“…in jolly hymns, they praise the god of wine, whose earthen images adorn the pine, and there are hung on high, in honour of the vine…”
An Oscilla, a marble disk with a carved relief of a theatrical mask on one side and a griffin on another, hangs between two columns in the peristyle at the Domvs Romana in Rabat, a silent signpost to a room erstwhile dedicated to feasting and inebriation.
Virgil’s verses describing an Oscilla from his ‘Georgics‘ is a fitting introduction to the world of the Triclinium, a Roman dining room, where guests ate reclining on their left-hand sides on couches in a hierarchical arrangement.
The Triclinium, with its mosaic border fragment, featuring a garland of theatrical masks, apples, pomegranates, and pears, faces the peristyle. It opens up to the adjacent oecus, an extension of the dining area used for entertainment. The Romans rose early at sunrise and commenced their day with a minimal breakfast (ientaculum) in the morning, often leftovers from the night before, followed by a light lunch (prandium). A sought-after invitation to Cena or dinner was solicited at the baths during the afternoon. The early evening meal was an essential interlude in the patron-client business relationship over which an affluent pater-familias presided.
Whereas the lower classes in Ancient Rome lived on a diet of pottage or puls, a mixture of ground-wheat or barley and water with vegetables and lentils, olive oil, bread, and occasional meatballs, the inhabitants of the Domvs most likely had access to more exotic food such as eels, snails and the ubiquitous garum, a fish sauce made from fermented fish parts.
Delicacies such as dormice in honey, flamingo tongues, peacocks, and the ‘pastry eggs stuffed with unborn bird embryo’ served during Trimalchio’s nouveau-riche, fictionalised banquet in Petronius’ Satyricon might seem unusual menu choices for the modern palate. Yet, surprisingly according to the Roman Historian Tacitus, horsemeat was considered ‘profane’ for human consumption.
In 1960 a piece of carbonised dough was found within the ruins of the Roman tower at Ta’ Ġawhar located between Ħal Safi and Żurrieq. Originally thought to be a piece of bread, “it is the only evidence, apart from knife incisions on animal bones, that we have of Roman food in Malta,” explains David Cardona, Senior Curator for Phoenician, Roman, and Medieval sites at Heritage Malta.
The dough will form part of a series of new interpretation panels and screen displays that constitute some of the activities commemorating the 140th anniversary of the Domvs Romana’s accidental discovery in 1821. Amongst the fine North African ceramic, red slipped plates and bowls, a copper trefoil ewer, and a striking glass amphora on display, the eye is drawn to a horn-shaped drinking vessel tapering to a stylized snail’s head which serves as a spout. The glass ‘Rython‘ was used in drinking games held during the ‘commisatio’ (drinking party) that often followed festive banquets. Roman wine, which was very strong and mixed with water and honey, was poured from above into the Rython, and drinkers would have to aim the Dyonisian nectar into their mouths.
Many of the food items that today we take for granted in Mediterranean cuisine, such as corn, potatoes, aubergines, peppers, courgettes, green beans, or tomatoes, had not yet been discovered by the ancient Romans. “They had no sugar either, which is one of the reasons why the casts from Pompeii and Herculaneum have very healthy teeth,” affirms Janica Buhagiar, Curatorial Coordinator for Roman Sites at Heritage Malta. Among the most coveted seasonings was laserpitium, or laser, the extract of wild giant fennel (silphium), which the Romans loved so much that they ate the plant into extinction. “Laser was not only a versatile culinary ingredient but was used for medicinal purposes as well as a digestive aid. It was also believed to be a contraceptive.”
The Romans cooked their food in multi-nuanced layers of herbs and spices, including savory, rue, lovage, coriander, myrtle, and bayberries. Cumin was their go-to spice of choice, and it is no coincidence that the Island of Comino derives its name from the seed which was once cultivated on its shores. They sweetened their food with Passum, a wine made from raisins, Defrutum from grape must, dates and honey. Sweet and savoury flavours were frequently juxtaposed in the same dish. A popular dessert that makes an appearance in Apicius’ first century AD cookbook might not be quite the crowd-pleaser today. His honey and pear Patina ( a type of custard) was cooked with cumin, fish sauce, and black pepper!
Written by Warren Bugeja, Executive Communications, Heritage Malta