In a weird turn of events, I have had two ancient-Roman inspired meals in the past month. It started when my friends and I decided to have a dinner party inspired by Apicius, an ancient Roman cookbook considered by some to be the first real cookbook. A translation is available for free online.
I procrastinated in planning my recipe and realized pretty quickly that this was not going to be particularly easy, since this book was written well before the Columbian Exchange, which brought Europe the gifts of tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, which I use often in my normal cooking. I was forced to experiment. I settled on a sausage recipe, but being a procrastinator, I knew I wasn't going to be able to make actual sausage or to smoke anything:
LUCANIAN SAUSAGE [or meat pudding] ARE MADE SIMILAR TO THE ABOVE: CRUSH PEPPER, CUMIN, SAVORY, RUE, PARSLEY, CONDIMENT, LAUREL BERRIES AND BROTH; MIX WITH FINELY CHOPPED [fresh Pork] AND POUND WELL WITH BROTH. TO THIS MIXTURE, BEING RICH, ADD WHOLE PEPPER AND NUTS. WHEN FILLING CASINGS CAREFULLY  PUSH THE MEAT THROUGH. HANG SAUSAGE UP TO SMOKE.
I also found it rather hard to find savory, laurel, or rue, so I substituted elements from other recipes. I didn't know what "Condiment" was, but I assumed it had to do with the famous Roman "garum," a type of fish sauce made from fermenting fish guts. When I took Latin in high school, I remember thinking that I couldn't imagine eating something so absolutely disgusting. Little did I know I would fall in love with Southeast Asian cuisine and by 25 I would be putting fish sauce on everything. I didn't have to worry about finding fish sauce, because I already had my lovely Red Boat fish sauce, even if it isn't exactly like garum.
The annoying thing about making up recipes on the fly is that I never write them down, so when I stumble upon something amazing I have trouble replicating it. This is one of those cases, but I will try to remember.
I had pork belly already from The Butcher and The Larder. I put some cubes of frozen chicken stock on the bottom of the crock pot, put in the pork belly, poured in some apple cider to cover, and then started spicing. I believe I used black pepper (I was pretending to be a rich Roman), cumin, bay leaves, coriander, a small spoon of honey, and quite a bit of fish sauce and a touch of fig vinegar. I cooked it on low overnight. I like to cool it and then slice it thin so I can brown it in a cast-iron skillet, but I didn't have time. Obviously it crumbled with I tried to slice it, but whatever. I heated up some lard, added more black pepper, cumin, and mustard seeds, and browned the belly until nice and crispy, seasoning it with fish sauce to taste. I then reduced the leftover liquid and cooked some pitted sour cherries in it with more of the fig vinegar. For the final dish, I layered on fresh mint and parsley. It was amazingly delicious.
Obviously, I didn't take this picture. Thanks Jen Moran Photography!
Someday I hope to replicate this dish again, going from the basic premises I always start with, which are: salty, sweet, and sour. It was obviously a little lazy because pork belly is like my culinary trump card, a dish I have been doing over and over again for several years now, so any variation I do is usually good.
The rest of the dishes at the party also had some similar flavors.
Thanks Jen Moran Photography!
From the couple who brought us egg baos (who need to do a blog post on it and all their amazing recipes *hint hint*), was an incredibly rice risotto made with pine nuts in the foreground. Saffron-spiced chickpeas were also delicious and I was very surprised at how good the eggs with pickled fish sauce were. Even the dessert made with roast peaches and fish sauce was delicious. There were also lamb ribs, cooked lettuce salad, honey roasted nut tarts, and many other wonderful dishes.
Mussels + tiny delicious mushrooms from chef Iliana were another standout. Thanks Jen Moran Photography!
So when Chicago Foodies announced a dinner at Balena also inspired by Apicius, a bunch of us signed up for that too, particularly since I had read of chef Chris Pandel's experiments with making his own garum.
The dinner was held in a cool wine-cellar looking lair and the chef announced he had pretty much followed Apicius' recipes as closely as possible, with no refined sugar, salt, or flour. All cooking was done in their wood-fired oven. Garum was to stand in for salt. He said he was trying to do a fairly average middle class meal. The drink pairings were pretty interesting too. One was a gruit beer. Gruit was the main bittering option in ancient beers, before hops became widespread. There has been revived interest in gruit, partially because scientists have discovered that hops are probably far more estrogenic than even soy. Some say that hops are an ancient lust-reducing reformation conspiracy. But the German beer laws that enshrined hops came before the reformation and beer usually doesn't have enough hops to make a difference. Either way, there are several gruits on the craft brew market at this point. I have tried the Fraoch Heather Ale and I think some of Dogfish's "Ancient Ales" series are also gruits. I know I've had the Finnish Sah'Tea, which uses juniper berries.
Another drink was a super concentrated wine with amaro, which was diluted with water, since this is also what was done in Rome too. To drink undiluted wine was barbaric.
The food was interesting to say the least, but there were definitely some things that looked more delicious than they actually were and the lack of salt was kind of off-putting. The gooey sweetbreads and the onion-filled lamb brain "patina", which was like an omelet, were not my favorite offal dishes and it took some wine to get them down. I like my sweetbreads grilled...with lots of salt. Same for the boiled turnips. Turnips just aren't as good as potatoes anyway.
I was very surprised with how much I liked the boiled honey leeks and raw mackerel, which was very fresh and not fishy like many mackerel dishes. The mushroom cups in garum had a wonderful umami flavor. And you can't go wrong with goat cheese and figs.
stuff quail, the lighting here wasn't good for many pictures.
The next course was stuffed quail, which had an excellent egg-fish sauce topping. I was not thrilled with the mullet in vinegar, which was very fishy. Parts of the boiled pigs head were good, but I did miss the salt.
For dessert we had sweet sausages stuffed with berries, which were a bit too sweet for me. But the best thing in the meal was definitely the sweet cheese custard with star anise and peaches.
My dining companions and I all agreed it would be hard to overeat this kind of food. Even though some of the dishes were a bit "Spartan," I respect the chef's choice to not embellish them much to show us what Roman food was probably like. In my own cooking, I was glad I was forced to explore other flavors instead of falling back on tomatoes and peppers. And I really like that the elements of Apician Roman food: organ meats, a variety of meat and seafood, fresh herbs, and fish sauce.