The gastronomic monument of the roman world

Have you ever tasted flamingo tongue? Or camel heels? Well, the De re coquinaria (Culinary art) by Apicius could give you some useful and unusual ideas.

The author

The name Apicius has always been linked to gastronomy, refined dishes and extravagant ingredients, and opulent and sumptuous banquets.

However… there are different Apiciuses, because we know of no less than three different figures with this name.

An Apicius who lived many years before Christ, who railed against the Fannian law proposed by that “killjoy” Rutilius Rufus to curb excessive luxury in banquets.

Then there was the extraordinarily rich Marcus Gavius, who lived during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., and was nicknamed “Apicius” after the famous gourmand of the previous century.

Finally, an Apicius who lived during the reign of Emperor Trajan, and who specialized in the conservation of oysters.

The second of these, a gastronome, chef and lover of the good life (Seneca narrates that he took his own life with poison when he realized that his assets were reduced to a “mere” ten million sesterces!), is reputed to be the author of the collection of recipes that constitutes the main body of De re coquinaria.

According to another theory, the author of this treatise was a certain Caelius (whose name appears after Apicius in some codices); however, this seems to be mere conjecture from the period of Humanism.

The work

This gastronomic monument of the Roman world is a collection of delicious recipes that are undoubtedly bizarre in our eyes. From appetizers made with cockscombs cut from live birds to mullets killed in garum sauce, the ubiquitous food condiment made from fish entrails, to tasty dormice fattened in special terracotta jars. Culinary oddities that closely resemble the dishes offered by Trimalchio, the protagonist of Petronius’ Satyricon, at his famous dinner.

But these recipes obviously did not seem so original to Apicius’ contemporaries, as they handed them down over generations, thus giving life, edition after edition, to the work that is now available to us.

Even though we know the De re coquinaria as a single compilation of recipes, historians think that it in reality is the combination of two different works: one, often cited by other authors, dedicated exclusively to sauces, and another one to cuisine, with suggestions for complete dishes.

The collection that has come down to us is a complex text, consisting of several non-homogeneous sections, probably composed over several centuries (from the 1st century B.C. to the 4th century A.D.), and can be dated, on the basis of the stylistic characteristics of the language, to around 385 AD.

It is a book written by cooks for cooks and the Latin it uses, though poor from a literary point of view, is suited to the simple and essential language of chefs in that period, people who just required a simple reminder in order to reproduce preparations and recipes, without a precise list of all the ingredients, amounts and procedures.

Why read it?

De Re Coquinaria is the only gastronomic document of Roman times to survive the fall of the Empire and reach us.

It was repeatedly reissued and in 1852, for the first time, Antonelli published the Latin text with parallel Italian translation by Giambattista Baseggio, under the title: Delle vivande e condimenti ovvero dell’arte della cucina. (On food and condiments, or the art of cooking).

Academia Barilla holds the facsimile of the oldest manuscript of this work, produced in the 9th century AD in the scriptorium of St Martin of Tours in France, while the original is kept at the Vatican Apostolic Library.

In ancient Rome, the upper classes would organize lavish banquets to entertain and often amaze their guests. Foods from every part of the Empire were available to them, and this bounty would create a rich array of both simple and elaborate dishes which included fish, meat, legumes and vegetables, served with copious amounts of sweet and savoury sauces.

Apicius’ work gives us a window on how our ancestors cooked and, above all, what they cooked. To get back to the original question: have you ever tasted flamingo tongue? Or camel heels?