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C. and you have been fortunate enough to be invited to a party at the home of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, a great social coup. Piso, after all, was Julius Caesar’s father-in-law and a consul of Rome.

What’s for dinner?

You need to prepare for pig. Archaeologists studying the eating habits of ancient Etruscans and Romans have found that pork was the staple of Italian cuisine before and during the Roman Empire. Both the poor and the rich ate pig as the meat of choice, although the rich, like Piso, got better cuts, ate meat more often and likely in larger quantities.

They had pork chops and a form of bacon. They even served sausages and prosciutto; in other words, a meal not unlike what you’d find in Rome today — or in South Philadelphia.

Researchers discussed this ancient Mediterranean diet at a meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in New Orleans in January.

Dinner parties were the way the Roman aristocracy showed off their wealth and prestige, according to Michael MacKinnon, professor of archaeology at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Status in the upper class was declared with the presentation of the meal, the rare spices, the dinnerware, he explained.

“The wealthier you are the more you want to invest in display and advertising to your guests. Flash was perhaps more important than substance,” said MacKinnon. “Whole animals showed great wealth.”

Besides the meat, there would be vegetables that looked little different from what we eat, said Angela Trentacoste of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Except for grain, which was imported in huge quantities from places like North Africa, everything was locally grown.

MacKinnon and Trentacoste are zooarchaeologists, scientists who study the remains of animals found in archaeological sites. They rummaged through ancient garbage dumps or middens, and occasionally even ancient latrines looking for the bones of animals and fish people ate. People would sometimes dump the garbage in the latrine instead of walk to the neighborhood dump, MacKinnon said. They can deduce a great deal from the bones about what life was like.

They also can often piece together a typical diet based on recovered porcelain shards.

They can look at bones in a dump and can tell what the animal was, sometimes how it was slaughtered, where it came from, and how the food supply worked.

For instance, if one site had nothing but feet bones, “It tells us that things were marketed and better cuts went elsewhere,” he said.

Zooarchaeologists also have literary evidence of what was eaten from writers such as Juvenal and the poet Martial, often in satirical plays where writers mocked the ostentatious indulgence.

Trentacoste specializes in the Etruscan civilization that preceded Rome in Italy. Much of her digging was in the tombs of rich Etruscans who often were buried with food and utensils. On some sites, she found 20,000 animal bones amid the rubbish.

As the hegemony of Rome grew so did the city and what was a largely rural Etruscan society became a more urban Roman one, she said. That changed the food supply. Most food, as now, came from farms outside the city.

But, the city dwellers still raised pigs. They take up little room, can be easily bred and transported, Trentacoste said, and are easy to raise.

They also had chickens roaming the yards that looked much like the chickens of today, MacKinnon said, and they were close to the same size. Modern farmers use breeding and nutrition to make the chickens grow faster, but eventually Roman chickens would catch up. Cattle take up too much room but rich Romans had beef occasionally, and sometimes goat.

The lower classes ate to stay alive.

Some historians believed the lower class was mostly vegetarian but that is not true, MacKinnon and Trentacoste said. The generally ate the same things the upper class did, but not the same cuts (think mutton versus lamp chops) and probably not in the same quantities. The rich reclined as they ate.

Lower class Romans did not have fancy flatware, instead they used crude utensils.

Low-fat food was not in vogue because the fat would protect meat from spoilage in a world without refrigerators.

Because only the upper class had kitchens at home, other Romans bought food from street vendors, something like the lunch wagons of today. Mostly, MacKinnon said, they would put the food in large pots and make stews or a porridge. They might also boil the meat.

Only the wealthy were able to broil or barbecue.

Despite legend, most Romans or Etruscans did not often eat exotic animals regularly, although upper class diners might enjoy songbirds swallowed whole and one midden in Rome contained the bones of a slaughtered camel. Trentacoste said songbirds are still eaten in some parts of Italy. Pizza had yet not been invented.

One legend is true, MacKinnon said: Vomitoriums. There might be so much food at Piso’s table, and everyone would want to indulge. To make room, they would excuse themselves from the table and purge.

By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor
February 3, 2015

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Lars Williams, an American chef, works aboard a boat in Copenhagen’s harbor that is home to the Nordic Food Lab and the testing ground for one of the world’s most celebrated kitchens. He and his colleagues have embarked on an intriguing quest to discover new flavors using traditional techniques and Scandinavian products. To that end, he’s been fermenting herring and mackerel. “We tried something very simple—salt, fish, and left it in a warm place—and we got a clean, salty fish taste,” he says. “We’re trying to see if there’s a way to get more of that umami richness and less fishiness.”

Before you lose your lunch, consider the following: Fermented fish sauce is hardly a new idea, and it’s even been transformed into a familiar condiment you’ve probably slathered on burgers and fries.

Fish sauce probably started by accident: A fish caught in a rock pool essentially started to digest itself. Humans [1] eventually learned to harness the dual action of saline fermentation and enzymatic autolysis [2]. Modern scholars have not been able to definitively identify the Greek garos (γάρον), the small fish that probably gave rise to garum, a fermented fish sauce that proliferated throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. “Exactly how old garum is can’t be answered,” Robert I. Curtis, an expert in ancient food technology, told me, “but it certainly dates to at least the 7th century B.C.” Romans cooks used garum as an ordinary [3] and affordable condiment, much the way we sometimes use ketchup—to mask the flavors of otherwise off-putting foods.

