Mussels in Anno Domini 0

Like the Romans ate them

A Roman couple enjoying a meal. The man is lying down, the woman is seated.The months around Thanksgiving and Christmas are filled with good wining and dining. Give yourself a break from stuffed turkeys and roasted gammon, and have some humble shellfish. The mussel has been eaten ever since the stone age. The historical recipe on this page is for mussels as they were eaten in Rome under the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Mussels have been eaten since prehistoric times.

Who was Apicius?

The recipe is from the only extant ancient Roman cookery book, De re coquinaria. It is attributed to someone known as Apicius. But wich one? 
In the first century A.D. there was a very rich Roman citizen,  Marcus Gavius Apicius. This man seems to be the most likely candidate. He was a famous gourmet, who killed himself when his fortune was down to ten million seserties. Since he couldn't afford the meals he was accustomed to anymore (think the Roman equivalents of caviar, truffles and Premier Grand Crû wine), he poisoned himself. Another possible author was Caelius Apicius, for centuries the supposed author, but he has probably never even existed. The first editors misunderstood the abbreviations on the titlepage of one of the ninth-century manuscripts, and Apitius Caelius was named as the author (see Phyllis Pray Bober, Art, Culture & Cuisine, Chicago/London,  p.149).

De re coquinaria

There are no contemporary copies of De re coquinaria. The only copies that have survived the centuries are two ninth-century manuscripts, plus some slightly older fragments and excerpts. The recipes are from the time of the Roman empire at its height, but the language and composition of the cookbook date from the fourth century A.D. Medieval copiists who made transcripts of De re coquinaria did not plan to use it as a cookbook. It was a latin text, and therefore worthwile to transcribe. 
There is a parallel between the fate of cookbooks and stageplays during the Middle Ages. The classical plays (drama's and comedies) were transcribed, but not acted on a stage, just like the Roman cookbook was transcribed, but no recipe was ever prepared from it. It is as though around the twelfth century, after centuries of silence, plays and cookbooks are invented anew from scratch. From this it is clear that medieval culinary texts have absolutely no relation to the classical Roman culinary traditions.
In the fifteenth century De re coquinaria was rediscovered as a cookbook. Italian humanists were curious about everything Roman, including what the Romans ate. The first printed edition of De re coquinaria dates from 1498. It has been edited again and again over the centuries, and nowadays it is one of the historical cookbooks to be found on the internet.
Other recipes from De re coquinaria on this site: Asparagus patina with quail, Roman apricots, Roman broccoli, Broad beans à la Vitellius.

The original recipe
The text is taken from De re coquinaria, edited by Barbara Flower en Elizabeth Rosenbaum, The roman cookery book. A critical translation of "The art of cooking" by Apicius, for use in the study and kitchen.  (London, 1980, reprint from 1958). 
Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger have published a new, critical edition of De re coquinaria in 2006.
The book of P.C.P. Faas, Around the table of the Romans: Food and feasting in ancient Rome (Palgrave McMillan 2002) contains an excellent portrait of Roman life in relation to food. It also has more than 150 recipes, mainly taken from Apicius.

Liber IX, Thalassa
IX. In mitulis: liquamen, porrum concisum, cuminum, passum, satureiam, vinum, mixtum facies aquatius et ibi mitulos coques.
Book 9, From the sea.
9. Mussels: liquamen, chopped leeks, passum, savory, wine. Dilute the mixture with water, and boil the mussels in it.
VI. In ostreis: piper, ligusticum, ovi vitellum, acetum, liquamen, oleum et vinum. Si volueris, et mel addes. 6. (Sauce) for oysters: pepper, lovage, yolk of egg, vinegar, liquamen, oil and wine. If you wish, add honey.
VII. In omne genus conchyliorum: piper, ligusticum, petroselinum, mentam siccam, cuminum plusculum, mel, <acetum>, liquamen. Si voles, folium et malabathrum addes.7. (Sauce) for all kinds of shellfish: pepper, lovage, parsley, dried mint, lots of cumin, honey, vinegar, liquamen. If you wish, add a bayleef and folium indicum.

Modern adaptation of the recipe Print the recipe
For 2 to 4 persons.


2 kilo (4 pounds) mussels
cooking liquid:
150 gram (1 2/3 cup) young leeks in small rings
1 deciliter (1/2 cup) each of dry white wine, passum and water
1/2 deciliter (1/4 cup) liquamen
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
2 or 3 sprigs satureia (or 1 tsp. dried)
Lovage sauce
1 Tbsp. chopped lovage leafs
lots of freshly ground white pepper
1 raw egg yolk
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1/2 Tbsp. white wine
1 tsp. liquamen
1 tsp. honey
1 deciliter (1/2 cup) olive oil
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. liquamen
1 tsp. honey
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried mint
1/2 tsp. chopped lovage
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley

Roman mussels, with cumin sauce on the left, lovage sauce on the rightPreparation in advance
Prepare the lovage sauce in the same way as you prepare a mayonnaise: mix egg yolk with vinegar, pepper and honey, add the olive oil in a small trickle while whisking well. When the sauce has the thickness of mayonnaise, stop adding oil. You may need more or less the given amount of oil.
Prepare the cumin sauce by mixing all the ingredients together.

Wash and clean the mussels as you are accustomed to do. Put everything for the cooking liquid in a pan big enough to hold all the mussels (even after they all have opend up!). Bring to the boil, add the mussels, and cook until the mussels are steamed open.

To serve
You can place the cooking pan with the mussels on the table for a rustic meal. Place the two sauces alongside the pan. Dip the deshelled mussels in one of the sauces. If you like, you can serve some of the modern sauces (mustard sauce, remoulade sauce, cocktail sauce) together with the Roman ones.
Serve the mussels with bread, for example ciabatta. Or bake a roman bread.

All descriptions of ingredients

Liquamen (also called garum) - A clear liquid made with small fermented fish with much salt and sometimes also several kinds of dried herbs. The Romans used liquamen or garum in the same way we use salt. There is however a difference: salt dehydrates food, liquamen adds liquid to a dish. It was produced in factories and sold in amforas. There were many qualities of garum, from cheap to very expensive. Apicius would no doubt only have used the very best quality. Nowadays in the Far East a kind of fish sauce is still in use in much the same way as the Romans used garum. You can use these sauces as a substitute for garum: Vietnamese nuoc-nam, or Thai nam-pla. You can also try to make your own garum, the same way the Romans made it at home when they were out of stock (recipe for making your own garum).
Passum - Sweet white wine. The wine is sweet because of the partly dried grapes that were used for it. They have a higher sugar content then fresh grapes. In Italy passum-type wines are still being produced, for example Vino Santo.
Lovage - Levisticum officinale. It looks like rather big celery. You can grow it in your garden. When in flower it can grow as tall as two meters. The taste is rather overbearing, use it in small amounts. It is very nice in stock.
Folium indicum - Aromatic leaf of a special kind of cinnamon tree, Cinnamomum tamala. It is still used in Indian cuisine, in some pulaos and byriani. Since it is optional in the original recipe, you can leave it out.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)