Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ancient Olympians on the Atkins Diet (776 BC)

Ancient Olympians on the Atkins Diet (776 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007
The ancient training grounds at Olympia.]
While the modern-day Olympics have certainly changed since their inception in 776 BC, one thing has certainly remained the same: all athletes, past and present, have been concerned with their diet. An athlete’s mealtime can make or break his performance, which the ancient Greeks were well aware of. In fact, food historians are realizing that the diet of the first Olympians wasn’t that far off from what people in the 21st century would identify with the popular “Atkins” diet!
There are a wealth of Greek and Latin texts, such as The Deipnosophists – or in English,The Philosopher’s Banquet – which is a 15-volume tale of a long feast that was written around 200 AD, wherein food origins and quality are discussed at length. This tale, written by a Greek named Athenaeus, centers around a banquet where diners talk extensively about all different kinds of food and where it came from – and not only that, but each character provides the ancient literary source for their own words! Essentially, it’s an ancient document wherein the characters talk about food using quotes from other real, ancient documents.
Unfortunately, out of the 1,500 documents that were cited in the work, only 15 still survive. Still, these documents provide valuable insight into ancient Mediterranean cuisine and how it was prepared.
For most people, a regular diet would consist of items like bread, fruit, and vegetables, while fish was the primary meat source for an average citizen. But Olympians, who typically came from the upper social classes in ancient Greece, had families who could afford to feed their children heartier meats and other protein-rich foods that helped to condition and build muscle.
Ancient Olympians ate a lot of meat… too bad they didn’t have BBQs.
Although the earliest reports of Olympic diets seemed to center around eating mostly cheese and fruit, the focus was shifted toward meat somewhere along the way. Apparently, this happened after one ancient Olympic runner won multiple competitions after eating a meat-only diet – which naturally started a copycat craze. The athletes were also advised to avoid eating bread right before their competition, and to snack instead on dried figs.
The Deipnosophists also includes this intriguing tale about a wrestler named Milon of Croton, who is recorded to have attended six different Olympic games and won competitions at each one:
“Milon of Croton used to eat 20 pounds of meat and as many of bread, and he drank 3 pitchers of wine. And at Olympia he put a four-year-old bull on his shoulders and carried it around the stadium; after which, he cut it up and ate it all alone in a single day.”
– Theodorus of Hierapolis’ “On Athletic Contests”, cited by Athenaeus.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sweet Wine Cakes

For our Best Fest celebration, I made Sweet Wine Cakes, from Cato's De Agricola. 

  • 1lb (500g) wholemeal bread flour
  • 2oz (50g) lard
  • 1oz (25g) grated cheese
  • Must: either grape juice and yeast or partially fermented Lambrusco (I used sweet sherry)
  • Aniseed
  • Ground cumin
  • Bay leaves

Rub the lard into the flour. Stir in the grated cheese, aniseed and cumin. Try 1 teaspoon each of the spices at first but increase the amount for a more highly flavoured dough. Personally, I like these cakes highly spiced and use at least 1 dessertspoon aniseed and 1-2 tablespoons cumin. Make a well in the flour.

When the dough has risen, knead well. The wine dough, in particular, will need a lot of extra flour kneading in. Cut and shape portions of the kneaded dough to a suitable size to fit each one on a bay leaf.
Bake in a heated oven at 450F. The time will depend on the size of your bay leaves and, therefore, the size of your wine cakes. I suggest you check small cakes at 10-15 minutes, larger ones may need 20-30 minutes.

For the finishing touch, I topped each one with an almond slice. This made a great addition, as the almonds got toasted, and the roasted almond taste went well with the spice of the cakes. 
The cakes were relatively successful. They tasted much like scones that you get at the coffee shop, but with a weird cumin taste to it. The anise didn't really come through, because I used very little of it. I'm not a big fan of anise. They were dry, and crumbly. The bay leaves added a nice touch. I tried eating one with the bay leaf still in it, and one without. The bayleaf was kind of crunchy, but still pleasant. Either way, the aroma of the bay leaf permeated the cakes to give them a delightful spicy taste. 
I served these up at the Meet & Greet where we got to meet Dr. Betini. I hope you got to try one! 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

1,800-Year-Old Roman Multitool

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, it turns out that back somewhere between A.D 201 to 300, a clever Roman, probably named MacGyvericus, invented the multitool. And not just some weird, old-fashioned multitool, either. MacGyvericus’ tool is startlingly similar to the modern Swiss Army Knife, now part of the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.

