feast

Our most important source on Roman gastronomy is the cookbook of Apicius, compiled in or around the late 4th century AD, and containing recipes for such delicacies as larks’ tongues, sterile sows’ wombs, and milk-fed snails. The Apicius in question is not to be confounded with Marcus Gavius Apicius, the gourmet extraordinaire of the 1st century AD, who fed dried figs to his pigs to make the porcine equivalent of foie gras. According to Pliny, Apicius was ‘born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived’ (ad omne luxus ingenium natus). It is said that he committed suicide after having spent 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, and discovering that he had only 10 million sestertii left.

By the late Republic, Roman meals consisted of breakfast or ientaculum at dawn, a small lunch or prandium around noon, and a large dinner or cena in the evening. A simple dinner with the family normally took place in the atrium, and may have consisted of vegetable courses and salads accompanied by eggs, cheese, and beans, and rounded off with fruits and nuts. By the end of the Republic, the cena consisted of three distinct courses, and, in the presence of guests, could segue into a late-night drinking party or comissatio—the Roman equivalent of a Greek symposium.

On these more formal occasions, the feasting took place in a dining room called a triclinium (from the Greek τρικλίνιον, ‘three couches’), with couches arranged on three sides of a central table. The fourth, open side usually faced the entrance of the room, and afforded a space for slaves to service the table. Each couch admitted of at most three diners, reclining on their left elbow with their head pointing at the table; in some cases, a fourth diner—usually an intimate friend or a minor of high social standing—could also be seated. The required posture would have been uncomfortable had the couches not been covered in cushions and positively inclined towards the table. The various positions around the table were not all equal, with the host seating his guests according to social status and closeness or intimacy. Unlike in Greece, women could be present; in the Republic they usually sat on chairs, but in the Empire they could also recline on a couch. Grander houses often featured a second, summer triclinium in or overlooking the garden, and the grandest houses had three or four or even more triclinia.

Upon arrival, guests at a dinner party removed their sandals and washed their hands. The host did not provide any napkins, and each guest had to bring his own. Napkins served to wipe the hands and mouth, of course, but also to take home leftover tit bits and even, in some cases, a gift or souvenir from the host. During the meal, food was taken from plate to mouth with three fingers or with one of two spoons, the larger lugula for soups and pottages and the smaller, prong-like cochlear for eggs and shellfish. Between the three principal courses, diners rinsed their fingers in perfumed water whilst slaves washed the table and swept away the bones and shells that had been tossed onto the floor. After the second course, the host made an offering of something like meat, cake, and wine to the Lares of the house. Conversation made up the bulk of the evening’s entertainment, and could be supplemented with a recital of literature or poetry, and even with performances by acrobats, conjurers, musicians, singers, or dancers—although the diners themselves never got up to dance. At the end of the evening, guests called for their sandals (whence the expression, soleas poscere, ‘to ask for one’s sandals’—to prepare to leave) and maybe received a gift or souvenir to take home in their napkin.

The Roman dinner party is a popular and recurrent theme in Roman literature. In a letter, Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) chides his friend Septicius Clarus for not turning up to his dinner party,

All ready were a lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, porridge, with mulsum and snow … olives, beetroot, gourds, bulbs, and a thousand other things no less appreciated. You would have heard comic actors or a poetry reader or a lyrist, or, such is my generosity, all three. But you chose to go to someone else’s for oysters, sows’ wombs, sea urchins, and dancing girls from Cadiz.

The best if most lurid description of a Roman dinner party is Trimalchio’s Feast (Cena Trimalchionis) in the Satyricon, a rather salacious novel attributed to Petronius, a courtier in the time of Nero. Trimalchio’s Feast is arguably the most celebrated section of the Satyricon, even though—or perhaps because—it has done untold harm to the reputation of the Roman dinner party. Trimalchio, a freedman who has come into enormous wealth, entertains his guests with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance. For example, he brings out Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 180 years prior, and serves a course with a multitude of disparate ingredients each representing one of the signs of the zodiac: a lobster for Capricorn, the udder of a young sow for Virgo, testicles and kidneys (which come in pairs) for Gemini, and so on. The evening culminates with his entire household gratifying him with an enactment of his funeral.

