About a month ago, I was watching late night cable television. Bored and flicking through the channels, I came across a rerun of an episode of Heston’s Feasts. In this series, Heston Blumenthal, British super-chef-cum-molecular-gastronomist-extraordinaire, sets out to create modern-day versions of feasts from different periods in history, to serve to an unsuspecting panel of celebrity dinner guests.
The episode I happened upon focused on the Roman Feast, which in the hands of this food-wizard became a lavish, dramatic and over-the-top meal.
First up: pig nipple crackling. Yes, you read right, pig nipple, which apparently was a bit of a delicacy in ancient Rome, fried until crisp and served with a seasoned salt. Second course: calf-brain custard spiked with fish sauce. TV or not, quite a few of Heston’s guests gagged at this unholy combo. Then as the main course, a Trojan hog, so-called because a whole roast pig was served split down the middle, so that it looked like its intestines were spilling onto the table, although these turned out to be edible sausages.
Dessert, most spectacularly, was an ejaculating cake. Being a cake that performed like, well, you know, um…., that. According to Heston this was quite a common party-trick in ancient Roman times, where in homage to Priapus, the god of fertility, desserts would be jigged up to “explode” on eating. Or as Heston’s assistant described it, the outpouring of saffron-yellow ejaculate from the cake should be a bit like watching Mount Vesuvius blow its top.
Anyway, in Heston’s inimitable way, what arrived at the table was a dense chocolate tart, shaped into a small, slightly phallic mound, with a dry-ice, syrup and egg-white mixture buried in the centre. When prodded with a fork, a chemical reaction caused a burst of sticky stuff to bubble up from the top. And just in case you didn’t get it, the base of the cake was packed with pop-rock and exploding candy. So once guests had got over the shock of it all, and swallowed, the tingles at the back of their throat was Heston’s way of making sure they knew exactly what was supposed to come to mind ….
Heston’s Roman feast whetted my appetite for the bizarre, because over the next few days I felt a strange compulsion to read up on the subject of the food of ancient Rome, as I vicariously ate my way around the city back then.
I learned that the most famous Roman foodie book we still have is the Apicius, essentially a collection of recipes that gives an insight into the wide array of foods that were available to the city’s elite. Its dishes make use of ingredients such as pheasant, duck, chicken, quail, and other fowl; raw oysters, lobster, fish of all sorts and shellfish; and venison, boar, goat, lamb, and the occasional peacock. All perked up by fruits, vegetables, cheeses, eggs, nuts, olives, seeds, spices and honey. Not to mention the ever popular delicacy of dormice, little rodents that kitchen staff would keep in terracotta jars to fatten up, and then roast, broil or boil. Yum.
The most well-known description of a Roman feast, however, comes to us courtesy of the writer Petronius. In his “Satyricon”, written around 50 AD, he describes in great detail a fictional banquet at the house of Trimalchio, a vastly wealthy citizen of the city. At this party, guests were fed a veritable Noah’s Ark of rare and exotic foods, combined together in weird and wonderful ways.
Thus Petronius wrote about a whole pig, roasted and stuffed with sausages and live songbirds, explaining where Heston Blumenthal’s Trojan hog came from. Petronius also tells of “dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seeds”, testicles and kidneys and “the womb of a barren sow”, and for dessert, a “Priapus [fertility God] with all kinds of apples and grapes heaped in his ample lap” (again, this being the source inspiration for Heston’s ejaculating cake).
Banquets of this nature were held in the triclinium, a special dining room with reclined sofas on which guests would lounge about (only children and slaves were permitted to eat sitting upright). Food was placed on an open table, buffet style, and everyone would hoe in with their fingers. To facilitate this, the food was typically cut into bite-size chunks, and slaves would hover around to wash guests’ hands throughout the meal.
The custom was to sit (or more accurately, to lie) at the table, eating and drinking for eight to ten hours, often to the point of being sick. Thereafter, guests still capable of “getting up” might retire to another room for an après-feast orgy. Overall, the quantity of food and the length of the dinner was a reflection on just how important and wealthy the host was.
A truly big banquet could cement one’s reputation about town, but could also just as easily lead to bankruptcy.
In and amongst all this excess, what do you think was the greatest delicacy of all?
You see, two thousand years ago there was no electricity or refrigeration, and there was no natural means of keeping food really cold. So for the richest of the rich, the ultimate luxury was to send runners to faraway places, from where they would bring back precious handfuls of snow and ice.
This was quite a logistics exercise, mind you, as the ice had to be wrapped in heavy hessian sacks to prevent it from melting completely en-route. It also had to be delivered right on time, for immediate consumption (remember, no freezers or insulated boxes to keep it in).
Assuming all went well and the ice arrived un-melted and on time, it was mainly used to chill wine, by dropping a few bits into the cup. Or, it would be quickly flavoured with honey and herbs, and then sucked as a dessert.
