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 Apicius), a 1st century Roman text full of recipes and instructions for the Roman cook. Though often attributed to the gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius, there’s actually not a lot of evidence that this was the case. Apicius 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, Apicius 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, Apicius 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 Apicius, notes that the intended audience (and therefore writer/s) of the recipes in Apicius 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 Apicius 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 Apicius. The recipes in Apicius 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 Apicius was more of a Waitrose kind of guy.
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.
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.
The recipe may not have been written by Apicius 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!
Lenticulam de castaneis
160g cooked chestnuts
180g lentils (any is fine, really)
1 medium leek
Rue (or sorrel, chicory or any other bitter herb. Certain people – including pregnant women – may want to avoid using rue.)
White wine vinegar
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Once the lentils have cooked, drain them and add the herb and spice mixture to the pan. Stir to combine.
- 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.
- 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.
- Chop some mint finely and sprinkle on top.