My post on Roman street food from earlier in the year proved hugely popular and I am dying to try out some recipes. One of my New Year’s Resolutions will most likely to be a bit more adventurous in the kitchen. As most people know, Christmas as we know it today is the fusion of several ancient festivals. Though most of the food traditions we have – the decorated tree, the Yule Log, what we eat and drink – all come from Germanic paganism, there are some things we’ve carried through from the Roman Empire.
What Did the Romans Eat at Saturnalia?
Though our farming methods today mean we can produce most things all year round, the Romans had no choice but to stick with seasonal food. Because the Republic and later Empire stretched from northern England in the north to North Africa in the south, and from Spain in the west to Turkey and the Levant in the east, that’s a wealth of seasonal food they could have drawn on. The larger the empire, the greater the diversity of the soil and climate. Without imperial control of the food supply, it would have been difficult for date farmers in Syria to supply to legions in southern England.
Typically, they would have eaten foods harvested during the autumn months. Expect honey (which keeps indefinitely) and wheat (which is harvested September-October) to feature heavily. These substances would have been pretty ubiquitous throughout the empire. Honey is as available in the wet, temperate climate of England as it is in the dry desert climate of the Levant. We know that Egypt was Rome’s bread basket, the province grew most of the imperial wheat produce. This also grows at the other end of the empire in Britannia and in Gaul so this would have been a cheap staple; bread would have been plentiful no matter whether you were a plebeian, an equite or a patrician.
Nuts played a huge part in the Roman diet. Their longevity and diverse soil conditions under which most could grow, meant they featured heavily, especially in sweet treats. This is why you will find almond occurring quite commonly. It is a tasty sweet nut that had been growing in the Levant for at least 2000 years prior to the arrival of the Romans. Walnuts and chestnuts were well-established in Europe by this point and there is evidence that it was the Romans who spread chestnuts into Gaul and Britannia. Fruit can have quite a short shelf life so they would have mostly eaten it dried fruit such as berries, currants, dates and figs. Some varieties of these we still associate with Christmas today – especially in seasonal food, so Christmas pudding is a good example.
They used a lot of dairy produce, and much like today they had eggs and cheese – probably had far more use for sweet cheeses than we do in Western Europe today as we tend to value cheeses for their savoury flavours. In France and Italy, and to a lesser extent in Germany (quark – kind of like a cottage cheese) there’s far more variety. I am, of course, leaving aside the fruit cheese we get these days – with cranberry, blueberry and apricot.
Romans loved their spices because they could be dried and kept almost indefinitely. They were great sweeteners for drinks and for food, and a great complement or replacement for honey. Sugar has only made its way into our diet in the last 500 years. At a Christmas market a few weeks ago, I sampled a medieval hot chocolate. This – I was assured – had no sugar, yet it was sweet. A careful mix of ginger, cinnamon and cloves (which are a little bitter-sweet) made it a very tasty drink.
Finally to meat. In the heavily forested areas of Germany, Gaul and Britannia game would have featured quite heavily and no matter where you were in the empire, if you could afford meat then your staple would have been pig derivative. Pork, ham bacon (they come from different parts of the pig) were the better cuts, but what we today would call “offal” – kidney, liver, guts etc would have been more common. Sea food where available may have included Turbot for the very wealthy, eel for most others and oysters as easily available shallow water seafood.
The Saturnalia was the midwinter festival for Romans, it was a week long festival in which people indulged… well, the Romans did that anyway, they never needed an excuse to eat and drink too much… and they exchanged presents. They also put on satirical plays (much like our pantomimes of today) I’ve been digging around for Roman recipes that I might like to try out in the New Year and here’s a selection of my favourites.
The one I am most eager to try is this basic honey cake (Enkhytoi) recipe. It has just three ingredients: three large eggs, 200g of clear honey and 50g of spelt flour. As that is quite plain, and no doubt tasty as it is, I’ll probably sprinkle some almonds on the top of cake for a bit of variety.
How amazing does this pine nut tart look?! This is a good example of how nuts and honey form the core basic staples of what was available to the Romans, how they were flexible and inventive with how they made desserts and treats before we had sugar.
Finally, this pdf is a lesson plan for a school group, but the second half has details on how a typical Saturnalia might go and what a menu might look like.
Now I have whet your appetite, and I don’t know if I will be posting now before New Year, let me wish you a Merry Christmas, a Great Yule, Sensational Saturnalia and Happy Holidays!
I’ve continued this series. Jump forward about 1000 years and read about Christmas food in the medieval era.
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