Saturday 22 January 2011

The Cookery of Apicius

The name 'Apicius' is that associated with a book of Roman recipes that survives as a fourth century CE manuscript with a fifth century addendum added to it by a man known as 'Vinidaurus'. The book itself is known as the De Re Coquinaria (On Cooking).

The Apicius manuscript is the world's oldest cookery book and contains list of recipes divided into chapters, each dealing with a different subject.

The chapters themselves being:

I.     Epimeles — The Careful Chef
II.    Sarcoptes — Chopped Meats
III.   Cepuros — From the Garden
IV.   Pandecter — Various Dishes
V.    Ospreos — Legumes
VI.   Aeropetes — Fowl
VII.  Polyteles — Gourmet Dishes
VIII. Tetrapus — Quadrupeds
IX.   Thalassa — Seafood
X.    Halieus — Fish
Apici Excerpta — The Excerpts of Apicius

Who was Apicius then? The truth is that the name Apicius is shrouded in some mystery. However, the familial name Apicius seems to have been long-associated with excessively refined love of food, based on the exploits of two early Roman gourmands bearing the name.

The first of these was Marcus A. Apicius who lived about 100BCE during the time of Sulla. He was famed for the reputation of his good table even during later times. However, the Apicius that most authors focus on is Marcus Gabius Apicius (sometimes Gavisu) who lived during the times of Augustus and Tiberius (80BCE to 40CE). He is described by Athenaeus (in his Deipnosophistae), one of the chief writers of the time.

Athenaeus informs us that Apician recipes were famous and that many recipes were attributed to him. However, Apicius is not the only gourmand who has recipes attributed to them in the De Re Coquinaria. The most notable of these is Vitellius (who ruled Rome between January and June 69CE), a famous glutton. He ante-dates Apicius and it would seem that, rather than having been written by Apicius, the book was more likely dedicated to him. Indeed, 'Apicius' may even have become a short-had for anyone who enjoyed their foods. So that a dedication to 'Apicius' in the general would be one to all gourmands.

Regardless of whether Apicius truly existed or not, the cookery book bearing his name is a true treasure-trove of ancient recipe. Below, I resent a classic recipe bearing Apicius' name for what is, effectively, a lasagne-like dish of layered meats and pancakes. This comes from the fourth chapter of Apicius: Pandecter (Various Dishes), I present it here in its original Latin, in English translation and as a modern redaction that you can cook at home.

Patinam Apicianam Apician Casserole

Patinam Apicianam sic facies: frustra suminis cocti, pulpas piscium, pulpas pulli, ficetulas vel pectora turdorum cocta et quaecumque optima fuerint. haec omnia concides diligenter praeter ficetulas. ova vero cruda cum oleo dissolvis. teres piper, ligusticum, suffundes liquamen, vinum, passum, et in caccabum mittis ut calefiat, et amulo obligas. antea tamen pulpas concisas universas illuc mittes, et sic bulliat. at, ubi coctum fuerit, levabis cum iure suo et in patellam alternis de trulla refundes cum piperis grana integra et nucleis pineis, ita ut per singula coria substernas diploidem, in laganum similiter. quotquot lagana posueris, tot trullas impensae desuper adicies. unum vero laganum fistula percuties et super impones. piper asparges. ante tamen illas pulpas ovis confractis obligabis, et sic in caccabum mittes cum impensa. patellam aeneam qualem debes habere infra ostenditur.

Apician Casserole Is Made Thus: Prepare as follows: [Take] pieces of cooked sow's udder, fish fillets, chicken meats, fig-peckers or the breasts of thrushes, and whatever else is best. Chop all this, apart from the fig-peckers, carefully then stir [in] fresh eggs and olive oil. Pound pepper and lovage, moisten with liquamen, wine and passum, put in a saucepan, heat, and thicken with starch. But first add all the different meats and let them cook. [When done,] take a ladle and pour in layers into a pan [seasoning] with peppercorns and pine-nuts. Place under each layer a base of an oil cake [of flour and olive oil]. Place on each layer an ample ladleful of the meat mixture. Pierce the final oil cake with a reed stalk and set it atop the dish. Season with pepper. Before you put all these meats with the sauce into the pan you should have bound them with the eggs. The type of metal dish you should use is shown below.

To Make an Apician Casserole


For the Pancakes:
3 eggs
75g plain flour
80ml milk
80ml water
butter, for frying

For the Filling:
675g cooked firm-fleshed fish, flaked, or 675g cooked pork and/or fowl, boned and shredded
3 eggs
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 tsp lovage (or celery) seeds
500ml stock (beef, chicken or strong vegetable)
60ml white wine
60ml passum
1 tbsp cornflour
1 tsp coarsely-ground black pepper
6 tbsp pine nuts or almonds

Begin with the pancakes. Beat the eggs in bowl, and mix in the flour then beat in the milk and water until you have a smooth batter.

Heat a 20cm diameter frying pan, melt a small knob of butter and when hot add 1/6 of the batter. Spread to coat evenly and fry over high heat until browned on the base then flip over and cook on the other side. Continue this process until you have six pancakes. Stack on a plate and set aside until needed.

Prepare the fish or meat, flake or shred then combine in a bowl with the eggs, olive oil, lovage (or celery) seeds, stock, white wine and passum. Turn into a pan and heat through, adding more stock as needed. Take 1 tbsp cornflour and mix to a slurry with water. Add this slurry to the meat mix and cook gently until thickened then take off the heat. Now mix the nuts and black pepper in a bowl and set aside.

Take a 20cm diameter oven-proof dish and place a layer of the meat mix on the base. Top with a pancake and season with a little of the pine nut and pepper mix. Continue this layering process, until all the meat mix and the pancakes have been used, making certain that you finish with a pancake.

Make a hole in the top pancake to allow steam to escape then transfer to an oven pre-heated to 180°C and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until heated through.

Serve hot, sprinkled with cracked black pepper.

For more information on Apicius and the cookery book attributed to him, see this page on Apicius and the De Re Coquinaria (On Cooking).
If you would like to try more Roman recipes, then here you will find hundreds of Roman recipes for the modern cook.
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