As the Romans liked to eat them
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. It is taken from the Roman cookery book De re coquinaria or Apicius.
Who was Apicius?
In the first century A.D. there was a very rich Roman citizen, Marcus Gavius Apicius. This man seemed to be a likely candidate for the epinomous cookbook. 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 title page of one of the ninth-century manuscripts, and Apitius Caelius was named as the author (Phyllis Pray Bober, Art, Culture & Cuisine, p.149), see bibliography.
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 out 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. De re coquinaria was printed for the first time in 1498. Since then, it has been published again and again over the centuries, and nowadays it easy to find the text on the internet (often taken from obsolete, nineteenth-century editions).
Other recipes from De re coquinaria on this site: Asparagus patina with quail, Roman apricots, Roman broccoli, Broad beans à la Vitellius.
I am not going to write about mussels here. If you want to know more about them, you can consult wikipedia.
The original recipe
The text was originally 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. (see bibliography). In 2006, Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger published a new, critical edition of De re coquinaria. The Latin text is now from that edition.
The book of P.C.P. Faas, Around the table of the Romans: Food and feasting in ancient Rome (see bibliography) contains an excellent portrait of Roman life in relation to food. It also has more than 150 recipes, mainly taken from Apicius.
IX. in metulis: liquamen porrum concisum cuminum passum satureiam, uinum; mixtum facies aquatius et ibi mitulos quoques.
9. Mussels: liquamen, chopped leeks, passum, savory, wine. Dilute the mixture with water, and boil the mussels in it.
First course for 4 persons; preparation in advance 20 minutes; preparation 10 minutes.
2 kilo (4 pounds) mussels
150 gr (1⅔ cup) young leeks in small rings
1 dl (½ cup) each of dry white wine, passum and water
½ dl fish sauce
½ tsp ground cumin
2 or 3 sprigs satureia (or 1 tsp dried)
1 Tbsp chopped lovage leafs
lots of freshly ground white pepper
1 raw egg yolk
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
½ Tbsp white wine
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp honey
1 dl (½ cup) olive oil
2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp honey
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried mint
½ tsp chopped lovage
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
Preparation 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. The vinegar is not mentioned in the original recipe, Flower and Rosenbaum added it because of a German study from 1927 (E. Brandt, Untersuchungen zum römischen Kochbuche).
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.
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.
Or liquamen or garum: a clear liquid made of small fermented fish with much salt and sometimes alsoe 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, as the Romans made it at home when they were out of stock (recipe).
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.
Levisticum officinale. An umbelliferous plant (like wild celery and parsley) that was popular in the classic Roman kitchen, and still used in the Middle Ages. You can grow it in your garden. When flowering, it can grow as tall as 2 meters. The taste is rather overbearing, use it in small amounts. It is very nice in stock.
Aromatic leaf of a special kind of cinnamon tree, Cinnamomum tamala. It is still used in the indian cuisine, in some pulaos and byriani. Since it is optional in the original recipe, you can leave it out.
The editions below were used by me. Links refer to available editions.
- Apicii decem libri qui dicuntur De re coquinaria. Latin edition by Mary Ella Milham. Teubner, Leipzig, 1969. (on internet).
- P.C.P. Faas, Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome.
- The Roman Cookery Book: A Critical Translation of The Art of Cooking, For Use In The Study And The Kitchen, Barbara Flower and Elizabeth Rosenbaum (London, 1980, reprint of the edition from 1958, link is to a re-issue 2012).
- C. Grocock and S. Grainger, Apicius: A Critical Edition with an Introduction and English Translation, Prospect Books, 2006.
- Phyllis Pray Bober, Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy (Un. of Chicago Press, 1999/2001).
- Wikipedia on Apicius
Roman Mussels, a recipe from ‘Apicius’
It is true that I make a (very) little money if you buy a book through these links, but it is also just a service to you.
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