Food is something that all human beings have in common throughout time. We know about ancient food from literary and archaeological sources, and through this we can get an idea of what an ancient Roman might have eaten on a daily basis. The Romans ate a variety of things, from basics such as bread, fish, cheese and fruit to Roman delicacies such as stuffed dormice and garum, a fermented fish sauce that was used in many different recipes.
In terms of baking, bread was a staple, but looked slightly different from a modern loaf of bread. Most of the ancient flour was made from spelt or corn or emmer (a cereal similar to wheat), and since ovens were not widely available bread was made typically in professional bakeries rather than at home. Bread made of wheat began to become available in the Imperial period. Flour was often impure and could even contain dust, making the bread so coarse it could even wear down Romans' teeth as they were chewing.
Ancient Roman desserts were typically served after the main meal (cena), often along with wine. They ranged from fruit platters (with exotic fruits shipped in from distant countries for the wealthy) to pastries and cakes. Since sweeteners such as sugar were not available to the Romans, the main sweetener used was honey and sweet fruits were the most desirable. There is even evidence for a Roman tradition of having birthday cakes: Ovid writes in his Tristia, a poem he wrote in exile, about having cakes to mark his birthday and to offer to the gods.
There is a substantial amount of literary sources for Roman recipes and information on food and cooking. The Apicius is an ancient recipe book, mostly consisting of ingredients lists and incomplete instructions, and there are other authors who write about food such as Galen, a medical writer who wrote a book called On the Properties of Foodstuffs, and Cato the Elder, who wrote a book entitled De Agri Cultura about farming techniques which included recipes for farm products. Historians have used these basic recipes to make modern recipes that can be made at home.
In the spirit of Bake Off season, one of our writers, Megan Bowler, has sampled a collection of Roman recipes in order to recreate the authentic Roman dining experience.
Recipe 1: teganitai (pancakes)
Recipe 2: tiropatina (a baked custard dessert)
Recipe 3: savillum (cheesecake)
These Roman recipes all turned into successful bakes - but the real question is whether they would earn Star Baker in the Ancient Roman Bake Off?