Every History Girl (and History Boy) longs to travel back to the past, to see what it was really like. And those of us who time travel via fiction are always interested in food. After all, food is one of the author’s most powerful tools; it is sensory, specific and emotive. It always transports you to another place and time.
So when I heard about a new restaurant in London that planned to serve ancient Roman cuisine, I was hugely excited.
|Magna Roma, Via Capo d'Africa, Rome in 2002
Magna Roma on via Capo d’Africa near the Colosseum was the brainchild of Etruscologist Franco Nicastro. Going there was an extraordinary experience.
You entered rooms painted in Pompeian red and saffron yellow, with pilasters, frescoes and replica oil-lamps hanging from the wall. Candles flickered in a small lararium — a shrine to the household gods — and a serving-girl in a tunic ladled mulsum (honey-sweetened wine) from a jar sunk in the counter, just like many found in Pompeii. The creators also sourced shiny orange crockery like the famous ancient Roman pottery called terra sigillata. Nicastro even made an attempt at authenticity with the cutlery, using cleaver-like knives and big spoons with points at the end for spearing morsels. And not a fork in sight.
For the gustatio (first course) you could try authentic dishes like chicken liver pate moulded into fish shapes and served ‘on lettuce waves’; fig-flavoured ham on bread spread with grape must; bread salad with cheese, egg, mint, honey and garlic.
The menu was a scholarly booklet in six languages, one of which was that strange breed of English you get from an educated but non-native speaker. The menu was beautifully illustrated and included a literary reference for almost every dish.
For example, a casserole of fava beans cooked with fish, leeks, vinegar and garum was accompanied by a reference to a poem by Horace who wrote about a bean casserole, joking that he feared he was eating the relatives of Pythagoras. (The Pythagoreans were vegetarians who believed the human soul was eternal and could migrate into any animal after death and even into beans.)
The notorious fish-sauce was present in many dishes served at Magna Roma. Although people call it garum, the world liquamen is probably more accurate. (For an excellent explanation read this post by Neill George at Pass the Garum) Made of fermented fish parts, garum was never meant to be splashed on food like Worcestershire sauce. Just a few drops were added — mostly during the cooking process — to bring out the subtleties of the tastes, like Thai fish sauce. Nicastro served garum with a melon salad, with roasted octopus and memorably with cuttlefish salad in cold egg sauce with laserpicium. Laserpicium was Nicastro’s attempt at reproducing the elusive silphium.
A sample meal might be a gustatio of mushroom and lentil soup seasoned with cumin, honey, mint and garum followed by mensa prima of partridge with grapes ‘to be eaten with the hands’ and for mensa secunda a patina of pears with caraway seeds. Or you could have bread mash salad with vinegar, honey, mint and egg for starter, Parthian goat with salted plums for main, chard with mustard for your veg and sweet celery for pud!
One desert was inspired by art rather than literature. The archeo-gastronomes recreated a kind of cheesecake based on a fresco from the villa at Oplontis, thought by many to belong to Nero’s wife Poppaea. A base of cottage cheese and honey was topped with candied fruit and encircled with a ribbon of almond paste, or marzipan.
The food at Magna Roma was strange and wonderful, unlike anything I had ever tasted before.
Nicastro would wander from table to table, chatting in Italian and English. He once stood over our table telling an anecdote about one of his teachers who had dug near the Colosseum in Mussolini’s time. When the excavators reached the Flavian level, the stench made them recoil. Hundreds of animals had been buried in a pit so tightly that the decomposition had not completed. They were exotic beasts from the opening games of the Flavian amphitheatre in the spring of AD 80.
When I tweeted about the new restaurant in London, many people responded with mentions of dormice, flamingo tongues, sows udders and fish sauce. If only!
Sadly, the new restaurant in London does not have the slightest feel of ancient Rome. Their main approach is ‘hay cooked meat’ as ‘from Apicius’, but I can find no reference to hay (faenum, fenum or foenum) or straw (culmus) in Apicius. Only faenum graecum which is fenugreek, a sweet herb often used in cooking to reduce bitterness and enhance flavour. (Apicius De Re Coq V.7)
The venue of Roma London is totally modern with some fun wallpaper and prints on the wall (and misleading images of two of the Greek muses on the toilet doors!) Foods unknown to ancient Romans such as tomato and potato are happily served and the emphasis seems to be on inspiration rather than authenticity.
So while there is nothing authentically ancient about Roma London, that might be good for its success. Nicastro’s Magna Roma Restaurant opened in 2002 but closed down after only a few years.
The taste of ancient Roman food is just too strange for most people today.
Caroline Lawrence is obsessed with Ancient Rome and is currently writing The Roman Quests, a short series for kids 9+ set in Roman Britain in the final years of the Emperor Domitian.