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Romans; the diet of ancient

Rome"s goddess of grain was Ceres, equivalent to the Greeks" Demeter, whose name survives in our word "cereal", and bread was the staple of the Roman diet, with everything else built around it. If ever an empire was built on grain, this was it, common soldiers complained if they were issued meat when grain supplies became low!

At the peak of the empire over 50 types were available. Bread types included honey & oil, cheese, poppy seed, aniseed and of course pepper. It was so basic to most people"s diets that by Roman times the word bread was a synonym for food. (e.g. "man doth not live by bread alone" Deuteronomy 8:4; "give us our daily bread" Matthew 6:11). - and wealthy politicians won and maintained favour of the populace with bribes of "bread and games".

Most of the grain for this bread came from Egypt and the North African coastal plain, where they had built a system of over 2,000 miles of aqueducts to support their agricultural system. This would have been largely spelt and early forms of wheat.

To accompany this bread, Roman"s ate more fish than meat, but sausages and spicy meat loaves were distinctively Roman, and the capital"s cuisine also included the likes of lentil salad, eggs in wine sauce, baked leeks in cabbage leaves, snails fattened on milk (until they were too big to retract to their shells), baked beans cooked with bits of chicken, sausage leeks and fennel - a type of early cassoulet. Small birds like thrushes were also fattened in enclosures on a diet including juniper berries.

As with most ancient cultures the aristocracy have to be separated from the common man. The hierarchy were the first to use napkins instead of morsels of bread like the Greeks.

The poor ate a type of porridge made with lentils, peas and beans called pulmentarium (oats were considered weeds by the Romans, and their use in porridge was developed by German tribes of this period), this would be made more interesting by a side dish of salt fish or goat"s meat, and perhaps a tipple of red wine mixed with olive oil and water.

Like the Greeks, the Roman aristocracy ranked good cooks with artists - an attitude perhaps returning today in Britain (it has always remained thus in France). They disliked the strong flavour of garlic, but fed it to their soldiers to give them strength and courage. At the same time, they passed a law forbidding people to enter the temple of Cybele after eating garlic.

All were generally sweet toothed - honey being the general sweetener - being added to eggs and eaten with bread, as well as being used in sauces along with their beloved pepper. Pepper with everything was the rule in Roman cookery, and used even more commonly than liquamen - which was their equivalent of salt. Ginger was another popular flavouring in sauces - being good at concealing less than fresh fish and meat.

Like the Greeks before them they ate little breakfast, a light lunch, but finished with a heavy dinner. Feasts would certainly go on for over eight hours - belching being considered a compliment to the host; and when they had eaten their fill, they had slaves to tickle the back of their throats so they could regurgitate and begin all over again.

What meat they ate was usually venison, mutton and the most popular - pork. Suckling pig became so popular that pigs in general grew scarce; laws had to be passed forbidding the slaughter of virgin swine. They treated ham (perna) and shoulder bacon (petaso) as two separate meats; according to Apicius they would each first be simmered with figs, but then ham would be baked in a flour and oil paste, while bacon would be browned and served with a wine and pepper sauce.

The only surviving cookery book of the times is that of Apicus "The Roman Cookery Book" edited by B.Flower & E.Rosenbaum (1958), and the considered opinion is that even that has been heavily modified over the centuries

But judging from this book, sauces accompanied nearly everything - possibly to cover the "off" flavour of meat and fish, as this would have deteriorated rapidly in the climate of Southern Europe. These might have included a thickened wine sauce flavoured with pepper, lovage, caraway, celery seed, asafoetida root, rue and liquamen to accompany a suckling pig; or fried veal with a "sweet and sour" sauce with raisins, honey and vinegar as well as the obligatory pepper. Dates, dried damsons and prunes were used to add sweetness to a savoury game dish.

They loved fish, and most certainly farmed them in the Mediterranean, by trapping them in man-made lakes on a falling tide.

Beekeeping was practised throughout Italy and its provinces, and as mentioned honey was the universal sweetener - although sugar cane from India was known, it was not so convenient. Pliny wrote at the time that "sugar is a kind of honey that collects in reeds, white like gum and brittle to the teeth; the longest pieces are the size of a hazelnut. It is only employed as a medicine".

Biscuits would be made out of flour, then fried, dipped in honey and eaten with their beloved pepper - and idea that has survived in simnel cake.

Roman delicacies included the gonads of prickly sea urchins (still prized by the Japanese), caviar, baby shrimps, oysters (many from Britain and Gaul) and pistachio nuts. As well as wine, a popular vermouth-style drink flavoured with wormwood (see Anise) was consumed. See "Eggs, in Ancient Rome"; "Water; Drinking in Ancient Rome"

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