Like the common Swiss tool, the Roman version has a lot of foldaway implements stowed inside: a knife, spike, pick, fork and a spatula. Unlike the modern-day equivalent, the Roman Army Knife has a useful spoon on the end, making it likely that this iron and silver artifact, found in somewhere in the Mediterranean countries, was meant for eating with.

Sure, they invaded and occupied my home country and occupied it for years, but they brought with them central heating and civilization, two things that England lacked back then. When the Romans left, the country slipped back into dark times, where it became insular and xenophobic, and it remains so today. At least, though, the cold and rainy nation still has central heating and folding knives, although the latter is now used primarily by gangs of marauding teenagers as they roam the rainy twilight streets in search of old people to stab.

Past the ‘Best Before’ Date (ca. 400 BC)

Past the ‘Best Before’ Date (ca. 400 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007
Remnants of from ancient salad dressing found at the bottom of the Mediterranean is probably well past its due date, though it shares many common characteristics with today’s oregano-based dressings.A 2,400-year-old shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean sea contained a rather tasty surprise – DNA testing on the insides of some of the amphorae yielded a recipe for Greek salad dressing! The shipwreck currently lies 70 meters deep, and is located about a kilometer away from Chios.

Scientists were able to obtain samples of the ancient dressing after sending several underwater robots down to the shipwreck to collect two of the jars. Amphorae were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to transport liquids and other commodities – things like wine, oil, spices, grain, or olives – and are shaped like large cones. Since they’re made out of earthenware pottery, they have an incredible lifespan, preserving for hundreds of thousands of years, even underwater!
Studies on amphorae from shipwrecks often help to reveal the country of origin of the ship and how old it was, and it isn’t unusual for the jars to often still contain remains of their original contents – finds like this have helped to dramatically increase the amount of information available on trade in the ancient Mediterranean.
The amphorae from Chios were normally shaped like this, and held all varieties of trade items, from wine, to grain, to oregano-flavored olive oil!The DNA contents of the amphorae from this shipwreck revealed several common yet interesting ingredients: the jars contained olive oil mixed with oregano. This came as a bit of a surprise to archaeologists, since the island the ship had left from was a major exporter of fine wines – it had been assumed that any ship leaving Chios would have held plenty of amphorae full of wine.
While further investigations revealed that another amphora from the ship likely contained wine – which means there was probably plenty aboard – the oregano-flavored oil seems to have been the primary trade item on this vessel, making up at least two-thirds of the 350 amphorae found on the ship.
It’s likely that strong winds developed soon after the ship left port, causing it to capsize without warning. It is fairly common for the area around Chios to develop sudden storms or fluke winds that are exceedingly dangerous for sailing, however since they are unpredictable, sailors couldn’t simply not leave port for sake of potential trouble.
Olive oil in a modern storage jar.
As a result, it turns out that not only did the ancient Greeks like their salad dressing, but the island of Chios was responsible for a more diverse agricultural program than previously assumed. These people certainly knew what they were doing, as well – in the rural areas of modern Greece, the older women are well aware that adding oregano and other spices to oil helps not only to increase the flavor, but also to preserve the life of the oil much longer.
By exporting flavored oil with an intentional longer lifespan, it’s possible that this ancient preservation method accidentally helped to preserve the oil’s DNA for archaeologists to find two thousand years later.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pass the Caesar Salad, Please… (ca. 264 BC – 440 AD)

Salve! Spartacurtus ibi! 

I found this in another blog about the diets of gladiators. 
I thought it'd be a useful addition to our blog. 

Pass the Caesar Salad, Please… (ca. 264 BC – 440 AD)

Previously, we brought you a story about a gladiator graveyard recently discovered at the site of the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey. Now, it appears that forensic analysis of 70 gladiator skeletons has revealed some startling news about gladiator lifestyles – or rather, what they ate during their lives as gladiators.