The Romans ate all sorts of food. Rather than itemizing all the ingredients available to the Romans, it is simpler and easier to itemize all the ingredients not available at the height of the Empire. The principal items on this list of absentees are sugar, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, rice, butter, tea, coffee, chocolate, bananas, peanuts, and chili pepper. The Eastern conquests of Alexander the Great had brought back to Greece such delicacies as citrus fruits, peaches, pistachio nuts, and even the prized peacock. As they became increasingly rich and cosmopolitan, the Romans left behind their diet of emmer wheat gruel and adopted and adapted the sophisticated Greek cuisine. In time, Roman cuisine became even more exciting and exotic than the Greek—not entirely dissimilar, in fact, to modern Indian cuisine, with any one Roman dish enhanced by up to 15 different herbs and spices. The Romans had something of a sweet tooth, and many of their dishes involved balancing the sweetness of honey or concentrated grape juice (defrutum) with the acidity, sourness, or bitterness of vinegar, fish sauce (garum or liquamen), and a vast array of fresh and dried herbs and expensive spices—including even, from the first century AD, the pepper of south India and the cloves of the Spice Islands. Fish sauce, which was not dissimilar to Thai nam pla, was made from whole small fish such as anchovy, sardine, mackerel, sprat, and herring. The fish were macerated in salt and left to liquefy over a period of several weeks. This liquefaction resulted not from bacterial putrefaction, which the salt would have prevented, but from proteolysis by the enzymes contained in the viscera of the fish. Meat was relatively expensive. The cow was seen as a draught animal, and pork, rodents such as rabbit and hare, foul, and fish were much preferred to beef. Red mullet, which, upon dying, assumed a variety of colours and shades with which to entertain guests, was particularly sought after, as were dormice, which were typically stuffed with minced pork, pepper, pine kernels, and garum. Indeed, one of the many dishes to feature in Trimalchio’s Feast is ‘a row of dormice, glazed in honey and rolled in poppy seeds’.

Despite such extravagances, many Romans took great pride in the freshness and simplicity of their produce—and all the more if it has been sourced from their country farm. Of course, many people could not afford extravagant ingredients, and had to make do with a staple of wheat bread augmented with some fruit and vegetables and whatever else they could find or afford. In imperial times, many Romans lived in cramped apartments without access to a kitchen or open fire. Rather than cook at home, they bought food from street stalls and food shops, or else ate out in taverns and restaurants. In his Letters to Lucilius, Seneca the Younger complains about the constant noise from the street outside his apartment, ‘the cakeseller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation’. The poorest Romans could not even afford street food, and came to rely on the free bread ration issued to inhabitants of the city. After the suicide of Cleopatra and annexation of Egypt, vast grain ships ploughed the route from Alexandria to Ostia to supply Rome with the immense quantities of wheat required for the bread ration. After being shipwrecked on Malta, it is on such a ship that St Paul reached Italy.

Early foragers and farmers made wine from wild grapes or other fruits. According to archaeological evidence, by 6000 BC grape wine was being made in the Caucasus, and by 3200 BC domesticated grapes had become abundant in the entire Near East. In Mesopotamia, wine was imported from the cooler northern regions, and so came to be known as ‘liquor of the mountains’. In Egypt as in Mesopotamia, wine was for nobles and priests, and mostly reserved for religious or medicinal purposes. The Egyptians fermented grape juice in amphorae which they covered with cloth or leather lids and then sealed up with mud from the Nile. By biblical times, wine had acquired some less dignified purposes. According to the Old Testament, Noah planted a vineyard, and ‘drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent’ (Genesis 9:21). Skip to the New Testament and here is Jesus employed as a wine consultant: ‘And no man putteth new wine into old wineskins: else the wine bursts the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins: but new wine must be put into new skins’ (Mark 2:22).

