By Tim Hazell
Excavations of Pompeii, the Roman town covered with a layer of ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, represent an exceptional source of information about daily life in the Roman Empire, which resembled that of a Mediterranean city during our great-grandparents’ time. Since there was no electricity, people lived according to the sun’s rhythms; rising at dawn, known as the Hora Prima Diurna, between 4:30 and 5:45am. This was the time to fetch water at public fountains. Breakfast might consist of bread and cheese, possibly with a vegetable, after which the work cycle began, continuing until the Hora Septima, around 12 to 1:30pm. Then fish, vegetables, and fruits were eaten. There might be an entertainment, such as gladiatorial combat, in the amphitheater. Hora Octava (1:30 to 2:30pm.) was reserved for thermal baths. Few homes had running water. People used public baths to wash, exercise, and relax. Baths were also places to talk politics and business.
Romans had dinner before sunset, during the Hora Decima (3:30 to 5:30pm). Typical fare included olives and eggs, meat, vegetables, fish, and simple deserts. Bread, figs, and fresh fruit are often mentioned. There was little nightlife. Streets were unsafe and most citizens went to bed early.
Roman palates differed from the Greeks’, who enjoyed their food plain and simple. Though many of their cooks and carvers were Greeks, Romans delighted in sweet-sour and savory flavors. Recipes were highly original in their marriages of familiar herbs such as mint, celery leaves, and oregano with exotic cumin and coriander seed. Factory-produced garum (fish sauce) was an indispensable component of Roman kitchens. A household version called for anchovies, oregano, and salt, boiled down. Cereals and beans were staples, together with cheese and limited amounts of eggs and meat. Servants were given a high-energy diet of bread, dried fruits, low-quality cheese, and wine. The middle and upper classes enjoyed greater variety. Quantities were larger and ingredients finer for the privileged.
This authentic Roman dish of sole or fish fillets poached in wine and herbs is simple to prepare. The sauce has the fresh taste of vinaigrette; a subtle complement to the delicate fish flavor. As modern Romans say, “Buon appetito!”
4 firm fish fillets, about 1-1/2 lb.
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1 cup white wine
2 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
2 tsp. fresh oregano (1 tsp. dried)
Freshly milled black pepper (1 tsp.)
1 large egg
Place fish in a shallow saucepan with the oil, salt and wine. Cover and poach gently 10 – 15 minutes. Remove pan from heat. Put rosemary, oregano and pepper into a bowl with 3 tbsp. of the liquid in which the fish has cooked. Lightly mix the egg and stir into the liquid. Slowly pour over the fillets in pan. Heat gently, stirring occasionally to keep sauce smooth. Lift fish onto hot serving dish and spoon over sauce. Add a grinding of black pepp