And then of course there were some things that even the mightiest, wealthiest Roman emperor simply could not serve at his banquets, because he was oblivious to their existence. Things like tomatoes and avocados and potatoes, all native to the Americas, and which only found their way to Europe in the 1500s. Things like bananas, native to Africa and Asia, and only first reaching Europe with the arrival of Islam, in the 6th century. And things like sugar, native to Asia and virtually unheard of in Europe until the 10th century.
In London I live a few minutes stroll from Covent Garden. Most people immediately wrinkle their noses up when I mention this, or look at me like I am mad: “why would you want to live there, surrounded by tourists and crowds and noise?” But I love it.
On the one hand, I am living at the very centre of a city that, in many respects, stands at the very centre of the modern world, much as Rome did in antiquity. I leave my apartment and I’m immediately swept up into a permanent wave of passing humanity, young and old, big and small, from every corner of the world, speaking an amazing polyglot of languages. I find this to be exhilarating.
On the other hand, despite the surrounding hubbub, I am living in what is essentially a small village. Covent Garden is actually a relatively compact area, and the streets around my apartment are cobbled, narrow, and old. They are lined with eclectic shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants, and have a homey and relaxed feel. The girls at Monmouth Coffee (arguably the best coffee in London) now know me and my order. As do the waiters at the Brazilian chicken place across the square. Ditto for the guy who owns the Turkish grill house over the road, the newsagent where I buy the paper every day, the lady at the dry-cleaner, and the folks at all the other little places I visit in the neighbourhood from time to time. I have become a local.
For me though, the greatest attraction of life in central London is the easy access to “culture”, for want of a better word. For most, a trip to London’s West End to see world-famous live shows and musicals and operas is a special event. I now walk past these theatres every day, ho-hum. Leicester Square might be the most well-known movie locale outside of Hollywood, and where a global film premier happens every other week, but it is a stone’s throw from my front door, and where I go to buy art supplies. Covent Garden and its never-ending carnival of street theatre and buskers is less than five minutes walk away. As is Trafalgar Square, the Strand, Piccadilly, The Mall, The National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, The Royal Academy of Art, and stacks of other galleries, minor museums, public buildings, monuments, and sites of historic importance.
And then there is the British Museum, the undisputed grand-daddy of them all. It has a permanent collection of over 13 million objects, apparently the largest museum collection in existence. And this is not counting the 70 million items now at the Natural History Museum or the 150 million items at the British Library, which were once part of the British Museum collection but got spun-off to become separate institutions in their own right.
The British Museum houses “stuff” from every continent – antiquities, artefacts, art – with a mission to chronicle just about everything there is to chronicle about “us”, our history and our culture. The collection spans from pre-historic times to the present, from ancient Rome to Incan South America, from samurai Japan to colonial Africa to places as far away as the islands of Oceania. Some of the exhibits are world-famous, like Elgin’s Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, although even those exhibits tucked away in the corner that hardly anyone pays attention to are often incredible. Plus entry is free, the museum is open daily, and, to my unexpected delight, I discovered it is most helpfully located less than two hundred metres from where I live.
So, unlike most visitors to London who might spend a whole day, or even several days, exploring the vastness of the British Museum, over the past few weeks I have taken to making “mini-visits”. I am lucky enough to be able to pop into the museum for thirty minutes or so, check out a specific section, and then leave, having added a little dash of culture and history to the otherwise ordinary cocktail of my working day.
Anyway, on one of these mini-visits a few weeks ago I spent some time wandering through a stunning temporary exhibit: “Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum”. 250 objects, most of them never before seen outside of Italy, have been put on show. But unlike many other exhibits looking at antiquity, the focus here is not on emperors and politicians and famous people of the day, but on the daily lives of ordinary people in Pompeii and its neighbouring town of Herculaneum, shortly before they were buried by ash and embers, in 79 AD.
On display are everyday household items, like fossilized wooden furniture, a garden bench, and a baby’s crib. There is also jewellery, an erotic statue of the God Pan, and the casts of city residents frozen instantly into charcoal in the fury of Mt Vesuvius’ eruption – individuals, a family, even a dog.
For me, however, the highlight of the exhibit was perhaps the simplest item there: a perfectly preserved loaf of bread, excavated in the 1930s from the ruins of Herculaneum.
Two thousand years ago a baker in Herculaneum fashioned some dough into a round loaf with eight wedges, and put it into the oven to bake. He even stamped his name on the bottom: “Celar, slave of Quinus Ganius Verus”. It was no different to a thousand other loaves of bread being baked that day, and by right should have been eaten later that evening, when the family of the house sat down for their cena.
Not everything always goes according to plan though, and sometime between baking and dinnertime there was the minor inconvenience of a massive volcanic eruption that instantly killed everyone. At the same time, the pyroclastic blast carbonized this particular loaf of bread, thereby preserving it forever. Meaning that it could one day be dug up, to eventually be put on show in the British Museum in London, so I could see it. Kind of hard to believe, really, were it not for the little loaf of bread sitting there in the display cabinet, staring back at me across time and space.