Many of the grape varieties that are cultivated in modern Greece are similar or identical to those cultivated there in Ancient times. Wine played a central role in Ancient Greek culture, and the vine—which, as in the Near East, had been domesticated by the Early Bronze Age—was widely cultivated. The Minoans, who flourished on the island of Crete from c.2700 to c.1450 BC, imported and exported different wines, which they used not only for recreational but also for religious and ritual purposes. Wine played a similarly important role for the later Myceneans, who flourished on mainland Greece from c.1600 to 1100 BC. In fact, wine was so important to the Greeks as to be personified by a major deity, Dionysus or Bacchus, and honoured with a number of annual festivals. One such festival was the Anthesteria, which, held in February each year, celebrated the opening of wine jars to test the new wine. Active in the 9th century BC, the poet Homer often sung of wine, famously alluding to the Aegean as the ‘wine dark sea’. In the Odyssey, he says that ‘wine can of their wits the wise beguile/ Make the sage frolic, and the serious smile’. In the Works and Days, the poet Hesiod, who lived in the 7th or 8th century BC, speaks of pruning and even of drying the grapes prior to fermentation. The Greeks plainly understood that no two wines are the same, and held the wines of Thassos, Lesbos, Chios, and Mende in especially high regard; Theophrastus, a contemporary and close friend of Aristotle, even demonstrated some pretty clear notions of terroir.

In Ancient Greece, vines were left to their own devices, supported on forked props, or trained up trees. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder describes the Ancient Greek practice of using partly dehydrated gypsum prior to fermentation, and some type of lime after fermentation, to remove acidity—but this was no doubt a relatively recent or infrequent practice. The wine was neither racked nor fined, and it was not uncommon for the drinker to want to pass it through a sieve or strainer. Additives such as aromatic herbs, spice, honey, or a small part of seawater were often added both to improve and preserve the wine—which could also be concentrated by boiling. Finished wine was stored in amphorae lined with resin or pitch, both substances that imparted some additional and characteristic flavour. Generally speaking, wine was sweeter then than it is today, reflecting not only prevalent tastes, but also the ripeness of the grapes, the use of natural yeasts in fermentation, and the lack of temperature control during fermentation. At the same time, wine did come in a wide variety of styles, some of which were markedly austere. To drink undiluted wine was considered a bad and barbarian practice—almost as bad as drinking beer like the Babylonian or Egyptian peasant classes. Wine was diluted with two or three parts of water to produce a beverage with an alcoholic strength of around 3-5%. The comedian Hermippus, who flourished in the golden age of Athens, described the best vintage wines as having a nose of violets, roses, and hyacinths; however, most wine would have turned sour within a year and specific vintages are never mentioned.

Together with the sea-faring Phoenicians, the Ancient Greeks disseminated the vine throughout the Mediterranean, and even named southern Italy Oenotria or ‘Land of Vines’. If wine was important to the Greeks, it was even more so to the Romans, who thought of it as a daily necessity of life and democratized its drinking. They established a great number of Western Europe’s major wine producing regions, not only to provide steady supplies for their soldiers and colonists, but also to trade with native tribes and convert them to the Roman cause. In particular, the trade of Hispanic wines surpassed that even of Italian wines, with Hispanic amphorae having been unearthed as far as Britain and the limes Germanicus or German frontier. In his Geographica (7 BC), Strabo states that the vineyards of Hispania Beatica (which roughly corresponds to modern Andalucia) were famous for their great beauty. The area of Pompeii produced a great deal of wine, much of it destined for the city of Rome, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD led to a dramatic shortage. The people of Rome panicked, uprooting food crops to plant vineyards. This led to a food shortage and wine glut, which in 92 AD compelled the emperor Domitian to issue an edict banning the planting of vineyards in Rome.

