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.

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