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B - 22 : Roman Cuisine

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

Now that we know that Romans consumed lots of bread, Garum, olive oil and Wine, what else did they eat?

We know this rather precisely from some of their manuals on agriculture which also contain food receipes and from the archeological findings in Pompei where entire meals were preserved under Vesuv’s volcanic ashes.

Carbonised bread from Pompei

So what did they eat? Basically today’s Italian cuisine minus PPPT (pizza, pasta, potatoes and tomatos). The absence of cold storage & supply chain (only invented in the late 19th century) meant that only products growing within two or three days’ marching distance could reach a town still fresh. Salted or fermented food thus dominated Roman tables.

Typical table for an affluent Roman household

The affluent Romans loved fresh meats (primarily pork) and poultry but in the absence of it where happy to fall back on sausages and cold cuts. Salami and Parma Ham have a much longer history then we commonly believe. In coastal towns however, fresh fish was always dominant. Fishing was not a seasonal business in Roman times. And with the intestines we so carelessly discard today Garum could be made. Double whammie!

We know very little about Roman milk consumption but it is reasonable to assume that much of the milk was used to make cheese. There were simply not enough cows in the proximity of Roman towns to develop a proper dairy industry (and again - no cold chain!). So it is no surprise that precursers of peccorino cheese and parmigiano are found in archeological digs. Not bad, the Romans!

Mural fresco from Pompei

The Romans also loved fresh fruit and vegetables whenever they could get hold of them. If not they were happy to eat them in pickled or dried form. There was an entire industry to preserve food which made it possible to ship and distribute it across the Mediterranean. Stories about where to get the best dried figs from, which town produced the best pickled gurkins and where the best salami came from are abundant. However, choucroute was not invented yet. This honour belongs to German tribes. What Romans never had was sugar to preserve foods. Jams or fruits preserved in a sugary juice were not available. Sugar reached Europe only during Arab times.

In a nutshell, affluent Romans ate very well (despite the missing PPPT). The poorer folks or slaves (10% of the population) however were on a permanent diet of bread, Garum and wine. The trouble was that less than 20% of Romans were rich or affluent. Ordinary citizens lacked a healthy diet. They were a rather unhealthy lot. No surprise then that the loyalty of Romans citizens towards their Empire had its limits. Who wants to be sick all the time and die early?

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