Lisa E. Betz is a foodie, ancient history buff, and chocoholic. When not working on her next Livia Aemilia mystery or writing articles on intentional living, she can be found experimenting with food, weaving baskets, or playing with her grandson. Learn more about Lisa and her award-winning novels at lisaebetz.com.
Although my heroine, Livia, lives in Rome, she has never tasted spaghetti with a tomatoey sauce redolent with oregano, or a foamy cappuccino, or a smooth, luscious chocolate gelato. Why? Because my books are set in the first century. Ingredients like tomatoes, coffee and chocolate were not yet known in Europe. Herbs we associate with Italian cooking, such as oregano and basil were not commonly used in ancient Roman kitchens (although they were known).
So, what did my ancient Roman heroine eat?
Lot of delicious dishes, along with some odd ones like dormice and flamingo tongues. Researching these foods has become a hobby. I own several cookbooks based on ancient writings and I’ve tried dozens of recipes.
The primary source for ancient recipes is The Art of Cooking, attributed to a first-century gourmand named Marcus Gavius Apicius. His recipes leave some guesswork, since they are primarily a list of ingredients with occasional comments regarding quantities or methods. However, the book’s four-hundred and seventy recipes provide us with a pretty good notion of the foods and flavors the ancient Romans enjoyed. To fill out the picture, recipes or descriptions of food crop up in a variety of other ancient sources, from plays and comedic stories to treatises on medicine.
Thanks to Apicius and other writers, we know some of the most common flavors used in ancient Roman cooking are cumin, black pepper, vinegar, honey, and garum—a salty condiment made from fermented fish, probably similar to an Asian fish sauce. Many recipes include a combination of honey, vinegar, and garum in sauces for both meat and vegetable dishes. Livia and her household share this fondness for sweet and sour notes in their savory dishes. Two favorites are pork in raisin sauce and zucchini gratin with a sauce made from herbs, dates, and pine nuts.
The pantry in Livia’s kitchen would be stocked with many herbs, including several not common in modern kitchen, like lovage and rue. Happily, I discovered these plants at a local greenhouse last spring. Both add a bitter herbiness that deepens savory dishes.
While honey was the primary sweetener, Livia’s cook would also use must, or freshly crushed grape juice. This brings me to one of the foods I mention in my novels—must cakes. Pansa’s bakery, which Livia frequents, sells delicious must cakes (the best in Rome, according to her aunt). Obviously, I needed to try these interesting little morsels for myself.
Although I imagine Pansa’s must cakes to be sweeter and have a more delicate crumb, I have become fond of my version, based on a recipe found in the writings of Cato the Elder. Mine are savory biscuits with just a hint of sweetness. They are delicious as an accompaniment to a hearty soup or stew. They also make a good snack, when toasted and topped with melted cheddar cheese.
Livia’s Must Cakes
Since butter wasn’t a common ingredient in Roman cooking, dough recipes often contained cheese as a shortening. Ancient cooks didn’t have access to baking powder or dried yeast, either. They must have leavened their doughs with sourdough or possibly with slightly fermented grape must, (neither of which I have on hand). Thus, I’ve made this recipe easier for modern cooks by utilizing baking powder. I hope Pansa and Livia forgive me.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground anise or fennel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup white grape juice (or make your own must by pureeing seedless grapes)
Bay leaves, preferably fresh
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the dry ingredients. Cut the cheese into the flour until crumbly. Stir in the olive oil and grape juice. Mix the dough just until combined.
Lay the bay leaves on a cookie sheet. (You can cut large bay leaves into halves or thirds.) Place a scoop of biscuit dough on top of each bay leaf. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the edges are browned.
Remove the must cakes from the cookie sheet and cool on a rack. Peel the bay leaf from the bottom of the cakes before eating. These are delicious served warm or at room temperature.
· Cheddar cheese works well because it’s not too sticky or too hard to cut into the flour. You could experiment with other types.
· You can use dried bay leaves, but fresh ones give a better result. Look for fresh bay leaves in the produce section.
· Confession: When I make these, I skip the anise or fennel because my household doesn’t care for it. I included it for authenticity’s sake.
Adapted from a recipe found in Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens by Mark Grant
Fountains and Secrets
A Livia Aemilia Mystery, Book 2
Nancy Drew meets ancient Rome. While seeking clues to find her husband, Avitus’s, missing friend, spunky Livia Aemilia uncovers more than she bargained for, and now Avitus’s old enemy is out to get them. Worse, Avitus forbids her from investigating further because he doesn’t trust her to stay out of danger. Annoyed, Livia seeks out one more clue, and barely escapes being kidnapped. Can Livia and Avitus learn to trust one another before their enemy strikes again?
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