The Romans left behind a number of agricultural treatises that provide a wealth of information on Roman viticulture and winemaking. In particular, Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura (c. 160 BC) served as the Roman textbook of winemaking for several centuries. In De Re Rustica, Columella surveyed the main grape varieties, which he divided into three main groups: noble varieties for great Italian wines, high yielding varieties that can nonetheless produce age-worthy wines, and prolific varieties for ordinary table wine. Pliny the Elder, who also surveyed the main grape varieties, claimed that ‘classic wines can only be produced from vines grown on trees’, and it is true that the greatest wines of Campania, such as Caecuban and Falernian, nearly all came from vines trained on trees—often elms or poplars. Both Caecuban and Falernian were white sweet wines, although there also existed a dry style of Falernian. Undiluted Falernian contained a high degree of alcohol; so high that a candle flame could set it alight. It was deemed best to drink Falernian at about 15-20 years old, and another classed growth called Surrentine at 25 years old or more. The Opimian vintage of 121 BC, named after the consul in that year Lucius Opimius, acquired legendary fame, with some examples still being drunk more than 100 years later.

The best wines were made from the initial and highly prized free-run juice obtained from the treading of the grapes. At the other end of the spectrum were posca, a mixture of water and sour wine that had not yet turned to vinegar, and lora, a thin drink or piquette produced from a third pressing of grape skins. Following the Greek invention of the screw, screw presses became common on Roman villas. Grape juice was fermented in large clay vessels called dolia, which were often partially sunk into the ground. The wine was then racked into amphorae for storing and shipping. Barrels invented by the Gauls and, later still, glass bottles invented by the Syrians vied as alternatives to amphorae. As in Ancient Greece, additives were common: chalk or marble to neutralize excess acid; and boiled must, herbs, spice, honey, resin, or seawater to improve and preserve thin offerings. Maderization was common and sought after; at the same time, rooms destined for wine storage were sometimes built so as to face north and away from the sun. Following the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Church perpetuated the knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, first and foremost to provide the blood of Christ for the celebration of Mass.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The region of Bordeaux in Aquitaine lies around the confluence of the Rivers Garonne and Dordogne. This confluence gives rise to the Gironde estuary, the largest estuary in Europe, which flows northwest for some 65km (40m) before merging into the Bay of Biscay.

The Romans first carried the vine to Bordeaux, as attested by the 1st century naturalist Pliny the Elder and the 4th century rhetorician Ausonius, who is still remembered by Château Ausone in Saint- Emilion. In 1152, Henry II of England married the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine: the region came under English rule and ‘claret’ (Bordeaux red wine) under great demand. By the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, France had regained control of the Bordelais; but, despite heavy export duties, the British Isles remained an important market for claret.

In the course of the 17th century, Dutch traders drained the marshland around the Médoc, which soon outclassed the Graves as the pre-eminent viticultural area of the Bordelais. Pierre de Rauzan, a grand bourgeois and manager of Château Latour until his death in 1692, accumulated the land that later became Châteaux Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pichon Longueville Baron, Rauzan-Ségla, and Rauzan-Gassies. Later, Nicolas Alexandre, marquis de Ségur acquired the epithet Prince des Vignes after coming into possession of the Médoc properties of Châteaux Lafite, Latour, Mouton, and Calon-Ségur. He turned some pebbles of Pauillac into buttons for his coat, which Louis XV once mistook for diamonds.

In 1855, Napoleon III ordered a classification of the top châteaux of Bordeaux for the Exposition Universelle de Paris. Bordeaux brokers ranked 61 châteaux into five crus or ‘growths’ based on a savant mélange of price and reputation. All of the 61 châteaux that made it into their classification are in the Haut Médoc, bar one—Haut Brion in the Graves.

