The Romans were good at a lot of things. Building amphitheaters and aqueducts; social bathing, lounging around, inventing wine; praying to gods and goddesses and creating the kinds of myths that survived centuries.
This is an empire that gave us Caesar, Nero, and a lot of old-timey epic films based on their adventures. But forget that—let’s get to the important stuff. The stuff that really matters. How good was their food?
To investigate, I consulted one of the oldest recipe books of all time: a compilation of the greatest Roman culinary hits known as Apicius, named after a Roman foodie from the 1st century AD. I decided to spare myself (and you, of course) the task of looking for hard-to-find ingredients like flamingo, as well as the task of ingesting hard-to-eat ingredients like dormice. So instead, we’re going to bake a Roman nut tart.
Unfortunately, this nut tart is made out of sheep’s milk and fish sauce, but we only live once, so why not? Carpe Diem!
400g crushed nuts—almonds, walnuts or pistachios
200g pine nuts
100ml dessert wine
100ml full-fat sheep's milk (good luck finding this)
1 teaspoon salt or garum (Latin for “fish sauce”)
1. Place the chopped nuts and the whole pine nuts in an oven dish and roast until they have turned golden.
I messed this step up horribly and accidentally burnt the hell out of my nuts.
The problem, you see, is that these ancient recipes are not so precise. However, Romans don’t cry over burnt nuts, so moving right along!
2. Reduce the oven temperature to 200°C/400°F. Mix the honey and the wine in a pan and bring to a boil, then cook until the wine has evaporated.
Once again, no real direction on this. As soon as it got kind of syrupy, I stopped boiling. I’ll just say “ten minutes” so you feel like there’s some certainty in this chaotic world.
3. Add the nuts and pine nuts to the honey and leave it to cool.
They will cool into a rock hard molasses-like ball of nuts and pine nuts.
4. Meanwhile, beat the eggs with the sheep’s milk.
Have you ever sheared a sheep? I have and it was the worst experience of my life, so I was pretty sympathetic to farmers who told me that sheep are not very amenable to milking. Bottom line for farmers: they’re kicky—stronger than they look and not afraid to use their hooves. Bottom line for us: sheep’s milk is hard to find.
I substituted with full-fat cow milk instead.
5. Add garum and pepper.
I am sorry to say that “garum” is fancy Latin for “fish sauce.” (And not just any fish sauce—the “best quality fish sauce” so don’t cut corners and use your cheap version. Make your own with tuna, mullet and sea bass by salting them and leaving them in the sun until they ferment—then collect the liquid).
6. Then stir the honey and nut mixture into the eggs.
This will be difficult due to the rock hard sticky nut mixture but can be done with vigor and determination (this was probably a Roman slave task).
7. Oil an oven dish and pour in the nut mixture. Seal the tin with silver foil and place it in roasting tin filled about a third deep with water.
Why does it have to have water in it, you ask? So the nuts don’t get dry? Because Romans liked baths? So that it will leak into your nut tart and ruin everything? Yes, yes and yes.
8. Bake for about 25 minutes until the mixture is firm. Take it out and when it is room-temperature put it into the fridge to chill. To serve, tip the tart on to a plate and pour over some boiled honey.
Remember to partake in this food by reclining on a chaise longue, being fanned by boys, with a side of grapes (for authenticity purposes).
VERDICT: Springy, eggy sweet mixed nuts with tang (that’s the fish sauce). True to its name, it is nutty, but the milky egg has an off-putting texture.
Let’s remind ourselves that the Romans did not have chocolate or coffee, so maybe a mouthful of phlegmy honey nuts was akin to chocolate soufflé for them. Maybe many a party ended with, “Want to come over to my house? I have figgy burnt nuts and sweet wine.” Luckily, after dessert in ancient Rome, music, conjurors and acrobats were provided as entertainment, so even if the nut tart was not your cup of tea, the evening would not be wasted.
Finally, if you just can’t bring yourself to partake of any of this dessert from a bygone era, engage in a common Roman practice and offer it to the household gods.
Coincidentally, my household gods live in the trashcan.
Previously: Friggatriskaidekaphobia Cold Fruit Soup
Jessica Pan promises that in her next baking column she’s going to make something mind-blowingly delicious. She and her friend Rachel Kapelke-Dale wrote an epistolary book about living in Beijing, New York, Paris and Melbourne. Graduates in Wonderland came out this summer.