Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Aliter Dulcia Piperata #Apicius

Food for the gods? 

Not if it turned out like mine! 

Authors who write about life during recent centuries probably have less of an issue describing a meal eaten by their characters than authors - like myself - who write about people eating in ancient times. I recently read an early-Victorian set novel where the protagonists were partaking of a sumptuous multi-course meal. The food described was extravagant, in the ingredients used, and in the presentation. I've not been able to include anything like that, to date, in my Celtic Fervour Saga series set in the 1st century AD because even my ancient Roman characters have not been eating banquets in Rome!

The full diet of the indigenous Roman-Iron-Age tribes of Britain is subject to some conjecture. Staple cereal foods that were grown locally, fruits and nuts that were foraged in the environment, and animal products can be attested to from scientific soil sampling, but that tells me little about how the food was actually presented. There are some metal Iron-Age artefacts which relate to the cooking of food over a wood fire. There are examples of pottery used for storage of foods. There are, amazingly, examples of wooden items used in cooking. However, interpretative imagination is needed for describing the actual eating of the food around the communal central fireplace in a Late Iron-Age roundhouse.

The fingers were perhaps more likely to have been used for most foods rather than the cutlery that is common today. A small knife for spearing and cutting any meats would probably have been a luxury for most ordinary people to own, the actual iron used to form it a prized commodity for some (if not most) tribes. Metal spoons have been excavated, though these may have been used more for preparation of food than for the consumption of food by an individual. Wooden spoons might well have been easy to produce and in common usage, though they don't preserve so well after two millennia. 

I confess that I’ve spectacularly failed at eating porridge from a wooden bowl with my fingers! Only when so thick that it can stand up on its own, have I found it possible to scoop it out. When it's thin and more like brose or gruel, then it can be supped like soup from a bowl without the need for any utensils.

Oats and barley would have been staple ingredients in the diet of my Celtic Fervour Series Garrigill clan and would probably have been eaten in the ways mentioned already, or baked as a flat bread or 'oatcake'. Additions of dried fruits, herbs, nuts and perhaps seasonal honey would have varied plain breads. I imagine anything to hand would have been added to broths and soups, vegetable-based or from a meat-sourced stock when possible. Perhaps a piece of bread might have been used for the scooping up of some concoctions, with the soggy remnants devoured before they completely disintegrated?

I've written about Roman and Celtic' consumption of porridge and bread on this blog before and won't repeat, but today I am moving on to something a little sweeter! 

Preparation for Dulcia Piperata 

It's a little bit different when it comes to describing what my Roman characters were eating in various locations in Britannia. The Ancient Roman writer Apicius wrote 'recipes' of foods eaten in Rome during 1st century AD. There are other ancient writers who make mentions of emperors and Roman citizens gorging on luxurious meals, though most of those foods would not have been appropriate for my characters to eat in Britannia. I imagine that Roman military personnel in Britannia could only indulge in particular ‘Roman cuisine’ if the basic ingredients could be acquired locally, and the more exotic ingredients added from a preserved state. Fresh figs and grapes would have been common items in Rome when in season, but transportation to Britannia – even at the fastest possible speed – would have taken too long for that type of item to arrive in a fresh condition. It was fortunate that the Ancient Romans were quite good at preserving foods in vinegar and wine. 

Two of Apicius’ lists of ingredients refer to Aliter Dulcia, which is interpreted as a sweet honey cake, though he’s economical on details of the method of cooking.  I have to assume the mixture would have been added to a pan and either suspended over a low-burning wood fire, or perhaps more likely warmed to final cooking state on the 'flat stones' (hotplate) - the heat having been fed through a series of channels underneath ,or from the side of the main heat source. (hypocaust-type engineering?)

1. 'In a chafing-dish put honey, pure wine, raisin wine, pine nuts, nuts, cooked spelt, add crushed toasted hazelnuts and serve.'  

2. 'Crush pepper, nuts, honey , rue, and raisin wine with milk and cook the mixture with few eggs well-worked in, cover with honey, sprinkle with crushed nuts etc, and serve. 

The mixing stages of Dulcia Piperata

I've been intrigued by these recipes since I first encountered them, but thought long and hard about whether it would have been appropriate for my Ancient Roman characters to be eating either of the above concoctions in Britannia. Would the ingredients have been available to them in AD 84?
Recipe 1 cooked with spelt (a variety of wheat) would have resulted in a more-cake-like consistency. Recipe 2 without a binding agent would have ended up more like a custard. 

Research from Vindolanda Fort (near Hadrian's Wall), from wooden tablets and other excavation information, indicates quite a surprising variety of foods were eaten, though the fort site of some nine different forts was occupied over centuries rather than years. So far, I haven’t been able to determine if the earliest forts would have been so well-stocked to have had all of the ingredients available.

In Book 5 of my series, Beathan The Brigante, Beathan spends time at Vindolanda in AD 87. This would probably have been during the time of very first fort that was built on the site. However, I’ve been cautious about what foods might have been on offer to the fort commander that I’ve named as Verecundus. (Evidence attests there was a commander in those early days named Verecundus, though dates of his actual tenure are not precise.)

The beautiful texture of my Dulcia Piperata

Pepper was very expensive but was definitely eaten at Vindolanda. Nuts sourced locally (e.g. hazelnuts) would have been possible, though perhaps not pine nuts. The wines may have been available at Vindolanda, especially the sweetened wine which might have survived longer in amphorae than a regular wine. A watered-down variety of vinegared-wine seems to have been the staple issue to the general fort soldiers. In season, honey would have been available. Milk and eggs were likely everyday commodities. (Hens were raised for eggs, but the eating of chicken seems to be rarer, though bones don’t always survive well in the ground as evidence of them being eaten)) Rue is native to Britain, and was used as an ancient herbal treatment, so it was likely to have been available. Spelt wheat has been recently re-introduced by farmers in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, as a trial commodity but it is not a regular crop (use the search facility for a previous blog post)  Spelt could, however, have been grown in Britain though around Vindolanda the soil type might have made that a challenge. Wheat and other cereals, were regularly sent around the Roman Empire to feed the troops, it being the greater part of their staple diet.

In Book 5, Beathan The Brigante, I decided that my character General Agricola would eat some Dulcia Piperata - honey cake. A temporary camp in Taexali territory, in north-east Caledonia was an unlikely setting for that.  I almost had Agricola presented with it at Trimontium Roman Fort, near what would have been a 'border' area between Caledonia and southern Britannia but decided to wait till he was journeying through Gaul, en route for Rome, with Beathan dragged along in chains. 

But what would Dulcia Piperata taste like?

I found a recipe on the internet for Dulcia Piperata (there are a few) and set to work. The one I chose takes into account modern baking techniques and is an amalgam of the two above-mentioned recipes by Apicius.

My list included: flour; baking powder and baking soda; salt’ pepper (3 tsp); coriander (fresh); 2 eggs; 1 egg yolk(no white); olive oil; honey ( a whole jar!) ; sweet white wine; chopped almonds and hazelnuts; chopped toasted hazelnuts for the topping.

My Dulcia Piperata 


The mixing was easy and the cake texture was perfect BUT it was far TOO peppery. One bite and I was reaching for thick cream to douse itmore honey… and more maple syrup… and ice cream… !

p.s. I intend to try it again but without so much pepper and less fresh coriander.

SlĂ inte! 

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