How I spent the evening in Ancient Rome

Tonight I invited my parents for dinner in Trier, a small Rhenish town with a glorious past. It rose to prominence under the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD, when the city became the seat of the Gallic prefecture. However, in what follows I shall not deal with the town’s imperial pride, but with its modern culinary achievement. Many people have heard of Apicius, an alleged 1st century Roman author who is thought to have written a collection of cooking recipes that goes under the name of “De Re Coquinaria”, “On the matter of cooking”. The work is a remarkable mirror into what Romans ate, drank and how they dealt with ingredients, not only in cooking, but also in producing and storing them.

Trier sports a restaurant that until this evening had succeeded in keeping away from my inquisitive eyes and palate: “Zum Domstein”. What convinced me that it was not a cheap touristy eatery looking for a place in the limelight was its genesis. To avoid gilding the lily, I shall only mention a classicist owner, some Roman archeological remains in the keller and a willingness to ally Apicius to modern expectations. Thus I went there with an easy heart and an empty stomach.

The restaurant, whose unassuming name did not promise an exclusive Roman experience, is situated in Trier’s pebbled central square and only alludes to a Roman cuisine on a small hanging signpost above the main door. Once inside, decoration did not betray Rome either. It was only when the Speisekarten were brought to us than we realized that things were about to change: the menu was double-headed, one German, one Roman, exhibiting a Latin title and three columns, the first bearing the Latin name for the courses. Naturally, I had brought Apicius’ De re coquinaria (with facing translation) to the table to set the accuracy factor: it proved to be a stunning 100%: all courses matched those found in Apicius. I was delighted but my mouth was already watering as my erratic imagination hopped on the time machine.

There were two evening menu arrangements, simply listed CENA APICIANA I and CENA APICIANA II. A typical Roman CENA (main meal; it later irrupted into modern languages as dinner), I learned, was made up of three units, very much like our modern meal. The starters or PROMULSUM were followed by the PRIMA MENSA, or main meal, which fell on the SECUNDA MENSA or dessert.

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There is mulsum in this goblet. Or rather was.

The CENA began with MULSUM, a spiced white wine in which I picked up aniseed and honey. I brought a souvenir bottle back home but this post is not written on mulsum fumes.

What followed was a series of dishes which I shall briefly describe below.

The exordial course items called GUSTATIONES (part of PROMULSUM) were not very different from the idea behind the Spanish tapas. The first dish, TISANA, was not a cup of herbal tea but a delicious barley soup served in Roman pottery stolen from the History museum across the street. (photo below – unreliable source for last comment).

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Objects in Roman bowls are more attractive than they appear

Next, we dealt in sausages with pine-kernels and green beans, whose name opens new horizons: Lucanicae Fabaciae Virides. How Lucanian the sausages were, I shall never know.

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CARDUI were next on the list, that is artichokes in a vinaigrette sauce. All these three GUSTATIONES went with MUSTEA, a heavenly wine roll with bay leaves and rosemary. No wonder that the boar head was “bedecked with bays and rosemary” in the medieval carol. An excellent alloy.

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The only choice one had with the Roman menu was the MENSA PRIMA, where the range was from fried zucchinis (CUCURBITAS ET CAROTAE FRICTAS) to PERNA CUM CARICIS (ham), PISCIS ASSUS (fried fish) and AGNUS TARPEIANUS (lamb with herbs, wine, onion). I picked the lamb as my head was Agnus Dei was ringing in my head.

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For the SECUNDA MENSA, the chef, one of Apicius’ grand grand¹² sons perhaps, had proposed PATINA DE PIRIS, soufflé of pears, very close to crème brûlée, in my view.

No, I did not come like that. That was of my own doing. Gluttony moves faster than shutter speed

No, it did not come like that. That was of my own doing. Gluttony moves faster than shutter speed

Except for the sausages, which tasted like Rome on fire under Nero, all the other ones were familiarly delicious, which left me with a raw dilemma. Can a favourable savour imply faithful adherence to Roman standards? Should the historian in me give the thumb up to a meal which appeased my hollow throat or should I rather expect Roman sustenance to strike an odd note with my anachronistic palate? Difficult to say, really.

It is not less true that the experience at ‘Zum Domstein’ in the company of Apicius was a delightful one which I hope to repeat soon. Until then, let Rome burn, the limes hold and our cauponas be filled with garum and mulsum. 

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