Saturday, 6 April 2013

F is for Find Out What

My A-Z posts are all themed around northern Britannia AD 71-84, the era of my historical novels. 

F is for FOOD    

An Army marches on its belly; Roman supplies do pay

Maybe not those from the deli; But stuff stored well in clay 

Zoom back to AD 75. What might my Roman slave, in northern Britannia, be out looking for to fill her master’s low table? Will it vary much from today’s fare?

Would her master have been indulging in a fabulous Roman Banquet?

Wikimedia - Pompei
Stuffed dormouse? Milk fatttened snails? Wild boar stuffed with live birds to fly out when the stomach was sliced? Other 'deli' produce?

Sadly, I don't think so - although the Roman military leaders might have indulged in something like this scene when back in Rome. (plenty of sources out there on the web for Roman feasts)

So- if northern Britannia didn't lend itself to decadent food fests what would the average Legion Legate (commander) have been eating? 

Bread.  The Celts already grew a kind of spelt wheat which would have been purloined from the native farms and would have produced unleavened breads.

Fish and seafood (oysters) were popular choices in Roman cuisine which could be acquired from rivers, lakes or the sea. Some of the bread might be spread with liquamen or garum- deeply rich fish sauces that were stored for two months before use. They travelled well in sealed jars throughout the Empire.

Wikimedia -fresco from Pompei

Olives? Shipped in sealed vessels the oil was used for cooking, and for dipping the bread into. To go along with the olives and oils, my slave would be purchasing the many herbs and seasonings that were easily transported around the empire - pepper, ginger, cinnamon, dried onions, parsley to name only a few possibilities. She would find them new, but no doubt an improvement on the basic Celtic stews she was used to.

Wild boar? Absolutely, but probably without all the faldelals!  

Meats? The cook would be roasting plenty– beef, pork (suckling pig), mutton, lamb, venison and boar. Stored ham that had been pickled in brine or had been salted was popular, as was wildfowl and chicken. Eggs from many types of birds would have been happily chomped on.

Native berry fruits in season would add some sweetness to the table, and nuts some variety. 

Dairy foods? They also ate - and drank - dairy foods as in cheese, butter and milk. 

Dates also stored fairly well and were shipped to Britannia.

The Romans imported many new vegetables into Britain (cabbage, onion, leek, shallots, carrots, endive, globe artichokes, cucumber, marrow, asparagus, parsnip, turnip, radish and celery) but I think it unlikely that my Roman Legate would have been eating any of them while on campaign in the northern Britannia areas in AD 71-84.

Tomatoes? No. They were not introduced to Britain in Roman times. They only came many centuries later – and were not really in use until closer to Victorian times.

Imported wine would be the most likely drink as anything else was often suspect- though the Celts produced 'small' beer.
 (I've cheated here since this image is of a 2nd century banquet -not in Britannia)

Oats? A form of porridge, or thinned down as gruel, was a staple diet of the Roman soldier – excellent choice since it is a slow release energy food.

My slave’s supermarket would be the market stalls while in a garrison fort. Before setting forth on campaign the jars and fresh or dried goods would be packed onto the wagons, or onto pack mules. The fresh meats and fish would be provided by the venator along the way. (A specialised hunter who accompanied the marching forces of Rome, mostly non-combatant since their duty was to forage for food).

All in all quite a healthy diet!


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  1. Another interesting post, Nancy - and no potatoes either!

  2. Correct! And they did survive without them. Thanks for visiting. :-)

  3. All in all, familiar foods prepared in different ways. Fascinating!

    1. Thanks for popping in! Much appreciated and yes, the things were similar but cooked differently.

  4. Interesting menu! Another great post. Love the tidbits of history.

    1. Hi Karen! Glad you're liking them.

  5. Mostly sounds good! However, the live birds flying out of the stomach made me think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (the snake, yikes!) and four and twenty blackbirds. I enjoyed this view into a feast menu.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

    1. Hi Shannon, I#d forgotten about the Indiana thing!

  6. That spelt you are talking about is a particular kind, called "Emma". They found this out when they excavated Glauberg. They found kernels of it. You can still get "Emma" today if you want to try it, but only in a German "Reformhaus" (health food store). It's a smaller, more bitter grain than "Dinkel", but is still cultivated today for people who have a wheat flour intolerance. And the Celts have been brewing beer for 2,500 years. The found the old recipe, which is not unlike modern day Guiness, except they used stinking nightshade (hallucingenic plant) instead of hops. So it was no wonder the Romans turned their noses up at at it.

    1. Wow! That's a great update. Thank you, Coral.


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