Another Roman Contribution to the World? Fusion Cuisine

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris

For instructions on make cheese at home as the Gauls did, click here.

When it came to dining, the Roman elite were a little bit over the top. They ate their meals on finely-crafted silver plates depicting epic battles from the Trojan War and drank from cups ornamented with hedonistic deities at play. But what foods did the Romans actually eat and drink more than two millennia ago?

A priceless collection of jugs, plates, and other ornamental objects found in a Normandy village in 1830 are now on display outside of France for the first time in the exhibition "Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville" at the Getty Villa until August 17th. To give the pieces some context, art and food historian Nancy DeLucia Real hosts another fascinating cooking workshop on July 23 (and repeating on July 24), this time preparing dishes that were the fusion of its time -- the merging of Gaul and Roman foods in modern-day France.

She'll demonstrate how to get back to the "basic, healthy foods of Roman Gaul" and make delicacies like breads, cheeses, beets with mustard, root vegetables with cumin, peas with bacon and leeks, pastries with honey, and the Julien stew named after Caesar.

"I hope you're hungry," she says.

Real also shares a cheese recipe that would have been eaten at the time. Here's what else she had to say about how the people of Roman Gaul ate.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris

How did you begin to research what people in Gaul (pre-France) ate?

Nancy DeLucia Real: I was intrigued by the history, art, and traditions of the Gallic Celtic tribes who inhabited lands of modern-day France. In the 4th to 2nd centuries BCE, Gaul had a widespread urban fabric and was quite prosperous. Among other things, the Gauls were skilled in metallurgy -- they used bronze, silver, and gold to create swords, helmets and other products with highly-decorative patterns. When Rome conquered Gaul in the 2nd century BCE, succulent foods were enjoyed by both cultures that had merged into one. Of course, I became curious about favorite foods enjoyed by the Gallo-Romans.

What were the Gauls eating prior to Roman invasion and settlement?

Real: Throughout history, bread has always been an integral part of the French diet. Since ancient Gaul was an agricultural region, people used to prepare flat cakes of millet, barley, oats and wheat. They were skilled hunters -- they ate game, poultry and pork, the fat of which was used to add flavor to other culinary preparations. Due to an abundance of herds of wild pigs in forests, the Gauls perfected the art of preserving meat by salting and smoking. Butchers known as lardarii exported their fine pork to Rome. Foods were washed down with cervoise (barley beer) -- this reminds me of the Spanish term for beer, cerveza. Centuries earlier, the Greeks had introduced vines into Gaul and Marseilles imported wine from Italy.

Did the Romans "civilize" the Gauls in terms of food/table manners or was it the other way around?

Real: I'll respond to this question by recounting that a Greek writer described the Gauls as "brave, strong, talented, adaptable, living in a land rich and well-watered, a constant temptation to the conqueror." With their refined habits and great cookery, the Romans exerted much influence on the Gauls from the 1st century onwards, especially on the wealthy classes. The foods of Apicius's De re conquinaria (a 4th-century collection of Roman recipes) were introduced and passed on until the Middle Ages. Prior to being conquered by Rome, the Gauls enjoyed their meals seated around the table. Later, Gallo-Roman noblemen reclined on couches as they dined. Which dining practice is more civilized?

What are some dishes that we think of as traditionally French but came from the Romans?

Real: Many foods of modern-day French fare is rooted in the Roman culinary tradition. Some of these are terrine which is a French forcemeat loaf with chopped ingredients that is similar to paté. Its ancestor is a delicacy known as patina, a custard-like baked mixture of savory ingredients such as meat, chicken, fish, herbs, olive oil, nuts, and wine. Sometimes a patina could be made with fruit.

Romans also produced the flatbread known as focaccia or fougasse, a specialty of Provence (Rome's first province, founded in 123 BCE). Finally, Bouillabaise is a fish stew which originated in Marseille in 600 BCE while peas and leeks derive from ancient Rome.

You'll be visiting the Getty Herb Garden with your participants -- what kinds of herbs did Romans use? What are some other common ingredients that were available at the time?

Real: The Getty herb garden is representative of a Roman villa's garden. In Antiquity, herbs and plants were used for culinary, medicinal, aesthetic, and romantic enhancement. For example, Romans used bay laurel, celery, mint, oregano, and parsley in meat, fish, and poultry dishes. Soldiers and Roman gladiators received parsley compresses before combat -- they believed their courage and strength would be redoubled. Anise, fennel, and celery yielded oil used for burns and sores, thereby producing a cooling comfort. Mustard seeds were used in sauces (Romans served most meats in sauces). Olives and olive oil were indispensable to Roman cuisine. The oil was also used for lamps and bathing (it was aromatized with floral elements). Pomegranates, quince, pears, lemons, grapes, figs, plums, and apples were also part of a villa's garden. It was believed that the juice from pomegranate blossoms could help firm a woman's breasts and celery possessed a powerful force used to seduce a loved one.


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Can you break down what foods different classes ate?

Real: At banquets, members of Gallo-Roman nobility were served beef, mutton, lamb, game, fowl, seafood, pork, and dormice (rodents) -- the pièces de résistance of an elite meal. Imported and costly spices such as cumin, coriander, saffron, cinnamon, and pepper enhanced the flavors of foods and were linked to the wealthy classes. In this vein, garum, an expensive condiment made with fermented fish, was added to most dishes, together with honey. On villa farms, cereals and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and peas abounded. Vegetables such as cabbage, squash, carrots, parsnips, beets, lettuce, peas, and leeks were prepared according to the recipes in Apicius's "De re coquinaria." Eggs were served in a variety of ways, while milk from sheep and goats was used to make specialty cheese, including regional smoked cheese. The gastronomic repertoire of a Roman banquet included fruit such as grapes, apples, pomegranates, assorted nuts, preserved fruit, and honey.

However, most Romans were sustained by grains and legumes. While breads for the upper classes were made with white flour, peasants, soldiers, slaves, and gladiators ate breads made with oat, millet, and spelt flour. The latter were considered to be of inferior quality. When Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, he served a stew to his soldiers that was later named after him -- pultes Iulianae or Julian stew. It was made with two kinds of ground meat, spelt, fennel seeds, black pepper, and a wine reduction. Sounds delish, right?

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris

The pieces shown at the Getty are opulent pieces. What did ordinary citizens use? 

Real: In contrast to the extravagant banquet vessels we will tour in the exhibition, the common folk used clay vessels.

What's the most surprising discovery for you about Gallo-Roman food?

Real: Where their ancestors (the Gauls) cooked with pork fat, the Gallo-Romans cooked in olive oil. I'm surprised that, after over two thousand years, exquisite French food still incorporates these traditional ingredients.

My best discovery in all this research is that the Gauls realized that wine kept longer if stored in oak barrels -- they invented this practice. Romans stored wine in ceramic vessels called amphorae. And finally, to the detriment of Rome, fine wines from Gaul were exported to countries all over the Mediterranean. By AD 92, Emperor Domitian ordered half the vineyards of Gaul to be destroyed. This makes me appreciate French wines even more.



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