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Rome: Sweet Wines, Stinking Fish and a Freed Slave

Tonight, we thought it would be fun to pretend that we are in Rome two thousand years ago. We wanted to see if we could replicate the food, the wine and the feel of a Roman Banquet. Then we started delving into what kinds of foods Romans were eating and what kinds of wine that they were drinking and we knew we were in a bad spot. We realized that even if we could get everyone to lounge on soft cushions and wear togas, there was no way that we were going to get anyone to eat like a Roman, much less drink like one. The Roman sweet tooth along with an almost pathological desire for intensity of flavor cannot be underestimated. The primary go-to condiment found on every table at every level of society was garum. Pliny the Elder describes this fermented fish sauce as being made from small fish and salt that is left to cure in the hot Mediterranean sun, the liquid ladled off the top was sold in various grades that fetched incredibly high prices. The leftover fishy residue of bones and salt called allec was sold to the poor and used to flavor their staple of chickpea flour pancakes. In addition to wine, garum was a staple of the economy of Pompeii. In 2008, archeologists used residue from amphoras found in Pompeii to confirm the August eruption date of the volcano. Pliny the Elder speaks of a high quality kosher garum produced in Pompeii that Roman Jews used because commercial garum was not considered kosher. Pliny also notes that garum can be “diluted until the colour of honey wine and drank”. Garum was produced and shipped to all ends of the empire and was enjoyed as far away as Roman Britain and Germania. Umbricius Scaurus, was a freed Macedonian slave turned garum maker, who became one of the biggest and most successful businessmen in all of Pompeii. His sprawling estate has been unearthed from the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius and the level of grandeur and sophistication is mind boggling. It is believed that Scaurus and his associates controlled almost a third of Rome’s supply and amphoras with his seal having been found as far away as Flanders in northern Gaul.

In addition to fish sauce, they loved garlic and assafoetida, the dried latex from the root of a perineal herb that is also known as “dung”, “devil’s dung” and the ever popular “stinking dung”. These powerful flavors were combined with every sort of sweetening, like raisins, honey, apricot, figs and sweetened wine. All the popular wines of this era appear to have been white with most of them being sweet and fortified. It was common to cook and intentionally oxidize the wines, much like madeira or sherry. The greatest of these heavy sweet wines hailed from Campania and were left in the open air exposed to the sun, moon, rain and wind. Pliny gives an eye-opening list of the flavorings used in cooked wines or “Greek Wines”, since the Greeks rarely drank wine without seasonings. Resin, spices, black pepper, saffron and grilled dates are all added to wine in one recipe, and another Greek recipe calls for the addition of seawater, to which Pliny cautions that it is best to collect the water far out to sea. Travelers would carry a flask of honey and pepper to smother the taste of local wines. It may be that thee Roman predilection toward sweet wine was because sugar was the only preservative they had. They would pick the grapes while still under ripe to preserve the acidity and then leave the grapes to dry in the sun for a few days to shrivel and concentrate the sugars. These big sweet wines with high acidity were only for the upper class. The majority drank the thin, weak, red wines that were either made in the simplest of fashion and buried in the ground or shipped in bulk from colonies around the empire. About this time, Rome’s population exceeded one million inhabitants and the obvious goal was cheap wine for the masses. Spain and Gaul provided much of this supply as well as wines shipped down the Tiber River from the north. Slowly the taste for these drier wines gained favor and vineyards that were once dismissed for being too austere and astringent became all the rage. Unfortunately, before these new wines and vineyards around Italy could become established the barbarians arrived from the north, crushed the decadent and feeble empire which in turn tossed the European world into darkness for the next 600 years. All that was left was to guide us was 37 volumes Pliny’s Natural History, with all its silliness, opinions and polemics.

We begin tonight with a twist on the classic Italian aperitif, the Negroni served as a gelee to loosen up our palates, before diving into braised artichokes and a family salad, paired with a rich white wine from the Bellone grape. This grape was cited by Pliny the Elder and has been grown in this area for thousands of years, except now, thankfully, they ferment it dry. We shift gears as we dive into lamb and ricotta crepes finished with Pecorino Romano cheese, paired with a wine from the DOC of Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo made by a Professor of Philosophy. Lamb meat and sheep’s milk were major sources of protein for the Romans as they were much more at home in the hilly volcanic terrain than cows. The Roman specialty of Porchetta is our main this evening. This classic dish of a pork loin, stuffed with herbs, raisins and apricots wrapped in a pork belly, originated in Rome and has become one of the most celebrated culinary dishes of Italy. We pair this with a wine from the DOCG of Montefalco made from the Sangrentino grape, which is one of Italy’s oldest indigenous grapes. Then we finish off with chocolate and Lambrusco. Once again, thank you all so much for your continued support and patronage on our adventure around the continent!

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