Instead of conforming to the modern media image of gladiators as muscle-bound Playboys, gladiators in ancient Rome were actually overweight vegetarians – strong and muscular, yes, but with more than a little extra pudge around the middle. Using a method known as elementary microanalysis, palaeoanthropologists were able to determine that ancient gladiators lived off a diet that consisted mainly of barley, beans, and dried fruit.
A simple diet such as this, while increasing bone density and actually allowing the gladiators to become much stronger than normal, would result in a zinc deficiency, causing an imbalance in the gladiator’s internal chemistry. There would be too much of a natural chemical called strontium built up in the body, which would result in the gladiator becoming – rather literally – fat.
Why was this beneficial? Primarily, these layers of fat would have helped to protect their vital organs against piercing blows from opponents. It may have also helped them to heal much more quickly after being injured. Considering that most gladiators only survived for an average of three years in the ring, it was likely the case that gladiators “beefed up” during the fighting seasons and training, and then lost the weight soon after retirement (if they survived that long).
So, as much as Hollywood would like everyone to believe that gladiators were poster boys for fitness, the truth of the matter is that even though they were incredibly strong and relatively attractive men – in fact, unattractive men weren’t even considered for gladiatorial training – they were actually relatively overweight, moreso resembling lightweight sumo wrestlers than Russell Crowe’s movie-gladiator Maximus.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Too many designations in the kitchen

Too many designations in the kitchen

At first blush, the UNESCO project for culinary heritage seems a good thing. On closer examination, it's plagued with problems, not the least of which is the very possibility of preserving cuisines.

This month, UNESCO is expected to designate for the first time one or more of the world's culinary traditions as an "intangible cultural heritage." The cultural category, established in 2003 as a supplement to the better-known category of "tangible heritage" (castles, cities, landscapes), was created to protect traditions in the developing world by encouraging tourism. Already the tango, Croatian lace-making and Sardinian pastoral songs have been chosen.
This year the leading culinary contenders — both repeat applicants — appear to be Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco for the "Mediterranean diet," and Mexico for the indigenous cuisine of certain villages in the state of Michoacan. If UNESCO finally gives food the official heritage nod, it's likely that other organizations will follow its lead and make their own designations.
Should we cheer? Perhaps. It's good to see credit going to cooks who imbue a place with its identity, to make explicit what we all know — that cuisine is more than just ingredients and processes protected by denominations of origin; it's the totality of the eating tradition. And if recognition boosts tourism, which is what the heritage industry is all about, then that's good too.
At first blush, the UNESCO project for culinary heritage seems so self-evidently a good thing that only a grinch could grumble. On closer examination, though, it's plagued with problems, not the least of which is the very possibility of preserving cuisines.
Take the cuisines of the Mediterranean. In prehistory, these were based on barley bread and porridge. In the Roman Empire, the cuisine changed to one based on wheat bread, fish sauce and salted meats and cheeses. With the spread of Christianity and Islam, the cuisines north and south of the sea diverged, with Christians emphasizing pork, lard and fish, and Muslims eschewing pork and wine and favoring sheep fat. In the 18th century, tomatoes began creeping into the diet and low-acid olive oil became popular among the upper classes. A century later, new national cuisines were created as Italy was unified and the Ottoman Empire broke up. That there was something called a "Mediterranean diet" that unified these changing, competing cuisines was given currency only in 1975. Its originator was an American scientist, Ancel Keys (developer of the balanced ration for soldiers in World War II, named K-rations in his honor), who published a book with his wife, Margaret, titled "How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way."
A similar process applies to the corn, beans and chilies that the Conservatorio de la Cultura Gastronómica Mexicana, the group promoting Mexican cuisine to UNESCO, identifies as the unchanging foundations of Mexican cuisine from its pre-Hispanic past. Yet the people in the territory that is now Mexico have been eating bread, noodles and rice for about 500 years, and their signature dish — mole — has roots in the Islamic cuisine of medieval Spain. To exclude these contributions to Mexican culinary heritage is to write out much of the country's history and many of its people. To try to freeze the cuisines in time is like commanding the tide to stand still.
Even if it were possible to stem the tide of culinary change, it's not clear it would be desirable. People change their diets for good reasons, including access to new ingredients and technologies, the appeal of variety and improved nutrition.
In the Roman Empire, people shifted from barley to wheat because they preferred raised bread to barley bannocks. Centuries later, tomatoes and dried pasta opened up a world of quick sauces and a delicious, near-instant staple with a long shelf life. New techniques make kitchen life less laborious as well. Grinding wet corn for tortillas the traditional way — on the knees, pushing stone across stone — was five hours of exhausting, arthritis-inducing hard labor for Mexican village women. Only in recent generations have electric mills and instant mixes relieved women of this drudgery. Mexican women agree with critics who protest that the tortillas do not taste as good. But the choice is worth it, they argue, because they can spend more time with their children, make crafts for sale or take a job so their children can stay in school. Why should they be denied that option? Let's record and remember their labor, not preserve it.
Compounding the problems of viability and desirability that dog the UNESCO project is the fog that obscures how culinary traditions are to be selected, adjudicated, administered and monitored. Candidates seem to be picked by lobbying groups. They apparently choose the projects, get permission from the chosen community and endorsements from their national governments, and then deliver the paperwork to UNESCO. Who funds this and why is obscure.
Then a committee in Paris chosen from member states, expert or not in culinary matters, judges the proposal. In a recent article, the Economist called for the annual meetings of the older World Heritage program, including the proposals and the constitution of the committee, to be thrown open to the public. Surely this should apply to the intangible heritage program as well.
So what seems at first to be a careful selection of some of the world's greatest culinary traditions turns out on inspection to be a process of dubious intellectual worth, clouded and probably politicized decision-making, and poised to become marshaled in support of a knee-jerk nationalism. UNESCO's program is just the latest in a series of efforts to give form and shape to a pervasive culinary nostalgia, the disquieting feeling that somewhere, sometime, food was better, tastier, more natural and more healthful, that there was a Mediterranean diet or a Mexican cuisine untarnished by migrants, industrialism and change.
Like "authentic," "terroir," "slow" and "local" — all used to try to pin down our yearnings, each catching the mood of the moment — culinary tradition as intangible heritage turns out upon examination to be not quite up to the job demanded of it.
Rachel Laudan is a historian and writer based in Mexico City and a contributor to, where a longer version of this appears.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Veni, Vidi… Vomit? (1st C BC)

