By Ruth Arendse
Four hundred years of Roman occupation transformed dietary and eating habits in Britain.
Roman ideas of food and cookery were among other aspects of classical life that reached Britain. Britons were introduced to Mediterranean herbs, Oriental spices, olive oil, wine, sophisticated utensils and fine pottery and speciality foods such as liquimen, an important
condiment that took the place of salt in many dishes.
The Romans prepared liquimen, or garum, from small red mullet, sprats, anchovies, mackerel and the like, which were mixed with the entrails of larger fish. It was salted and put in a vessel to lie in the sun. After a while, the concentrated juice was removed, sieved and stored in an earthenware amphora.
Exotic Oriental spices played an important part in Roman cuisine. Trading stations as far away as the coast of India acted as entrepots for the spices of India, Malaysia and China
which now reached Britain in plentiful supply. Hot spices were valued as medicinal drugs as
well as seasonings. In food, they performed a double function, first stimulating the appetite and then aiding digestion.
Pepper was the most important spice. It was added to everything, dishes sweet or savoury. Ginger was the next most popular spice.
Saffron crocuses were raised in the Mediterranean. The dried stigmas were used to give colour and flavour to Roman sauces and spiced wines.
The rapid occupation of lowland Britain brought Roman farming practices to the country. New
animals were introduced and the existing livestock cared for more scientifically. Beef, then pork, was the preferred meat of the army, and lard was part of the legions' daily rations. Domestic fowl became more plentiful.
Pheasant, peacock, guinea fowl and partridges were brought to Britain and reared intensively.
Sheep and goats were milked and the sheep also supplied wool for textiles.
Boiled or roasted birds were served with well - spiced sauces. The sauces were either
prepared separately or made by thickening the seasoned cooking liquor from the bird.
A typical Roman stuffing for a chicken was pepper, lovage, ginger, chopped meat, boiled
spelt - grits, a shredded brain, eggs, liquimen, oil, peppercorns and pine kernels.
Rabbits were brought over from Spain by the Romans. Two other animals enjoyed by the Romans were the dormouse and the snail. The taste for
the dormouse died when the
Roman Empire declined. The Roman snail is still popular in France and Italy. Indigenous
roe and red deer, wild oxen and pigs roamed the countryside and woodlands. The game
was either roasted or boiled in seawater and served with highly flavoured sauces. Apicius, the
author of a collection of recipes written in the fourth century. recommends Jericho dates,
dried damsons or prunes as the ingredients of such sauces. We know from this author that the
preference for a sweet, fruity sauce with game goes back to at
least the first century AD.
Smaller birds like thrushes were added to dishes of many ingredients along with sausages,
pieces of liver and brain from larger creatures, vegetables pulses and herbs. Duck was
stewed in a broth and served separately with boiled turnips. Parallels can be found for this
Roman dish in the Elizabethan English recipe ' To boil a duck with turnips '.
Honey was the universal sweetener. Sugar cane from India was not unknown. It was used as a medicine. Under
Roman rule, the native British population followed age-old
traditions of beekeeping. Honey was used in salad dressings and sauces containing vinegar to
correct the excessive sharpness. Honey was used as a preservative for fresh fruit, vegetables and
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The Romans introduced their bread ovens into Britain. The usual kind was the fixed
with a domed roof of rubble and tiles and a flue in front. Wood or charcoal was burnt
inside for a time and then raked out so that bread and cakes could be baked in the
heated chamber. The Romans liked their whiteness in bread and even adulterated their
flour with chalk to enhance its appearance. 'To know the colour of one's bread' was their
expression for knowing one's place, and the lowlier the place the darker the bread.
Roman cheese makers were the first to use lamb or kids' rennet for the curdling of fresh
milk. The juice of wild thistle or other plant coagulants was also used for this purpose. A
little rennet was added to a pail of milk and left to thicken in a warm place. When it was
sufficiently solid it was drained in a wicker basket or mould, with weights above it to press
out the whey. It was then salted and compressed and allowed to dry, with further salting to press
out the moisture, in a shady place for nine days and finally the cheese was stored inside.
Cream cheeses and curd cheeses were also made. Milk was poured into shallow pottery
bowls to curdle. When the whey was poured off the curd forming bacteria was retained
from one cheese-making day to the next, obviating the need for rennet. Cream cheese is
made in a similar way in parts of France today.
So, what did the Romans ever do for us!
Discover more by reading C Anne Wilson's book Food & Drink in Britain : from the Stone
Age to the 19th Century. Ruth is head chef at Shampers in the West End and lives in Stoke