly under strict rationing whilst also working, being self sufficient and/or running a household alone whilst your husband was at war, I don’t think you could get much better than this.

Not as “grim and dull” as I was expecting it to look

Additionally, this recipe also allowed me to fulfil a personal goal of eating more vegetables, even if they had been tainted with the poison that is Marmite. In terms of taste, it was unsurprisingly very bland. Because of the lack of any fat it had a thin and quite watery quality to it. The pastry was also underwhelming in flavour, but would have been filling if we’d not given up and reached for the biscuits after a few mouthfuls. Luckily for those living through rationing, this era was also responsible for some of the best puddings ever known to man: custard trifle to use up stale cake, lemon meringue pie to use eggs that were about to turn, and jam sponge made with grated carrot as part substitute for sugar were all welcome additions to the table.

My daughter woke up just as we sat down to eat so I thought I’d see what her verdict was. This is a child who will eat anything that’s not nailed down. I have seen her devour crayons with relish. This Christmas, in her eagerness to get to the chocolate inside, she consumed part of the foil on the outside of a chocolate coin. This time, however, she took one bite of the pie, chewed it round for a bit, spat it out and handed it back to me. Despite its good intentions and the history of its necessity, I couldn’t think of a better summation for this dish.

E x