Veni, Vidi… Vomit? (1st C BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007
wall painting, Pompeii, ca. 70 AD]One of the common “facts” taught about ancient Rome, both by public schools and uninformed historians, is that Roman houses contained a special room called a vomitorium, which was set aside for the purpose of purging one’s insides from a recent meal… in order to make room to eat more. The word itself comes from the Latin word vomere, which means “to vomit”.
Fortunately for the Romans, this is simply a  misconception. Vomiting, for those who have experienced such a phenomenon in the past, is typically not an event that any human wishes to endure any more than absolutely necessary – say, during illness – and thus it would be absolute falsity to claim that the entire Roman upper class was semi-bulimic.
Ancient Rome did have vomitorioums, however, but their purpose was entirely unrelated to the consumption of food! Vomitorium was the proper name for an architectural feature of ancient Roman theatres: it was a wide corridor situated below or behind a tier of seats, through which thousands of spectators could file in and out of quickly (or “spew out of”, to keep the nuance of the Latin word).
a  real vomitorium
The vomitoria of the Colosseum in Rome were reportedly able to allow 50,000 people to enter and be seated within 15 minutes; presumably they would be able to exit in an equally rapid manner, thus earning the passageway its name. The misconception of meaning for this term probably came about in the early 1900s, when historians were writing history texts without a correct understanding of Latin… which meant that they could not read texts of the ancient authors… who, when writing about eating excessively and illness afterward, never once mentioned the existence of special room in which one could throw up.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jus porro frigidum in porcellum elixum

Last night, I prepared Cold Sauce for Pork, Apicius 8.7.15 from Cooking Apicius by Sally Grainger. 

2 t caraway seeds
60g pine kernels (I substituted sunflower seeds)
1t dill
1/2t oregano
2T vinegar
1 T garum
2 T date syrup (I mashed up the Dulcia Domesica I had left over)
2 T honey
40g whole grain mustard (I used actual mustard seed)
generous ground black pepper

Roast and grind the seeds in mortar and pestle until uniform paste texture achieved. Mix in thicker liquids (dates, honey), then the thin liquids, (vinegar, garum.)
Mixture makes a paste- rub all over pork loin, and bake @ 425F for 17 minutes. 

