Thursday, September 1, 2011

Guest Post - Eromenos author Melanie McDonald with Food and Feasts in Ancient Rome

Today I am excited to welcome Melanie McDonald to One Book Shy.  She is currently on tour with her new historical fiction "Eromenos".

Melanie is stopping by today to talk to us about one of my favorite topics:  Food!  
Take it away Melanie...

Food and Feasts in Ancient Rome
By Melanie McDonald

Julie, thank you so much for hosting me today at One Book Shy of a Full Shelf!

One of the most fascinating research topics for Eromenos involved food: What foods were available, how those foods were prepared, and how members of the imperial court ate, especially in comparison with the citizens in the street—all of this gastronomic information provided insight into what daily life was like in second-century Rome.

The Roman Empire had attained its zenith of wealth and power during the reign of Hadrian, the fourteenth emperor, and the Roman marketplace reflected this wide-flung dominion in the range and price of delicacies to be found in the stalls of Trajan’s Forum, including cheeses, olives and olive oil, herbs, fruits, nuts, honey, wine, fish sauce, fresh fish, smoked and dried fish, eels, shellfish, poultry, game, meats, sausages, and fresh baked bread. (Egypt served as the source of Imperial Rome’s breadbasket, providing about eight tons of grain per week to meet the Empire’s needs.)

Then there were the exotic spices, used not only to enhance cooking but also to provide fragrance for luxury products such as perfumes and scented hair pomades, that were brought to Rome by spice merchants who already had established a spice route to and from Asia and the East: frankincense, myrrh, ginger, turmeric, cloves, camphor, sandalwood, cardamom, sesame, cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper.

  Imperial feasts, often underwritten by rich citizens who hoped to gain favor with the emperor, might include such exotic fare as hummingbirds, thrush tongues, dormice (often honey-roasted), caviar, crayfish, snails, oysters, eels, wild game, and exotic, expensive fruits and vegetables such as peaches and artichokes. Fine wines, such as Falernian, often were served chilled, via snow brought from distant mountains at great expense to the banquet sponsors for just that purpose.

Hadrian himself, however, often passed on rich fare in order to dine more simply on grilled fish or lamb with olives and bread, such as he had eaten as a soldier.

The citizens, too, ate simpler fare. For the average citizen, a soup made with day-old bread stewed with beans and grain and topped with olive oil and herbs (a recipe that sounds quite similar to ribollita, a hearty soup still made in Italy) would have been a common daily ration. Although they did without modern conveniences such as gas and electric ranges and refrigeration, they still found many ways to both prepare and preserve their foods (meat, for example, might be salted, or even preserved by full immersion in honey).

A Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius, a gourmet who lived during the first century AD, survives today in various Latin, German, Italian and English translations, and now is available to the public online as an ebook, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. 
Here, just for fun, is one of the ancient Roman fish recipes still preserved in its pages:

PATINA EX SOLEIS (Sole in White Wine)

A dish of sole is thus made: Beat the sole prepare and place them in a [shallow] sauce pan, add oil, broth and wine, and poach them thus; now crush pepper, lovage, origany and add of the fish juice; then bind the sauce with raw eggs [yolks] to make a good creamy sauce of it; strain this over the sole, heat all on a slow fire [to fill it with live heat] sprinkle with pepper and serve.

(From Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome, Apicius; translator Joseph Dommers Vehling; commentator Prof. Frederick Starr; Project Gutenberg EBook #29728)

Melanie, thank you so much for this fascinating post.  It's funny that you chose to discuss the food ~ one of the things that really grabbed my attention in Eromenos was their feasts and choices of foods.  I actually mention it in my review!  I'm also tickled that you tried out the Basil and Beer Bread recipe; it's one of my favorites and I'm glad you enjoyed it too.

Readers:  be sure to check out Melanie's website and find her on Facebook.  I will be back on Monday with my review and it is quite possible there will be a GIVEAWAY....hint hint

You can also read what others on the tour have to say about this original and entertaining story by visiting the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours site.


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