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An ancient Roman dish recreated

"the food depicted was focaccia, fruit and a goblet of wine, collectively known as xenia, hospitable offerings to guests – a Greek tradition adopted by the Romans, the ancient equivalent of tea, biscuits and giving visitors the comfy part of the sofa." Rachel Roddy

The wall painting above is a very recent discovery - late June, early July - in Pompeii, and I have to say that I am constantly amazed at how modern the Roman paintings look. How accomplished. I am also constantly amazed at how much more there is to excavate at all of these ancient sites, and I wonder how many more wonderful things they will find. I also have to say that generally speaking it's the paintings and mosaics that do it for me. Yes the grand buildings and structures are awe-inspiring but they are not as beautiful as the pictures. Not as everyday and relatable I suppose.

I had a brief search of Google's images to see if I could find anything similar and indeed I could - this one is from Herculaneum and it seems to me that it may well be the same kind of thing, although the vessel for the fruit is more obviously a tray. Still the glass of wine though - and even back then the artist has captured glass. How wonderful is that?

Looking at this I also wonder whether everybody's interpretation of the 'focaccia or pizza' as something with a bread-like base, could in fact, just be a terra cotta tray. Although I suppose there is a definite larger tray. Maybe Rachel Roddy had read all those other articles that were talking about pizza. Anyway I'm sure, to a professional cook that it would have been a fun challenge to try to reproduce the scene. Because that's what she did.

The lady lives in Rome where she presumably has a well-equipped kitchen, but at the time she was in Le Marche and not so well-equipped. She was however in the company of a baking friend and so the two of them, following the learned advice of a professor specialising in grains, decided to have a go - using either emmer or einkorn - the two most ancient grains known to man - and becoming increasingly popular today. You won't find them in your supermarket, but you might find them in your health food store. Although I have just learnt that farro - which you can find in the supermarket, is a collective name for einkorn, emmer and spelt. So maybe not so hard to find after all. In the end they:

"found a solution in Francesco Maria Amato’s book on cooking in ancient Rome, and a first-century recipe called artelaganus, which we turned into 300g flour, six tbsp sparkling wine, six tbsp milk, three tbsp olive oil."

They felt they really should have had some sourdough starter, but had a go anyway. Alas it didn't rise, and so they made it into the shape of small round bowl and cooked it on high heat - as you would a pizza. It didn't turn out much like focaccia or pizza, but I guess it's its own thing.

"When we finally cut into it, its texture was like a biscuit crossed with dense bread and crackers. But because the flour was wonderful, so was the taste, and it was great with soft cheese, dates and spice." Rachel Roddy

Then they made a pesto:

"As for the pesto, we took the professor’s advice and phoned a friend who consulted Columella, a prolific first-century writer on agriculture, incorporating recipes, including several for moretum, with combinations of sheep’s cheese, parsley, mint and spring onion, pepper, vinegar, oil, sesame seeds, pine nuts, hazelnuts, almond, honey, coriander seeds, anchovy and celery. I pounded 100g of cheese with a tbsp of pine nuts, a small handful of parsley and mint, garlic and enough oil to keep it soft – like pesto mixed with cacio e pepe and extremely good."

Fruit and nuts were the final thing - walnuts, dates and pomegranate in this case.

In lots of ways not so very different from a kind of mezze we might serve today, although possibly a softer kind of dough might be better. And she forgot to put the soft cheese in the picture too. And the wine!

Interesting don't you think? Now I will go and make some scones, or something similar to go with our reheated soup. Not at all the same thing really, but never mind.


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