The sauce prior to being put on pork
The Final product
I made this to take over to a friend's place to watch the Cowboys lose (again). We served it with chili & beans, and Strawberry Nerds. Everyone smelled the spice rub prior to cooking, and exclaimed that it smelled very strong. We were glad that we were also making chili, in case Apicius had led me wrong. I used the paste I made from the recipe above, and it made enough to cover the entire 1.1lb pork loin in a 1/4" thick coating of the sauce. The pork tenderloin I bought already had been marinated with an Asian marinade, which I thought would nicely complement the garum in the recipe. The sauce ended up being very heavily mustard, which went quite well with the pork. Most whole grain mustards tend to make a good sauce for pork dishes. It was delicious! The honey and dates gave this a sweet taste, while the mustard was tangy. Cooking the tenderloin at 425 made the paste a sort of crust surrounding the pork, which was flaky and tasty. The fish sauce taste mostly baked out of the recipe, or was unnoticeable. The sweetness from the honey and dates did much to mask the bitter taste of defeat that the Cowboys endured, but it went well with the tanginess of the mustard. Everyone said that they'd gladly eat it again.  
~Consul Spartacurtus~

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A guide for epicureans who don't do Chianti

From Variety Magazine- 


Posted: Sun., Oct. 24, 2010, 4:00am PT

Where to eat

A guide for epicureans who don't do Chianti

Fest takes populist approach | Extra eclectic

Reviving Rome's 'La Dolce Vita' | Where to eat | Seeking bargains | Where to visit | Rome after dark | A Gelato crawl through Rome
The old adage "when in Rome" may be a handy excuse for all sorts of transgressions, but it's an apt and accurate mantra for a foodie.
Roman emperor Vitellius (69 AD) feasted at a banquet four times a day and dispatched the Navy to appropriate rare, exotic edibles like peacock brains. Though such gluttony no longer prevails, Romans still sensualize eating and appreciate innovation.
"The gastronomic scene in Rome is ultra-sophisticated today," says Robin Saikia, author of the upcoming Blue Guide Italy Food Companion. "New ideas are constantly blended with traditional methods."
Indeed, many time-honored dishes -- and favorites of Vitellius -- still linger on menus with modifications. For instance, plump spit-roasted dormouse or "il ghiro" was once a staple at a Roman orgy. Nowadays, restaurants substitute roasted quail for rodent and baste it in honey with dates and cumin, notes Saikia.
The delicate bird is also the politically correct replacement for "cavia" or guinea pig, which is stuffed with chopped ham, cheese, herbs and bacon. She recommends Roman escargot or "bovoleto," which are small snails simmered in herbs and garlic and then served with chopped celery, carrots, and red wine. Story has it that the snails -- and perhaps the garlic -- ward off evil spirits.
Ex-pat and food writer Eleanora Baldwin, who leads the "Savoring Rome" culinary tour for Context Travel (, recommends that the daring try "coratella coi carciofi" or the heart, lungs and spleen of the lamb, which are sautéed with artichokes and Marsala wine. Her pick for where to sample: Augustarello in the Testaccio (98 Via Giovanni Branca; 06 574-6585). She also adores "puntarella in salsa d'alici," which is crisp chicory topped with anchovy, vinegar, olive oil and garlic dressing.
"It's perfect to complement the rich and sometimes fatty Roman fare," says Baldwin, who hits Roma Sparita (24 Piazza Santa Cecilia in the Trastevere; 06 580-0757) for her chicory fix.
"Animelle" or lamb sweetbreads, another delicacy for the courageous palette, is offal rolled in flour, dipped in beaten egg and fried alongside artichokes. The best in Rome? Fellini dined on animelle and other ancient Roman specialties at La Campana, (18 Vicolo della Campana in the Pizza Navona;
Eating and drinking local is a new trend in Rome, as the region now boasts its own fantastic wines. "Lazio was never known as a great wine-producing area," says Saveur contributor Brette Jackson, who has seen a recent uptick in enoteche. "But now the Lazali are enjoying the wine and food culture that has always been a popular pastime with the Umbrians and Tuscans."
At Urbana 47 (47 Via Urbana; 06 4788-4006) salumi, wines and ingredients of dishes like zucchini ravioli with amaretto and sliced seared rib-eye steak with chard in a balsamic reduction come from nearby purveyors. Post-midnight, there's a late-night, after-dinner menu served. In the same Monti district, Enoteca Provinicia Romano (82 Largo del Foro Traiano; 06 6766-2424) serves local fare like roasted pork from Ariccia and chocolate from Trappist monasteries.

Read more:
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Friday, October 22, 2010

Please sir, I want more eel spleens

Please sir, I want more eel spleens

The Romans can teach us loads about the flavour and freshness of food. What d'you reckon, Jamie?

I BELIEVE I HAVE HIT on a way to revive the teaching of Latin while simultaneously improving school food. Recent studies of Ancient Roman cookery clearly show that to improve our nutrition we need to go back, not to the basics, but to the classics. So I am today unveiling Cenae scholasticae Jacobi Oliveris (Jamie Oliver’s Roman school dinners).

