The rich Ancient Romans enjoyed their food. Expensive food, along with a lavish villa, was an obvious way of showing off your wealth to others. If you hosted a banquet at your villa to which other Roman worthies had been invited, it had to go well if your social standing was to be maintained – hence why elaborate and expensive foods were well provided. Roast peacock and ostriches and the like, would be provided.
A different lifestyle also meant that the eating habits of the Ancient Romans were different to ours today. Breakfast (the Romans called this jentaculum) was taken in the master’s bedroom and usually consisted of a slice of bread or a wheat pancake eaten with dates and honey. Wine was also drunk. Lunch (the Romans called this prandium) was eaten at about 11.00 a.m. and consisted of a light meal of bread, cheese and possibly some meat. In many senses, everything was geared up towards the main meal of the day – cena. This was eaten in the late afternoon or early evening. If the master of the house had no guests, cena might take about one hour. If he did have guests, then this meal might take as long as four hours. A light supper was usually eaten just before the Romans went to bed, consisting of bread and fruit. The Romans were usually not big meat eaters and a lot of their normal meals involved vegetables, herbs and spices together with a wheat meal that looked like porridge.
However, for a rich man’s banquet anything exotic that could be purchased was served. Many meals were served with sauces. The Romans seemed to be particularly fond of sauces as it gave a cook the opportunity to make a dish seem a little bit more exciting than it may have been without the sauce. One particular favourite was garum which was made by mixing up fish waste with salt water and leaving it for several weeks until it was ready for use. By all accounts, it was a salty and highly flavored sauce. Sauces made from vinegar, honey, pepper, herbs and spices were also popular. The Romans seemed to be very keen on sweet food and drink. One of the favoured drinks was called mulsum which was a mixture of boiled wine and honey.
One sign that a meal or a banquet had gone down well was if guests asked for bags to take home dishes that they had enjoyed. This in particular pleased a master as it showed to everyone who was there that at least some of the courses on offer had been well received.
Most food was either boiled or fried in olive oil. Very few homes needed an oven as so little food was roasted.
Two Roman meals were:
|Baked dormice: “Stuff the dormice with minced pork or the meat of other dormice chopped up with herbs, pepper and pine nuts. Sew up the dormice and cook in a small oven.”A sweet: “Take the crusts from a white loaf and break the bread into largish pieces. Soak them in milk. Fry them in hot oil or fat. Pour honey over them and serve.”|
The writer Petronius wrote about his eating experiences in around AD 60:
|“After a generous rubdown with oil, we put on dinner clothes. We were taken into the next room where we found three couches drawn up and a table, very luxuriously laid out, awaiting us. We were invited to take our seats. Immediately, Egyptian slaves came in and poured ice water over our hands. The starters were served. On a large tray stood a donkey made of bronze. On its back were two baskets, one holding green olives, and the other black. On either side were dormice, dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seed. nearby, on a silver grill, piping hot, lay small sausages. As for wine, we were fairly swimming in it.”|