Starting in the late 19th century, the Bordelais began to suffer from a succession of American imports, first oidium (powdery mildew) and then phylloxera. In the wake of phylloxera, the vineyards had to be replanted onto American rootstock, and the grape varieties that tolerated this best such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot became dominant. But then came downy mildew and black rot, followed by war, economic depression, more war, the severe frost of 1956, and an oil crisis. In the late 20th century, many châteaux found themselves in a state of utter disrepair and in dire need of the restoration and regeneration that is still under way.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Port can be matured either oxidatively in wood or reductively in bottles. The four principal styles of reductive port are ruby, late bottled vintage (LBV), crusted, and vintage. Ruby is the most ubiquitous style of port. It is a blend of the most recent harvests matured for no more than 1-3 years. Before bottling, it is fined and cold filtered and so does not require decanting. It is deep red in colour (whence its name), fresh and fruit-driven with a medium body and lesser tannins than a vintage port. It is ready to drink immediately upon release and does not tend to improve with age. Port labelled with ‘Reserve’ is essentially premium ruby, sourced from better vineyards and matured for a longer period of 4-6 years. Compared to simple ruby, it is richer, denser, and more complex.

LBV is a single vintage port that is sourced from better vineyards and that spends 4-6 years in wood (considerably longer than vintage port, whence LBV). It used to be made only in non-vintage years from grapes that would otherwise have gone into the vintage port; today the main idea is to speed up the ageing of a quality port by exposing it to oxygen for several years longer than a vintage port. LBV is commonly fined and filtered prior to bottling, in which case it does not need decanting. However, the process of filtering does strip the wine of some of its substance, for which reason unfiltered LBVs benefit more from bottle age. These unfiltered, so-called Traditional LBV, ports tend to be made in better years and must spend a further 3 years in bottle prior to release. Rather than a stoppered cork, they are capped with a conventional cork that is more conducive to bottle ageing.

Though the standard-bearer for the Douro, vintage port accounts for no more than 2% of total port production. Needless to say, it must be made entirely from grapes of a declared vintage year. The decision to declare a year as a full vintage is made by each individual port house in the spring of the second year following the harvest. Historically, port houses have declared a full vintage about three times a decade. If a port house does not declare a year as a full vintage, it may still declare a top-quality single quinta. In many cases, a single quinta vintage port is only made in non-vintage years to prevent the grapes from the best vineyards from going into a lesser port. This is the case, for example, with Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas. Vintage port is matured in wood for up to two and a half years, and often requires another 10-30 years in bottle before being ready to drink (although it is drunk much younger in France and the USA). Old vintage port is extremely rich, balanced, and complex with aromas of cocoa, coffee, cedar and spice, and even—for example on the 1977 Graham’s—fennel and liquorice.

Crusted port is a blend of several recent vintages, with the date on the label referring to the year of bottling rather than to the year of the vintage. It spends at least 3 years in bottle and is ready to drink right from release, making it an affordable and undemanding alternative to vintage port. At the same time, it is also capable of improving further in bottle. As it has not been filtered, it deposits a great deal of sediment or ‘crust’ and needs careful decanting. It is, in effect, a super-premium unfiltered ruby port that resembles vintage port in both style and substance.

The three styles of oxidative port are tawny, colheita, and garrafeira. ‘Tawny’ refers to the oxidized, golden-brown hue that quality port acquires from long maturation in small casks with frequent racking. So as to accelerate the ageing process, some tawnies are aged in the baking hot Douro rather than in the more temperate climes of Vila Nova de Gaia. Inexpensive tawny port is a blend of lighter ruby port and white port, and tends to be pink rather than tawny in colour. Premium tawny port is made from high quality grapes not included in vintage and single quinta vintage ports. It may be sold either with an indicated age (10, 20, 30, or ‘more than 40’ years) or simply as ‘Old Tawny’ that is typically about 8 years old. Older tawnies in particular can be incredibly complex and balanced, dominated by aromas of burnt toast, nuts, dried fruit, coffee, and the ethyl ester and acetal products of esterification. Colheita is essentially tawny from a single vintage. Garrafeira, which is an uncommon style, is port from a single vintage that has been matured oxidatively in wood (for about 3-6 years) and then reductively in large glass demijohns (for at least a further 8 years).