In a similar vein, the exhibition also included some volcano-preserved figs; some jars used to store garum (a pungent fish sauce the ancient Romans were keen on); cooking implements like earthenware pots, glass bottles and a baking tin; and frescos with images of Pompeii residents eating and drinking.
And in stark contrast to the excessive Roman banquets described by Petronius and recreated by Heston Blumenthal, a study of 139 skeletons retrieved from Herculaneum showed how most people in those days were malnourished and anemic. The urban poor almost never ate meat, were deficient in zinc, and suffered from mild levels of lead poisoning. The majority of ancient Romans existed on bread, gruel, barley, salted fish, olives and olive oil, and for special occasions, a fig or two.
Quite simply, if you were one of the masses back then, life was certainly no picnic. Even a roast dormouse was probably beyond your means.
Roll the clock forward to two weeks ago, when I travelled to Melbourne, Australia. My children had their school holidays, and were to stay with me for part of them. So shortly after arriving in Melbourne I paid a visit to the local supermarket, to stock up on essentials for the kids. My eight year old daughter, Orli, came along.
As we walked around the supermarket, up and down the packed aisles, Orli helped me fill the trolley. We bought minced beef, freshly crumbed lamb cutlets, schnitzel and thick fillet steak from a butcher counter that offered every cut of meat imaginable, including beef, lamb, pork, chicken and all manner of sausages. At the seafood counter, which likewise was overflowing with prawns and seafood and whole fresh fish, we picked up a packet of smoked salmon.
We also bought milk, butter, flavoured yoghurts, and a carton of fresh, chilled orange juice. From the international aisle we picked up a box of ready-made taco shells, a box of couscous, some gluten-free penne pasta, and a small bottle of salt-reduced soy sauce. Plus we added sugar, sweetener, tea bags and a few packets of biscuits to the trolley, and from the frozen foods section we got a bag of broccoli, a bag of bagels, and some frozen fruit-ices.
You can see where this is headed, can’t you? As we made our way around the supermarket, it occurred to me that in 2013, in an average suburban supermarket in Melbourne, Australia, my daughter and I had immediate access to a spread of food way beyond the imaginings of anyone living in ancient times – even if you were Julius Caeser himself.
As does anybody else who goes to a modern-day supermarket. Everything that was on a Roman banquet list is there for the taking, conveniently arranged in boxes on shelves, or kept cold in temperature-controlled refrigerated counters. OK – perhaps not everything – I was unable to find fattened dormice, or fresh peacock. But apart from that, it was all there. As was everything not on a Roman banquet list, like the very ordinary tomatoes, avocados, potatoes and sugar that we had loaded into our trolley.
Although what really hit home for me was when we came to buying that most common of fruits, a bunch of bananas.
My beloved grandmother Leah liked to tell me stories of her early life. In one of these stories, which I perhaps heard a thousand times over the years, she described how after the annihilation of her family in the Holocaust she had been sent as a refugee to South Africa. There she was to be reunited with her brother, the only surviving member of her family, who had moved to South Africa from Lithuania prior to World War II (see my previous post Leah’s Legacy).
My grandmother had travelled to South Africa on a cargo freighter, which apart from her was carrying several hundred other Jewish Holocaust survivors, all bound for a new life in South Africa. Along the way they had stopped somewhere on the coast of Africa for several days, so that the boat could be re-fuelled and resupplied.
While there, someone from the local town had brought a large bunch of bananas onboard, to feed the hungry passengers.
At this point in the story, no matter how many times she had told it to me, my grandmother’s eyes would begin to sparkle. “The thing is”, she would say, “none of us had ever seen a banana before. It was something completely unknown. We didn’t know what to do with it”. And then she would start to giggle, often uncontrollably, sometimes taking a few minutes before being able to finish her story: “One man on the boat put the banana on a plate, and not knowing what to do, he tried to eat it with a knife and fork – skin and all!”
I thought of this story while I watched my daughter as she happily selected, bagged, and placed a bunch of bananas carefully into the trolley. I thought about how for her, growing up in our modern world, there was nothing at all remarkable about a banana. It may have been air-flown to Australia from somewhere in Malaysia, but it is still just an ordinary everyday item for Orli. She knows exactly what to do with a banana, as she does with Japanese sushi, middle-eastern falafel, or Singaporean bee-hoon noodles. For Orli, as it is for most of us these days, it is perfectly natural that all these foods should be in every kitchen pantry, side-by-side with avocados, a box of frozen ice desserts, and Mexican taco shells.
I couldn’t help thinking how grateful I am that my children live in a world of plenty, where people like Heston Blumenthal have the luxury of recreating feasts of old. Where totally oblivious to the wonder of it all, any day of the year my kids can buy a curved yellow fruit that not sixty years ago would have been a complete mystery to their great-grandmother. The same humble banana that, once upon a time two millennia ago, was something that not even the mightiest of Roman emperors could have ever dreamed of eating.