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The Pleasures and Perils of Ancient Rome

Roast Pork 2

By Tim Hazell

Poet and playwright Juvenal (c. 60–131) was a master of satire, using his craft to deliver scathing attacks on vice and corruption in ancient Rome. His teeming metropolis had an estimated population of one million. A third of the urban space was taken up by the estates, called domus, of wealthy citizens. The majority lived in buildings of several stories, called insula, lacking amenities and central plumbing. Apartments were in constant danger of burning down due to small cooking fires. The overwhelming crush of humanity comes to life in Juvenal’s words.

“Though we hurry, we merely crawl; we’re blocked by a surging mass ahead, a pushing wall of people behind. A man jabs me, elbowing through, one socks a chair pole against me, one cracks my skull with a beam, and one knocks a wine cask against my ear. My legs are caked with splashing mud, from all sides the weight of enormous feet comes smashing on mine, and a soldier stamps his hobnails through to my sole.”

Juvenal was an astute observer with little patience for the whims and extravagance of the nouveaux riches. The poet was an eccentric in an affluent society who craved simplicity in the midst of opulence. Rome’s cultural benefits were many, including festivals, circuses, and spectacles in the Forum. There were baths, libraries, foods of every description, actors, acrobats, and all the hum and electricity of street life. However, conditions in the thoroughfares were precarious. With the dark of night, perils increased as Juvenal illustrates.

“Look at other things, the various dangers of nighttime. How high it is to the cornice that breaks, and a chunk beats my brains out, or some slob heaves a jar, broken or cracked from a window. Bang! It comes down with a crash and proves its weight on the sidewalk. You are a thoughtless fool, unmindful of sudden disaster, if you don’t make your will before you go out to have dinner. There are as many deaths in the night as there are open windows where you pass by; if you’re wise, you will pray, in your wretched devotions. People may be content with no more than emptying slop jars.”

When his fortunes had improved, Juvenal acquired a country home. His predilections for free-range chicken, young lamb, new-laid eggs, fresh fruit, and herbs paralleled our modern health-food movement. Roman food had a sharp and piquant flavor, refreshingly aromatic, redolent of herbs, olive oil, and wine. Romans had no sugar and never cooked with butter. Honey was used for sweetening as was passum, a specially prepared sweet wine. Garum, a combination of brine boiled with dry fish such as anchovies, replaced salt. Roman instructions for cooking were terse and not too precise. “Pound pepper, rue, onion, savory, a little wine, garum and oil—not too much.” I’d like to conclude with a Roman recipe, written down by the gourmet Apicius, a contemporary of Juvenal. This method of roasting pork produces succulent results.

Porcellum Aenococtum (Pork Roasted with Aromatic Herbs and Spices)

Serves 6

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 loin of pork

1 cup red wine

1/4 cup water

4 teaspoons garum (substitute 1 teaspoon salt or 1 tablespoon Oriental fish sauce)

1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander

4 spring onions sliced in half lengthwise and quartered

1 teaspoon sugar

For the sauce

½ teaspoon ground pepper

1 tablespoon chopped celery leaves

1 teaspoon crushed caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seed

1 teaspoon dried or fresh oregano

6 tablespoons red wine sweetened with 1 teaspoon sugar

1 level tablespoon corn flour

Heat the oil in a casserole over direct heat. Add the pork, brown gently on all sides, add the red wine, water, and half the garum with the coriander and spring onions. Cover and place in a pre-heated 200 C (390 F) oven, roasting 25 minutes per pound and 25 minutes extra. Baste the loin frequently with pan juices, lowering the heat to 190 C (375 F) half-way through, earlier if the loin is browning too quickly. On top of the stove place pepper, celery leaves, caraway, celery seed, and oregano in a saucepan. Add the rest of the garum, sweetened red wine, and 3 tablespoons of liquid in which the pork is cooking. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes, turn off the heat, and set aside. Dish up the pork, pouring off some of the fat. Blend the corn flour with a little cold water and stir into the mixture in the saucepan. Pour the contents of the saucepan into the juices in the casserole. Bring to the boil stirring all the time until the sauce thickens. Serve separately in a sauce boat with a grinding of black pepper and a sprinkle of chopped coriander.


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