The moveable feast : When in Rome...


Today in Rome, of course, you must do as the Romans. Such style, such taste, such elegance. But it was not always so.

For example, 14 years after the death of Christ, the Emperor Tiberius, a great pickle lover caused general hilarity when he had slaves wheeling carts with cucumbers growing in them to catch the sun so that Tiberius could eat cucumbers all year round.

Inelegant too is the early beginnings of the toast. In Rome, you scorched or burnt bread till you got a toast. The method was called Tostum and tended to have kitchens littered with unusuable burnt bread.

A few years later we come to the first Roman gourmet, Apicius who spent vast sums of money to satisfy his craving for exotic foods. He wrote 10 books on the art of cooking displaying a love of pepper, and each of his recipes, including the one for desserts ends with “Sprinkle with pepper and serve”.

Apicius’ huge banquets drove him to bankruptcy and he poisoned himself rather than eat modestly.

The Emperor Caligula was assassinated by his own guards because his idea of fun was to behead people during a meal. Actually banquets for Romans could be quite bloody; for example, cooks whose dishes were underdone were stripped and beaten.

One mad Roman emperor followed the next. We now have Nero, who had leek soup served to him everyday because he believed it gave him honeyed tones to his speech. The Latin word for leek is porrum and Nero was nicknamed Porrophagus.

We then meet Nero four years later setting fire to Rome, blaming the newly formed Christian sect. For a moment Rome held its breath while the Emperor sent slaves to the top of the Apennines Mountains to bring fresh snow down. It wasn’t to put out the fires of Rome. It was to make the first ice-cream for Nero from snow fruit pulp, honey and nectar.

The very next year (AD 65), Romans were forced to burn a year’s supply of cinnamon at the funeral for Nero’s wife. Arab traders supplying cinnamon spread fantastic tales about how they got the precious spice from deep valley’s swarming with poisonous snakes.

Food became openly popular and it was seen being eaten everywhere, including baths. Not only did people bathe there, they snacked and drank. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote how his bathing was disturbed by the noisy “cake sellers, the sausage man and the confectioner”.

As we come into the Christian era, things become less colourful. For example in AD 350, sausages were banned in the newly Christianised Rome. So the Romans set up a black market.

But a few fun Romans were left like the Emperor Heliogabalus, who started something that is in fashion 1,800 years later in the capitals of world today, which was to have a moveable feast (pun intended) around the city — eating the starter at one house, the main course at another and dessert at a third.

Another gory thing that happened in AD 408 is Rome was attacked by the Visigoths, whose taste for food had them demanding as ransom 3,000 pounds of pepper for sparing the population from death.

Taverns called stabularia were used for food and accommodation by travellers in the Roman empire, but no upwardly mobile Roman or his beast would be seen in them. However, at night on the quiet streets of Rome, men of all ranks could be spotted sneaking into alternative taverns called lupanar to dine, drink and gamble. It is possible that the saying, “When in Rome...” started with them.