Apicius, the patron saint of cooks
The finest in ancient Roman cuisine
Marcus Gavius Apicius, was a gourmand who lived during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE). He is most known for what could be considered the first-ever cookbook titled De Re Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking). Athenaeus and Seneca have both written about him, describing him as an epicure who enjoyed all the fine things in life with impeccable dining standards that were nearly impossible to keep up with. He threw lavish dinner parties and rumor has it that it was all funded by the Roman government to feed and entertain foreign diplomats.
He was particularly skilled in the areas of animal husbandry, crops and produce, as well as sourcing the most exotic spices and ingredients like ostrich and peacock.
According to the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus, Apicius once found a way of packing fresh oysters to send to the emperor Trajan while he was on campaign in Mesopotamia around 115 AD. In the late Roman cookbook, Apicius divulges his secrets for preserving oysters. De Re Coquinaria contains 500 recipes in total and is arranged into ten standalone books that focus on specific foods.
The ten chapters in De Re Coquinaria are organized similarly to a modern cookbook
- Epimeles – The Careful Housekeeper
- Sarcoptes – The Meat Mincer, Ground-beef
- Cepuros – The Gardener, Vegetables
- Pandecter – Many Ingredients
- Ospreon – Pulse, Legumes
- Aeropetes – Birds, Poultry
- Polyteles – The Gourmet
- Tetrapus – The Quadruped, Four-legged animals
- Thalassa – The Sea, Sea-food
- Halieus – The Fisherman
All the recipes in the cookbook string together the ancient dietary habits of the Roman era in the Mediterranean Basin. Liquamen, which is synonymous with garum, was a popular fermented fish sauce, and likely lent cuisines of the time a distinct umami flavor. The 10th century Byzantine manual Geōponika Agricultural pursuits, Vol. II describes the making of liquamen as such:
“The intestines of fish are thrown into a vessel, and are salted; and small fish, especially atherinae, or small mullets, or maenae, or lycostomi, or any small fish, are all salted in the same manner; and they are seasoned in the sun, and frequently turned; and when they have been seasoned in the heat, the garum is thus taken from them.
A small basket of close texture is laid in the vessel filled with the small fish already mentioned, and the garum will flow into the basket; and they take up what has been percolated through the basket, which is called liquamen; and the remainder of the feculence is made into allec.”
It was said that the flavor of garum could further be enhanced when mixed with wine, vinegar, black pepper and oil. Garum was used on a wide variety of dishes, including boiled veal, steamed mussels and a pear-and-honey soufflé.
Chicken a la Fronto
One recipe from De Re Coquinaria is Pullum Frontonianum (Chicken a la Fronto).
What you’ll need
- 1 fresh chicken (approx. 1-1.5kg)
- 100ml oil
- 200ml Liquamen, or 200ml wine + 2 tsp salt
- 1 branch of leek
- Fresh dill, Saturei, coriander, pepper to taste
- A little bit of Defritum
How to make it
- Start to fry chicken and season with a mixture of Liquamen and oil,
- together with bunches of dill, leek, Saturei and fresh coriander. Then
- cook approximately 1 hour with 220 deg C in the oven. When the chicken
- is done, moisten a plate with Defritum, put chicken on it, sprinkle
- pepper on it, and serve.
The earliest surviving editions of the De Re Coquinaria date back to the 9th century CE and are held by the Vatican and the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City.