Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones reviews:

We classicists spend a lot of our time taking things on trust, without quite knowing how they can be true. The use of olive oil provides a good example. Every book on the 'Amazing Ancients' reports that olive oil was a multi-purpose product, used for lighting, cooking and cleaning and for making perfumes, cosmetics and medicines. Until now it has always been the last use that has had me baffled, but Patrick Faas explains all, and embarrassingly obvious it is too.

As today, olive oil came in different qualities in ancient Rome. First, there were the late-harvested olives that were turning black. these produced viridum ('green'), in three pressings, the last pressing being the low-grade oil used for cooking and lighting. (One litre of oil produces about 134 hours of light from a single-nozzle lamp, so if every inhabitant of ancient Rome lit a lamp for only one hour a day, that city alone must have required three million litres of oil a year just for lighting. No wonder olive oil was big business in the ancient world.) Second, olives pressed before October produced acerbum ('bitter') , used as a skin-moisturiser and the principal cleansing agent for humans and even textiles and wool. Finally, the most expensive of the three was omphacium ('unripe'), pressed from olives harvested in August and therefore light, colourless and delicate. This was the oil that acted as the base for perfumes and ointments. Salt was added to preserve it and gum or resin to 'fix' the aromatics mixed into it, which included myrtle, cardamom, cinnamon, oregano, mint, balsam, lily, quince, and so on. It was sometimes coloured with scarlet or saffron. Problem solved.

At one level, Faas's is a book only in the sense that its pages are bound together and in the right order. It is, as he freely admits, a mélange, a stew, a pot-pourri of information about Roman food. Part One deals with its history (and includes a few recipes), Part Two with recipes (including a little history), but the categorisation is pretty loose throughout.

The book's virtue lies in its serendipity value. Dip in anywhere, and you will find tasty morsels for consideration. The author quotes widely from classical literature and also prints the recipes in Latin as well as translating them. I did not know, for example, that Romans were tremendous jokers when it came to food. Lamb did not have to taste of lamb - any fool could make it do that. Instead, Romans often preferred to swamp food in powerful sauces to produce 'a bouquet of flavours, not the monotheism of a single, recognisable spice'. Likewise they loved to disguise plain food to make it look like some delicacy. You want anchovies? Cut fresh turnips into anchovy shapes, blanch, oil and salt them and add black peppercorns. You want Greek wine? Take Italian wine and adulterate it. The vulgar Trimalchio in Petronius' satire Trimalchio's Feast boasts that his cook can make 'a fish out of pig's womb, a wood pigeon from bacon, a turtle-dove from ham'.

But this book is not without its problems. For example, Faas quotes extensively from the second-century writer Athenaeus (a Greek living in Rome). Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae ('Professors at Dinner'), a work in fifteen books, is a wonderfully lunatic account of the discussions that went on during an extended banquet, ranging far and wide over food, drink, sex, poetry, law, music and medicine (it is an invaluable source of information). But Faas does not distinguish between references in Athenaeus to contemporary and earlier cooking. For example, Athenaeus reports recipes for fried electric eel and fried shark invented by Archestratus, who was a famous Greek cook of the fourth century BC. But Faas quotes them as if they were contemporary recipes. There is no guarantee that anyone in Athenaeus' Rome had actually tasted them.

Furthermore, it was not Cicero but his son who was the drunkard. The town with the excellent olive oil was known by the Romans as Venafrum, not Venafrus. Mosaics made to look like an unswept floor are called asarotos, not assataros. Epicureanism, please, not Epicurianism; Villa dei Misteri, not Misterii; meat cut up for the gods is prosecta, not prosceta; the writer is Antagoras, not Antogoras; and so on.

But at least the book spares us one horror: the celebrity cook. Cooks in Rome were simple technicians, like car mechanics or dentists. They did not hold court or appear on TV shows. Indeed, they were to some extent figures of fun. The Romans at least got some things right.

No comments:

Post a Comment