The tomato sauce we now call ketchup arrived, circuitously, by way of Indonesia, where kecaps—fermented fish and soy sauces—greeted English sailors in the seventeenth century.[4] Nuoc mam, burong-isda, and other fermented fish sauces remain staple condiments across Southeast Asia, whereas Western fish sauce evolved into a tomato-based fermented corn product thanks, at least in part, to the accidental 1957 discovery of an enzyme that could turn corn into high fructose corn syrup.

Fish sauce makes use of naturally occurring substances in fish’s intestines or entrails; the gut of an Atlantic herring, for example, contains chymotrypsin (an enzymes that has been used as a food additive for, among other things, milk in France). Combined with bacteria (Leuconostoc mesenteroides and Lactobaccilus plantarum), the fermented fish transforms into various amino acids, including glutamic acid—the basis for the rich, mouth-coating umami flavor and the much-maligned MSG. Williams says he also adds Aspergillus orzyae starter culture, a mold intrinsic to Japanese cuisine—much like you’d add yeast to bread—to speed the aging process.

Microorganisms give rise to an incredible range of flavors and aromas. If different species mean different tastes, could the geographic range of microorganisms reflect a unique time and place—the Copenhagen harbor, the belly of a herring, or, more broadly, the Atlantic Ocean? Could fermented fish yield up a microbial species tied to place like the yeasts in San Francisco’s sourdough (Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis) or the lambic beers brewed in the Seine River valley (Brettanomyces bruxellensis)?
Rachel Dutton is a microbiologist at Harvard who has been studying microbial interactions. She’s using fermented dairy as a model organism—cheese as a lab rat, essentially. (I talked with her for a forthcoming story in Wired magazine.) “Most of the microbiological research that’s been done in the last 100 years has been focused on disease, for good reason,” she said. “But there’s a lot of diversity within groups of microbes. For example, Staph are found in cheeses and dried cured salamis and they’re not pathogens. The vast majority of microbes do not cause harm to humans, but the one percent that do have that potential. It’s a problem. Talking about the science that’s happening in these foods, how do you make it so people aren’t afraid of the science?”

Another group of chefs, led by Daniel Felder in New York City, suggest that fungal and bacterial cultures could be a way to rekindle our relation with nature. “In large urban environment like New York, alienated from the natural world, it is easy to become disconnected from the concepts of utilization and stewardship for our natural environment.” Perhaps the renewed enthusiasm for fermentation could be a way in—a kind of re-wilding by way of fish sauce, aged cow’s milk cheese, or even a historically accurate, ancient English ketchup. Fermentation could counter our exaggerated perception of microbial risk that’s led to the antiseptic status quo, where Purell®, hypoallergenic cats and antimicrobial everything proliferate.

Still, there’s one other ingredient to consider: disgust. “The fermentation process is one of the most interesting culinary processes,” Williams told me. “The microorganisms are far beyond what you can do with a Maillard reaction, but people say, ‘Fermentation is weird; this is gross or something you might find in the back of the fridge.’ Well, cheese and wine and beer and bread, those are all fermented products.”

Since we cannot readily or easily detect dangerous microorganisms, we may have evolved the predisposition to steer clear of rancid meats with a sense of disgust. As societies became more complex, disgust served as a social function, which may help explain why, on the one hand, fermented milk may sound delicious, while on the other, fish sauce may not.

As scientists continue to unravel the complexity and magic—how certain gut bacteria lead people to prefer or avoid certain foods—we’re still a ways off from revealing the secrets of how fish sauce, or modern condiments, have come to define us. “Where do these organisms in our gut come from, how they take up residence there, or how food-borne organisms impact what’s already there?” Dutton says. “How do they change us? We don’t really know yet.”

[1] Scholars diverge on the question of whether great apes ate fish—or, for that matter, fermented fish. Stephen Cunnane argues that the available amino acids in clams, frogs, and fish drove hominin encephalization. Katharine Milton doesn’t buy it. “If it’s just more of early humans lived by the sea and turned to marine resources sort of stuff and lo and behold their brain got bigger—you can stuff that one in a weighted sack and drop it in the deep blue sea. Brains run on glucose folks!”

[2] Ancient people were able to harness these process, to add chemicals and enzymes, despite the lack of knowledge about microorganisms—which would not emerge until Antony van Leeuwenhoek peered into his homemade microscope in 1665 and laid eyes upon living animalcules.

[3] In a testament to its everyday use, modern archeologists have even used garum to estimate the date upon which Vesuvius erupted based on the seasonal appearance of a sea bream that Linnaeus later classified as Boops boops.

[4] Initially deemed frivolous, historian Andrew F. Smith writes that ketchup’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities—touted in Henry Stubbes’s 1682 book—undoubtedly contributed to their proliferation.

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By peter smith, feb 28, 2012


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