Taken from 'Food and Cooking in Roman Britain'
by Marian Woodman
ARoman dinner party ideally comprised nine guests, in honuour of the nine muses, goddesses of the arts and sciences. Arranged around three sides of a square, the fourth side being left open for serving, the guests would recline on large couches, each accommodating three people. Propping themselves on their left forearms, they would use their right hands for stretching for food and drink. Garlands of rose petals were worn on their heads to ward off the effects of too much wine. Sometimes the guests would pluck rose petals from their garlands and drop them into their wine goblets. With forks being unknown and knives and spoons only occasionally used, most people ate with their fingers — a messy arrangement when sticky sauces were part of the meal. Napkins were provided to protect the couches. Guests would also bring their own napkins, and according to contemporary satirists, sometimes stole their neighbours' napkins.
After a suitable offering by the host to the household gods (Lares), the meal would commence.
Food would be served on bronze, pewter or the popular decorated red Samian ware dishes and wine would be drunk from small cups of glass, samian ware or pewter. The meal began with gustatio or hors d'oevre, often an egg dish, vegetables raw and cooked, including asparagus, peas, beans, carrots, lettuce, endive, radishes, and cucumber. Salt fish, oysters, mussels or the specially fattened dormice cooked in a variety of ways. During the meal mulsum — a mixture of chilled white wine and honey — or course wine mixed with water would be drunk, the more expensive wines, such as Bordeaux, being reserved for serious drinking after the meal. Entertainment such as music on the lyre or cithera, or perhaps poetry reading would be provided during and after the meal.
The main course, or primae mensai varied both in the number and elaboration of dishes. Roast and boiled meat, poultry, game or other meat delicacies would be served. No dish was complete without its highly flavoured and seasoned sauce. Contrary to present day preference, the main object seemed to be to disguise the natural taste of food — possibly to conceal doubtful freshness, possibly to demonstrate the variety of costly spices available to the host. Sometimes so many ingredients were used in a sauce it was impossible to single out any one flavour. One Roman cook bitterly complained that some of his fellow cooks:
'When they season their dinners they don't use condiments for seasoning, but screech owls, which eat out the intestines of the guests alive'
Apicius wrote at the end of one of his recipes for a particularly flavoursome sauce:
'No one at table will know what he is eating'
These sauces were usually thickened with wheat flour or crumbled pastry. Honey was often incorporated into a 'sweet-sour' dish or sauce.
Favourite foods of the Roman gourmet included snails fattened on milk until they could no longer retreat into their shells; dormice fattened on nuts in special earthenware jars — "battery dormice"; pigeons immobilized by having their wings clipped or legs broken, then fattened; oysters in plenty and other shellfish; ham and suckling pig; peacocks, pheasant and goose; and chicken cooked in a variety of ways, one of which required the bird to be drowned in red wine. Several dishes would be placed on the table for each person to help himself. Servants kept the guests supplied with small hot rolls — a useful means of cleaning the plate of a tasty sauce still practiced by the French today — and their glasses replenished with wine.
Desserts or mensae secundae, though not considered an important course, would consist of sweetmeats, pastries, dried or fresh fruit and nuts.
After the remains of the meal had been cleared away, the guests continued to recline and toast each other with wine, the entertainment continuing in as elaborate a form as the host could afford. Important banquets would often end with clowns or jugglers performing or even gladiator fights.
Such a meal would entail a great deal of preparation and we can imagine the scene of frenzied activity in the kitchen beforehand, as cooks and slaves busied themselves under the supervision of the lady of the house. Pots and pans simmered and bubbled over burning charcoal on the stove, ingredients for sauces were pounded and mixed in mortaria, while the cooks made good use of the wine and oil stored in their amphorae, together with herbs and costly spices; all to ensure that the guests would be suitably impressed with their meal.
If bread was baked at home, the flour was first ground by hand on a rotary quernstone. Pies and pastries would be put in the oven after the main bread baking was over. Several kinds of flour were used, the fine white variety being considered the best, while dark bread was given to the unimportant visitor.
Not everyone cooked at home. Town dwellers would have handy access to the local bakers, pastry cooks and cooked meat shops, as the stone reliefs and excavations of Pompeii illustrate.
Oysters, cockles and mussels would be brought from the coast in barrels of brine to be sold inland. Salt was an important commodity, obtained from the many salt pans round the shores of Britain.
The native Briton would have seen little change in his diet after the Roman occupation. Most people would have had to exist on meagre and monotonous meals, with flat bread mad from course grain flour, bean pottage or porridge, cooked on an open hearth fire, in cramped conditions, as the normal daily food. Excavations in Cirencester or skeletons from the Roman period have revealed evidence of dental damage beginning early in life and largely the result of a course and insufficient diet.
Formal banquets would be given to celebrate special occasions in all parts of the Roman Empire. Distinguished and wealthy hosts would go to enormous lengths to surprise and delight their guests. In his golden palace the Emperor Nero possessed a spectacular dining room in which was a revolving ceiling which turned day and night, in time with the sky. Other dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let hundreds of flowers or perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon the guests.
Often grains of gold, pearls, and amber and other precious jewels would be hidden among various dishes and their contents. No doubt some pockets would have been bulging by the end of the meal!
At these elaborate feasts it was customary to have a particularly important delicacy, such as a sturgeon, borne into the room accompanied by a procession of slaves playing flutes, while others danced in time to the music.
A vivid description of a Roman banquet at its most luxuriant is given by the contemporary writer Petronius. This was the famous Trimalchio's feast, where guests were offered 'A hare tricked out with wings to look like a Pegasus, a wild sow with its belly full of live thrushes, quinces stuck with thorns to look like sea urchins, and roast pork carved into models of fish, song birds and a goose'. The Emperor Vitellius dedicated to the goddess Minerva a mixture of pike liver, pheasants' brains, peacocks' brains, flamingo tongues and lamprey roe, after rejecting the flesh of several rare and expensive delicacies 'collected in every corner of the Empire from the Parthian frontier to the Straits of Gibraltar'.