Drop a tiger into a court-bouillon

Bee Wilson

  • The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia by Jean Bottéro, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
    Chicago, 134 pp, £16.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 226 06735 1

Who was it who invented the first black cakes
Or the uncounted poppy-seed? Who mix’d
The yellow compounds of delicious sweetmeats?

This was one of many questions asked by the poet Athenaeus in the Deipnosophists, a long series of dialogues on food and dining. If Athenaeus, who lived 1800 years ago, couldn’t, how much less equipped are we to answer questions about the way the first cooks cooked? How can we know what people ate in the past? It is hard enough to re-create a meal we had last Tuesday: ingredients are never the same, and we forget how much pepper we added; we can go back to the recipe book, if we used one, but it won’t tell us that we substituted garlic for onions, or that our children picked out all the courgettes before they ate it. At least we have a sense of what kinds of meal we are likely to eat; what our tastes are, how these compare with other tastes, and whether our budget can satisfy them. Accessing the meals of the earliest civilisations hardly seems possible.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t try. One summer, I cooked a supper of dishes adapted from the Roman recipe book of Apicius (which probably dates from sometime before the fourth century AD): a lentil dish, some eggs baked on an asparagus puree (a kind of patina) and cod cooked in a coriander-seed crust. We found it very nasty indeed. It could be that I had cooked the food badly, but this wasn’t obviously so; nothing was burned, and everything was well seasoned. It was the seasoning itself that was the trouble. Both the lentils and the asparagus puree were flavoured with rather sick-making mixtures. The lentils were swamped in honey and vinegar and rue and coriander and Thai fish sauce (a substitute for garum). The lovely green asparagus puree was tainted – it distressed me even as I was doing it – with more fish sauce, and white wine, and more bitter herbs. It is perfectly possible that the quantities of the seasonings were wrong – no quantities are given in Apicius, so I consulted Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger’s Classical Cookbook (1996) – but whatever the amount, the food would have seemed weird to our untrained stomachs. The later Romans, we thought, as we gargled with fizzy water to take the taste away, must have had very odd palates.

Then again, we have little way of knowing what Romans themselves would have thought of Apicius. In Food in the Ancient World: An A to Z, Dalby says that Apicius is useful because he confirms ‘the importance of meat and meat sauces in expensive Roman cuisine, and the use of a range of exotic and costly spices in such dishes’.[*] What Apicius can’t tell us is whether other Roman cooks would have found his advice sensible or strange. Was he more like Delia Smith or Heston Blumenthal (the chef at the Fat Duck and practitioner of molecular gastronomy)? We know that the book was used over several centuries, but we do not know how it compared with other cookbooks, such as that of Paxamus, which hasn’t survived, never mind with the food of cooks who didn’t use recipe books at all. Whoever Apicius was (and it may be that he was an amalgam of various cooks), he was very keen on ‘surprise dishes’, such as ‘whitebait tart without whitebait’ and ‘salt fish without salt fish’, which sounds more Blumenthal than Smith. And what an odd view future archaeologists would get of European food habits in 2005, if all they had to go on was the ever inventive Blumenthal, with his snail porridge, lime foam and deceptively coloured jellies (a red one tasting of orange and an orange one tasting of beetroot).

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[*] Routledge, 408 pp., £14.99, May 2003, 0 415 23259 7.

[†] Author House, 664 pp., $41.95, February 2003, 1 4033 4793 x.