Friday, April 13, 2012


Hello My Friends and Welcome.

As we move forward on these posts of Foods of the First Century, we will be making a few additions and clarifications to the series. For instance, our list of spices contained all of the items readily available to the typical homemaker. Other Indian spices, especially black pepper, would also have been available. However, pepper traded at more than its weight in gold, making it beyond the reach of all but the very rich.

Proof of the vigorous spice trade that existed between India and what became the Greco-Roman world is found in Genesis 37:25, where Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery.  “And they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a company of Ishmaelites (Arabs) came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm, and myrrh, going to carry it to Egypt."

Roman historian Strabo mentions a vast increase in trade following the Roman annexation of Egypt. The city of Bernike, which lay at the southeastern extreme of the Roman Empire, functioned as a transfer port for goods shipped through the Red Sea. Trade activity peaked in the First Century. Ships would sail between Berenike and India during the summer, when monsoon winds were strongest. From Berenike, camel caravans carried the goods 240 miles west to the Nile, where they were shipped by boat to the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. From there, they could be moved throughout the Roman world. By the time of Augustus up to 120 ships set sail for India each and every year. This maritime network continued until the fall of the Roman Empire when Rome lost its Red Sea ports.

Moving on to vegetables, we overlooked asparagus. A native of Mediterranean area and Asia Minor, it can be traced back as far as 200 BC. Both Julius Caesar and Augustus are known to have prized asparagus. Interestingly enough, almost 2,000 years before Clarence Birdseye introduced commercially frozen foods, the Romans ate froze asparagus.  How, you ask? Clever devils that they were, they kept it frozen in the Alps for special Feasts.

Bright Lights Swiss Chard
Before we get into salads, there is a misunderstanding that needs to be put to rest. Neither Julius Caesar, nor any of the other Caesars for that matter, ever dined on Caesar Salad. This famous dish was invented over a Fourth of July weekend in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico by restaurateur Caesar Cardini.

Purslane-Cucumber Salad
I recall seeing women gathering dandelion greens when I was a child. Nowadays, dandelion has been replaced by endive. Ironically, many of the trendy greens being featured in cookbooks and on the Food Channel are the same ones that the ancients consumed. They’ve been overlooked to such an extent that some are now treated as ornamentals or, worse yet, weeds. Most can easily be gathered wild just as they were in the First Century.

Curly Malow Leaves
Check out some of the accompanying photos. Not only were these greens tasty and nutritious, but the color and variety provided a feast for the eye. Besides leaf lettuce, people of the First Century ate rocket, roquette, also known as arugula— watercress, mallow, sorrel and goosefoot. Goosefoot belongs to the genus Chenopodium which includes Bright Lights Swiss Chard, Tyee Spinach, and Aurora Orach, or Mountain Spinach, which has edible leaves in a rainbow of pastel colors. They also ate purslane, chicory, chervil, and beet greens.

Aurora Orach Spinach

Here’s a salad recipe from Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome by Patrick Faas. I’ve added approximate quantities where I could.
Columella’s salad: Put savory in the mortar with mint (3 ½ oz.), rue, fresh coriander (cilantro) (1 ¾ oz), parsley (1 ¾ oz), a sliced leek or, if not available, onion, lettuce and rocket leaves, green thyme, or catmint(1 sprig). Add salted fresh cheese (7-8 oz.). This is all crushed together. Stir in a little peppered vinegar. Put on a plate and pour oil over it. (Columella, Re Rustica, XII) Columella added nuts to some of his other salads. Pine nuts might go nicely in this one.
Next time we revisit Foods of the First Century, we’ll examine Grains. On Friday, we’ll re-activate our series on Ancient Games and look at the Roman Game of Calculi.
 Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.
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