Port is not invariably red. White port is made from white grapes, and ranges in style from dry to very sweet. White port darkens with age, such that a very old white port can be difficult if not impossible to distinguish from a very old red port.

I find it difficult if not impossible to write about port without having some. Saude!

Neel Burton runs the Oxford Summer School on the Appreciation of Fine Wine.

Port is a fortified, typically red and sweet, wine that comes in a number of styles. It is produced in a demarcated region in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, inland from the eponymous city of Porto.

Non-fortified wine has been made in the Douro Valley since Roman times, and became an important export following the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1143. The 1386 Treaty of Windsor established close trading and diplomatic links between England and Portugal, with many English merchants settling in Portugal and exporting wines back to England from Viana do Castelo on the broad estuary of the Lima River. These light and astringent wines came from the nearby Minho region, and compared poorly to the more expensive wines of Bordeaux.

In 1667, Colbert, first minister to Louis XIV, restricted the import of English goods into France, provoking Charles II to prohibit the import of French wines. The English merchants at Viana do Castelo stepped in to fill the supply gap. To satisfy English tastes, they began sourcing more robust, full-bodied wines from the then remote upper Douro Valley. These wines could not be transported over land to Viana do Castelo, compelling the merchants to relocate a few miles south to Oporto near the mouth of the Douro River.

The trade in the wines of Oporto or ‘port wines’ received a further fillip from the Methuen Treaty of 1703, which led, amongst others, to a fall in the duty on Portuguese wines exported to England. Port wines soon became a victim of their own success, with some producers and shippers adding sugar or elderberry in a bid to improve their often thin, overstretched offerings. In 1756 (just one year after the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake) these problems together with a resulting fall in demand impelled the then prime minister of Portugal the Marquês de Pombal to regulate production. This led to the demarcation of the Douro vineyard area by 335 stone pillars or marcos pombalinos, and, in the following year, to the classification of the vineyards according to quality.

Shippers sometimes added a small amount of brandy or grape spirit to stabilize the wine on its voyage to England. Over time, it became common practice to add the brandy before the wine had finished fermenting since this resulted in a fresher, sweeter, and more appealing wine. And it soon became apparent that these fortified wines also had a vastly superior ageing potential. As bottles became progressively more elongated in shape, it became possible to store them on their side and thus to cellar single vintage wines. 1820 produced such an exceptional vintage that subsequent vintages had to be fortified to even hold comparison, and by 1850 the practice of fortification had become near universal.

During the occupation of Oporto by Napoleon’s army from 1809 to 1811 the port trade came to virtual standstill. Trading also suffered in the 1820s and early 1830s from political turmoil culminating in the Portuguese Civil War over the royal succession and the 1832 siege of Oporto. Having withstood these early setbacks, the port trade flourished in the latter part of the 19th century, and it is in this period that it became customary to ‘declare’ the finest vintages. These Halcyon days came to an abrupt end in 1868 with the arrival of the Phylloxera louse from North America via the Southern Rhone, which resulted in such severe damage as to ruin several long established producers. The port trade did not fully recover until the 1890s, by which time the majority of vines had been grafted onto Phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.

Until well into the 20th century, port was carried downriver to the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia (just across the river from Porto) on flat-bottomed vessels called barcos rabelos. So as to best navigate through treacherous rapids, the barcos rabelos were equipped with a long steering oar operated from the top of a raised platform. A broad sail enabled them to make the return journey upriver, although in certain parts they required further assistance from oxen straining on a towpath. Until the end of the 18th century, a waterfall in a narrow gorge had obstructed passage into the remote Upper Douro (Douro Superior). The opening of this gorge to river traffic in the 1780s greatly facilitated the emergence of some of today’s finest Douro estates. The Duoro of today has been dammed and is comparatively easy to navigate, but port is sent to the sea by road and rail rather than by the river. The last commercial voyage of a barco rabelo took place in about 1961.

Barcos rabelos