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Stuffed thrush with rotted fish-guts, anyone?

February 11, 2013

(I’m guessing that if you’ve got past the title of this piece, you have the sort of constitution that will cope with the rest. You have been warned!)

Mosaic from Nimes  showing birds and wine amphora

Mosaic from Nimes

 “Say the word and he’ll produce a fish out of a sow’s belly, a pigeon out of the lard, a turtle dove out of the ham, and a fowl out of the knuckle.”*

In the light of Trimalchio’s boast about his cook, I’ve been consulting one or two ancient sources to see if the entrepreneurs who’ve sold us horsemeat masquerading as beef might find inspiration for some new offerings.

It’s fairly well known that a trip back to the classical world yields some unusual birds for the table –  ostrich, crane, flamingo, peacock… but there aren’t really enough of these in western  Europe to do anything on an industrial scale. The substitution of bear steaks for wild boar doesn’t work for similar reasons, even though they allegedly taste the same.

I don’t think we want to talk about eating dormice, or flower bulbs, or electric rays, even when deep-fried with chips, but snails might be a bulk option. They must be relatively easy to collect and fatten up in milk. Transport costs would be minimal because, thanks to the Romans, we already have the right variety living here. I’m not sure how they could be disguised as something with universal appeal – they certainly don’t appeal to me – but doubtless somebody out there can fix it.

Grape juice fermenting in large open jar

Fermentation, Roman-style

While we’re on the subject of reducing costs, owners of vineyards near the coast might like to add some seawater while making the wine. Lovely. And of course if it’s too dry, they can sweeten it with a little grape must, boiled up in lead pans.

Grapes on vine

Nowhere in Apicius’s famous cookbook did I find any mention of eating horses, but I did find evidence for the ongoing struggle between producers and consumers. Along with handy tips on how to restore fish sauce which is smelling even worse than usual**, how to clear cloudy wine and how to produce something that “everybody will think is Liburnican oil” is a tip for rescuing tainted honey. Apparently if you mix one part of tainted honey with two parts of good, you will make it “good for sale.” And how do you know whether you have tainted honey? Put a wick in it and light it. If it burns, all well and good. If it doesn’t… well, you know what to do.

Mosaic from Nimes showing fish,  fancy cups and flagon

All of which calls to mind the menu at one of our local restaurants, which proudly offered an exotic-sounding dish followed by the words,  “Enjoy it first – then ask how it is made.”

* The Satyricon, Book XV, 70

**Hard to imagine, as it was made from fermented fish-guts.

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4 comments

  1. Ick! I wouldn’t have made a good Roman! Of course, I’m sure the poorer classes didn’t eat all this disgusting stuff. Hopefully, they ate lots of lentils! :) Just finished Semper Fidelis, BTW. And, when is the next Ruso/Tilla adventure coming out? I’m addicted!


    • Hi Leah, I think lentils would have been both likelier and preferable – although oysters do seem to have been consumed in vast quantities. Yuck. And there was always cabbage, which was said to be very good for one’s health.

      As for the next adventure… er, excuse me, I’ll just go and get on with it…


  2. I’ve tried what is supposed to be Roman wine, i am sure that with the cloves and spices added disreputable owners of wine shops were up to all sorts.

    They had no substitute for tea and coffee though, much to our Ruso’s regret with his hours i imagine.


    • Hi Nick,
      Yes we’ve tried Roman wine too (that’s Husband and Self, not the royal ‘we’) and it was fine. But I think they’d left out the lead and seawater. Hard to imagine managing with no caffeine, though – not just for doctors but for writers. Somebody should look up the correlation between the importing of caffeine and the rise of the full-length novel…



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