Here is a sample:

Alternatively, we could introduce set-menus based on specific classical works, such as this banquet recalled in a poem by Martial: tuna with boiled eggs, puls (a sort of muscular risotto made from polished spelt grains) with sausage, bacon and green beans, followed by raisins, Syrian pears and roast chestnuts. Pythagorus favoured a delicious-sounding cucumber salad with raisin-coriander vinaigrette, while Cato, the orator, was partial to herby olive tapenade.

Roman cooking might not appeal to all modern palates, particularly since a prime ingredient was garum, the pungent paste made out of fermented fish entrails. But in truth the Romans were remarkable, inventive cooks who would surely have looked upon the mass-produced, tasteless slop we eat today with deep disdain. Everything the Romans ate was organic, fresh, without additives or colourings, and usually home-produced and home-cooked. There was no waste. Anything edible was eaten, except the bones and the eyes; the Romans ate with the proper reverence, planting, harvesting and slaughtering in conjunction with the gods and constellations. Food was serious, but it was also fun, and in contrast to the snobbery associated with good food today, the ordinary citizens of Ancient Rome were as passionate about their grub as the rich.

Roman fast-food outlets (known as popinae), serving fried fish, ham and sausages, did a roaring trade. The link between diet and wellbeing was appreciated by the ancients, if not fully understood: Pliny believed that vinegar could cure hiccups and would bring down a fever if held in the mouth during a hot bath. The only complete Roman cookbook to survive is that of Apicius, the gourmet; this provides recipes of a sort, though not quantities or proportions. (He favours roasting your ostrich whole, for example, which is tricky without a really huge Aga, and a hammer.) Yet this and other culinary references scattered through the literature testify to the sheer variety of Roman cuisine, which picked up new tastes as the empire expanded.

Apicius lists 34 sauces for fish alone. In addition to garum, the Romans loved to combine sweet and sour tastes, herbs such as cumin, coriander, lovage and tonsil-threatening quantities of pepper. Herb purées, ancestors of pesto, were ground from thyme, pine nuts, rocket and parsley; honey was used to flavour dishes both sweet and savoury. Modern nutritionists might balk at the quantity of salt used for preservation and flavouring, but salt was highly valued and regarded as sacred: the word salary comes from sal, the Latin for salt, this being the currency in which Roman magistrates were paid.

Food was prepared then with a sense of occasion and theatre (admittedly easier if you had slaves to do the washing up): desserts disguised as pyramids, birds sculpted out of veal, root vegetables carved in the shape of fish. A piece of meat that tasted of meat was, in the Roman cookbook, a failure; meat was there as a canvas to be sketched on. Pork alone was believed to have 50 specific flavours. Texture was vital, and some liked it viscous, hence the taste for offal.

The popular image of Romans lying around consuming vast vats of larks’ tongues and periodically throwing up is unfair, for gluttony was rare. There were exceptions, of course: the teenage Emperor Elagabalus dined on the brains of 600 ostriches accompanied by peas laced with gold and rice sprinkled with pearls. Vitellius, it is reported, once ate a dish of parrot livers, peacock brains, flamingo tongues and the spleens of moray eels. And that was merely a starter. Mostly the Romans ate sparingly, and well, with an approach to nourishment that shows up our own bizarre hypocrisies and hang-ups about food.

Many of the people who today eat foie gras, made by force-feeding geese until their livers are near busting, would protest at the Roman technique of making pig’s liver by fattening swine on a diet of beer. We eat such rarities as snipe and woodcock, but would never dream of snacking on a crane, or an owl, or a snake. (Actually I did eat an owl once in China, by mistake; it was a hoot.) The composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is in trouble for consuming a swan that electrocuted itself in powerlines near his home in Orkney. If he hadn’t eaten it, something else would have done so. We recoil at the Roman delicacy made by drowning tiny birds in wine before consuming them whole, yet we seldom spare a thought for the billions of living chickens crammed into cages for a brief, hormone-packed life before being crunched up into nuggets. Given the choice of a battery life and being bombed into the next world on an overdose of Chianti, I know which fate I would prefer.

The Roman way of food has much to teach us, for freshness, inventiveness and pleasure. Bring back meatflavoured cheese, mouse-gruyere sculpted as Big Ben, spleen of eel, and sautéed swan; let us eat anything edible, so long as it is not actually endangered, and let us finish up the leftovers, including the tail and the ears.