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Roman Cooking: Part 2

Taken from 'Food and Cooking in Roman Britain'
by Marian Woodman

A typical kitchen in Roman Britain in about 200 A.D. would have looked very similar to that shown below. The most recognizable feature is the raised hearth, a masonry construction of table height, on which was placed the charcoal, and over this most of the cooking was done, in vessels supported by iron tripods or grid irons. A fine example of a grid iron from Silchester has been copied in this reconstruction. Wood was also used, as some recipes refers to certain dishes being smoked. Arrangements for providing water for cooking and washing up are sometimes found, and stone or wooden tables for food preparation.

Roman kitchen

For baking and roasting an oven was used, shaped like a low beehive, and constructed of rubble and tiles. A flue to provide a draught would be made accessible at the front, very similar to the bread ovens which persisted for many centuries after. Charcoal or wood was burnt inside until sufficient heat had been generated;; the ashes were then raked out and bread, meats or pastries put in, the aperture of the oven being covered to retain the heat during cooking.

Portable ovens made of earthenware, iron, bronze or occasionally of more precious metals have been found. These presumably for cooking smaller items, such as leeks rolled in cabbage leaves, or pastry dishes. Ornamental water heaters for keeping dishes warm, or cooking by the 'double saucepan' method have also been found.

Cauldron chains such as the example displayed in the Corinium Museum were used for suspending large cooking pots over a wood fire. Large animals such as boar or venison were roasted on spits.

A variety of kitchen equipment was available to the serious cook. The frying pan or fretale, made of bronze, round or oval in shape, with a lip for pouring, is well known, as are rectangular iron trays with handles for roasting or frying. 'Oven to table ware' in the form of shallow pans and earthenware dishes was common. These are referred to as patellae and patinae.

The difficulty in cleaning these utensils is understandable. Metal ware could be cleaned with sand, but earthenware dishes and pots would soon become unfit for use and would need constant replacement which could account for the considerable quantity of broken items revealed by excavations. Fortunately local potteries would have been able to turn out cheap dishes for ordinary use.

Knives of all sizes were used, made of iron, with bone, wood or bronze handles. Spoons of bronze, silver and bone have also been discovered. Ladles, dippers, strainers and choppers all found a place in the Roman kitchen. Mortaria were stout pottery bowls used for grinding and pounding, made with a sprinkling of grit baked into the clay to form a rough surface. Stone or wooden pestles were used with them.

When the food was ready it was served on a discus, a large circular plate. Groups of large platters of silver, bronze and pewter have been excavated, the most notable in Roman Britain being the silver collection from Mildenhall in Suffolk.

Dried fruit and nutsThe daily diet varied considerably between rich and poor. The latter would have had little variation in their daily food beyond course bread and bean or pea broth, with the occasional meat addition.

Life in a villa in Roman Britain would have been secure and pleasant for the wealthy owner and his family. Home ground flour and freshly make bread, home grown vegetables, a well stocked orchard of apples, pear, cherry and plum trees; specially reared pigs, sheep and oxen, together with an abundance of wild fish and game, would have assured the inhabitants a variety of good food.

Honey was the main source of sweetening, a preservative for meat and fruit and a common ingredient in many dishes and sauces. Beekeeping was, therefore, an important industry, most farms employing one man known as the apiarus to look after the hives.

Roast port with celery seed sauceCheeses were many and varied and much enjoyed. Smoked cheese was a particular favourite, many foreign varieties being imported by the Romans. It was eaten freshly made or preserved, and formed an important ingredient of bread and fancy cakes.

The day would begin with a light breakfast of bread and fruit. Lunch or prandium consisted of a cold meal of eggs, fish and vegetables. Wine and water mixed was drunk with meals, the native beer being considered a barbarian's drink by the sophisticated Roman.

The main meal at the end of the day was regarded as an important occasion. The family gathered together, often with friends, after a visit to the public baths or their own private bath suite and sat or reclined in the triclinium, a pleasantly decorated room usually with a fine mosaic floor. This was the room where the Roman host would entertain his guests and seek to display his wealth and status.

Dinner usually consisted of three courses, accompanied by wine imported from Italy, France or Spain, viticulture being unknown in Britain until the second half of Roman occupation.

Dining was an important social occasion. The Romans enjoyed eating and talking in the formal atmosphere of the triclimium. After, perhaps a pleasant stroll around the garden the guests would assemble ready to to enter the dining room (right foot first over the threshold to avert ill luck)

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