Pliny the Elder, the ancient Roman author, and naturalist, who also served as a naval and army commander, lived during the incredible period when the Roman Empire was emerging as a global power, circa 1st century AD. This ambit of ‘globalization’ could be discerned from the ever evolving Roman cuisine and eating habits, which by Pliny’s time at least encompassed a whopping 30 different kinds of olive oil and 40 varieties of pear and figs, many of which were imported from the Eastern and African provinces.
Suffice it to say, the very subject of Roman food, like many of its ancient contemporaries, is vast and varied. However, like most cultures of the world, the Romans basically had three meals in a day, with various food items served up during different times of the day. YouTuber extraordinaire Metatron has aptly presented this scope of Roman eating habits that happened over the daily course, with their meals being ‘roughly’ grouped into equivalents of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The main topic starts from the 1:38-minute mark in the video –
Isicia Omentata – the precursor to the burger patty
While the video does a great job of explaining the major Roman meals, it doesn’t specifically cover the subject of particular food items that were popular during the time. To that end, the Isicia Omentata, a Roman dish that was possibly developed by the late period of the Roman Empire, circa 4th century AD, pertained to the iconic beef patty. The recipe, still surviving in the extant ancient Roman cookbook Apicius collection (or De Re Coquinaria, meaning ‘On the Subject of Cooking’), called for mixing the minced beef meat with condiments, pine nuts, white wine, and the famous garum fish sauce, and cooking the resultant patties over open fire. This is what food historian Dr. Annie Gray had to say about the popularity of this upscale dish –
We all know that the Romans left a huge mark on Britain, fundamentally altering the British diet forever. Street food became available en masse, and many of our favorite foods were introduced, including Isicia Omentata, what can be seen as the Roman forefather to today’s burger. This ‘burger’ was decidedly more upmarket than many of today’s offerings and is richer and more complex than the plain beef version most common today.
Garum the Greek –
We fleetingly mentioned the famous garum fish sauce in the previous paragraph. But interestingly enough while garum is mostly associated with the Roman cuisine, the origins of the fermented fish sauce hark back to the ancient Greeks, circa 4th – 3rd century BC. In fact, the very Latin term garum was derived by Pliny the Elder from the Greek word garos, which might have referred to a fish or a fish sauce similar to the later Roman condiment.
To that end, the earlier iterations of the fish sauce might have entailed the combination of the fish innards and blood with salt, which was then fermented to result in a thick paste like consistency (with salt crystals) that emanated a pungent smell. This fermented concoction, which might seem offensive to our modern sense of palatability, had chock-full of nutrients, including protein, minerals, and the natural amino acid monosodium glutamate that offered a umami flavor (like soy sauce).
The Romans later ‘modified’ the fish sauce into a condiment known as liquamen, which according to some historians called for the fermentation of the entire fish (with herbs, flavorings, and salt), instead of just its innards. In any case, by 4th century AD, liquamen (or garum) became extremely popular across the ancient Roman Empire – so much so that it might have contributed to the rise of tapeworm parasites inside hosts. The Apicius cookbook contains several recipes that require liquamen or garum for enhancing the flavor. And Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino stated –
According [to] the Roman writers, a good bottle of garum could cost something like $500 of today. But you can also have garum for slaves that is extremely cheap. So it is exactly like wine.
In any case, if one is interested in the upscale banquet-style recipes of the ancient Roman Empire, he can take a gander at the following video from Timeline – World History Documentaries. As the creators made it clear –
The Roman empire was a time of power and brutality, fuelled by violent games and bloodbaths. However, it was also abundant in refinement and extreme sensuality. Food and cooking were a key indicator of success, with quality and abundance of dishes the primary measure. As the first and largest European civilization, Rome was at the epicenter of culinary innovation, with an acute emphasis on vegetables, meat, and spices.