09/04/07 - roman cuisine

In today's excerpt - exotic cuisine becomes a craze among the rich in newly wealthy Rome, circa 60 BC:

"Back in the virtuous, homespun days of the early [Roman] Republic ... the cook 'had been the least valuable of slaves', but no sooner had the Romans come into contact with the fleshpots of the East than 'he began to be highly prized, and what had been a mere function instead came to be regarded as high art.' In a city awash with new money and with no tradition of big spending, cookery had rapidly become an all-consuming craze. Not only cooks but ever more exotic ingredients had been brought into Rome on a ceaseless flood of gold. To those who upheld the traditional values of the Republic, this mania threatened a ruin that was as much moral as financial. The Senate, alarmed, had accordingly attempted to restrain it. As early as 169 [BC], the serving of dormice at dinner parties had been banned, and later Sulla himself ... had rushed through similar laws in favor of cheap, homely fare. All mere dams of sand. Faddishness swept all before it. Increasingly, millionaires were tempted to join their cooks in the kitchens, trying out their own recipes, sampling ever more outlandish dishes. This was the crest of the [Roman oyster fad], but oysters did not lack for rivals in the culinary stakes. Scallops, fatted hares, the vulvas of sows all came suddenly and wildly into vogue, and all for the same reason: for, in the softness of a flesh that threatened rapid putrescence yet still retained its succulence, the Roman food snob took an ecstatic joy. ...

"A favorite affectation was to build couches in a villa's fruit store. ... Most treasured, most relished, most savored of all, were fish. So it had always been. The Romans had been stocking lakes with spawn for as long as their city had been standing. ... Freshwater fish, however, because so much easier to catch, were far less prized than species found only in the sea—and as Roman gastronomy grew ever more exotic, so these became the focus of intensest desire. Rather than remain dependent on tradesmen for their supply of turbot or eel, the super-rich began to construct saltwater ponds. Naturally, the prodigious expense required to maintain these only added to their appeal. ...

"The craze reached epidemic proportions. Hortensius ... as one of his friends commented wonderingly, 'You would sooner get him to let you take his carriage-mules from his stable and keep them, than [let you] remove a bearded mullet from his fish-pond.' In pisciculture, as in every other form of extravagance, however, it was Lucullus who set the most dazzling standards of notoriety. His fishponds were universally acknowledged to be wonders and scandals of the age. To keep them supplied with saltwater, he had tunnels driven through mountains, and to regulate the cooling effect of the tides, groynes [sea walls] built far out into the sea. ... 'Piscinarii' Cicero called Lucullus and Hortensius—'fish fanciers.' It was a word coined half in contempt and half in despair."


Tom Holland


Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic


First Anchor Books Edition, March 2005


Copyright 2003 by Tom Holland


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