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De Gustibus

Patina Solearum


By Tim Hazell

Excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two Roman cities destroyed and covered with a layer of ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, provide an exceptional source of information about daily life, 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. They rose at dawn, known as the hora prima diurna, between 4:30 and 5:45am. This was the hour to fetch water at the public fountains. Breakfast might consist of bread and cheese, possibly with a vegetable, after which the work cycle began, continuing until the hora septima, from 12:00 to 1:30 pm. Then fish, vegetables, and fruits were eaten. There might be entertainment, such as a gladiatorial combat, in the amphitheater. Hora octava, from 1:30 to 2:30 pm, was reserved for the public baths. Few homes had running water. People used these gathering places to wash, exercise, and relax. Roman baths were also ideal locations to discuss business and politics.

Citizens had dinner before sunset, during the hora decima, from 3:30–5:30 pm. Typical fare included olives, eggs, meat, vegetables, fish, and simple desserts. Bread, figs, and fresh fruit are often mentioned in accounts. There was little nightlife. Streets were unsafe, and most citizens went to bed early.

Roman palates differed from that of 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, 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 other 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 flavor. As modern Romans say, “Buon appetito!


Patina Solearum

Serves 4


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 large egg


Place the fillets in a shallow saucepan with the oil, salt, and wine. Cover and poach very gently for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from heat. Put rosemary, oregano, and pepper into a bowl with 3 tablespoons of the liquid in which the fish has cooked. Lightly mix the egg and stir into the liquid. Slowly pour over the fillets in the pan. Reheat gently, stirring occasionally to keep sauce smooth. Serve with a garnish of herbs and grinding of black pepper.


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