A surprising number of foods enjoyed by our ancient forebears remain a commonly consumed part of diets around the world in modern times. Among them of course is bread, in different forms and styles depending on the cultures of the consumers. Another is beer, considered a food to the ancients. The builders of the Great Pyramids of Giza provided the workers with over four liters of beer each day, which served as both refreshment and nutrition. Likely it inspired a low absentee rate as well.
Other foods consumed in ancient times have fallen by the wayside over the centuries, for various reasons. One is extinction. For example, there is ample evidence that prehistoric man hunted mastodons, likely for food, as well as for the acquisition of a fur coat. Alas, roast mastodon is no longer possible. But other foods enjoyed by the ancients remain available and should be considered for a return to modern menus and dinner tables. Here are 10 such foods, offered for consideration for discriminating palates.
10. Peacocks and Peahens
The ancient Romans enjoyed a showy display during their feasts and celebrations, with the presentation of food an important part of the repast. Modern day chefs and cooks are taught the importance of presentation as well. For the Romans, a roasted peacock arrived at banquet tables adorned with its tailfeathers and wings displayed. The practice continued well into medieval times, usually at the tables of the well-to-do. How and when it died out is hard to say. In some areas, it hasn’t died out at all; at least, the consumption of peafowl remains a practice.
Peafowl are members of the family which includes pheasant, turkey, and quail, the consumption of which remains common. A quick internet search reveals numerous recipes for peafowl, including roasting a whole bird, cooking individual parts of the bird, or making peafowl sausage. In China they are bred commercially for consumption. Certainly, a whole roasted peacock, prepared and presented in the ancient manner would appear a more sumptuous meal than a mere turkey or chicken. Or… maybe not.
The ancient Romans, both the peasant farmers and soldiers in the legions, enjoyed a potable known as posca. Posca consisted of cheap, low-quality wine or wine vinegar, flavored with herbs and spices, to which water was added. The acid of the vinegar acted to kill most of the germs in the water, should it be contaminated, and the result was a healthful drink. It helped hydrate and refresh its consumers, and was especially popular in the Roman army, which carried it on the march in large barrels, premixed.
The Romans believed posca fortified them, as it were, on the march and in camp. Their commanders, in part to help foster the belief, consumed posca, though in general upper class Romans detested the drink. Consuming good wine was considered detrimental to discipline and a violation of duty while on a military campaign, and many Roman commanders took posca instead, including Julius Caesar and Hadrian. They believed that if posca was good enough for the commander, the men in the ranks should expect nothing better.
Carob is known today as the basis for ersatz chocolate. Native to the Mediterranean region, it was well known to the Greeks and Romans in ancient times. Carob is a flowering plant, a member of the legume family which includes both peas and beans. Nowadays it is commonly found dried and ground into powder, or in prepared foods such as carob chips or bars. Some people enjoy carob as a beverage, dubiously claiming it to be as tasty as real cocoa.
The Romans, and the Greeks before them, considered carob a fruit, and devoured it as such. The edible seeds, as with peas and beans, grow in a pod. Romans encountering carob shrubs with ripe pods simply ate the seeds directly from the branch, without further preparation. Carob is seldom found commercially today in anything but dried form, but if it was good enough for the Romans fresh from the tree, it should be good enough for us.
Garum was the Roman name for a sauce used as a condiment across the ancient Mediterranean. It was enjoyed by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, and in the Arab world. Surely such a popular condiment would be welcome today. It likely would be, if one was unaware of what it was made from, and the process of its preparation. It is said it offered a savory taste, used in which to dip bread, and flavor meat and vegetables.
To make it, cooks first created a brine. They then added fish intestines, which marinated in the brine until well pickled, at least 48 hours. The mixture was then mashed, no doubt offering an appetizing scent and sight, after which it was allowed to ferment for several weeks. Sometimes it was dried into a thick paste, called muria, and used similarly to salt. The best garum used in the homes of the wealthy was expensive, as would be expected of pickled fish guts. Garum was commercially manufactured and exported by the Romans, and a kosher version was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, indicating it was part of Jewish cuisine as well.
6. Chian Wine
Chian wine was a product of the Greek island of Chios, and considered by the ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, as the finest of all wines. They called it black wine, though it was likely a deep red color. Plutarch described it as expensive, but worth it. By the fourth century BCE, Chios exported a great deal of the stuff to Athens. The Greek geographer and historian Strabo considered it the finest wine in Greece at the time. Chian wine was not aged in oak barrels, but earthenware jars called amphorae, which may have accounted for its special taste.
The ancient Romans regarded beer with disdain, since it was the preferred beverage of the Celts, Britons, and other barbarians. They preferred wines, and the black wines of Chios were held in high esteem by the elite of Roman society as the finest available. Until the 1st century CE Chian wines were expensive and rare in Rome, and used mainly as a medicine for those who could afford it. It later became more affordable, at least for the wealthy. The famed physician Galen considered its medicinal properties were extensive, and prescribed it for a wide variety of maladies, including somewhat understandably, melancholia.
In the ancient Mediterranean the staple fats were oils, primarily from the olive, but also from sesame and other sources. In Ancient China, as far back as 4000 BCE, pork and domestic chickens were consumed. The fatty portions of domestic hogs were rendered into lard, used as both a cooking fat and a lubricant by the Chinese. Its use traveled westward many centuries later, though its use never achieved much popularity in the Mediterranean diet, for both religious and cultural reasons.
Those beer drinking barbarians liked it though, and for many more centuries it was the preferred cooking fat in western cooking. Eventually, after its cholesterol raising qualities were better understood, it fell into disuse. Those who support English style cooking, and those of the American south still consider lard to be the best fat used for baking biscuits and piecrusts, and for many other culinary applications. As one famous American chef is wont to say, pork fat rules.
4. Melas Zomos (Black Soup)
A dish favored by the Spartans, who believed it gave them strength and endurance, was called melas zomos. It served as a staple for the troops of the Spartan armies and was, unsurprisingly, evidently created by army cooks. No actual recipe for the soup survives in writing, though it is described in legends and Spartan mythology. Its primary ingredient was pork.
To prepare it, cooks drained the blood of a freshly slaughtered pig into a cooking vessel. The legs of the pig were added (symbolizing the arms and legs of the soldiers who would eat it) and vinegar was then added to prevent the blood from clotting and extend the soup. This delightful concoction was then boiled until the cook deemed it ready for serving. Legend has it that a man from Sybaris, in Northern Italy, once tasted the soup and declared it the reason Spartans didn’t fear death. “Dead men require no longer to eat” he reportedly said. Sybaris, by the way, was a city notorious for excess luxury gluttony, and gave us the word “sybarite.”
The ancient Egyptians, Minoans, Greeks, and Romans all used an herb known as silphium. The Romans used it extensively, sprinkling it on foods as a seasoning. Some believe it to have been a type of celery, others claim it was similar to fennel. It grew in the wild in the coastal areas of modern-day Libya. Speculation that it was used as graze for animals, which led to its extinction before the onset of the common era, is described in some of the writings of the ancients. There was also speculation among ancient writers that the plant resisted cultivation, and over-harvesting of the wild plant led to its extinction. To put it bluntly, though it is referred to widely in ancient writings and even appears on ancient coinage, nobody is certain what it actually was.
The Greeks and the Romans believed that in addition to its wildly popular flavor, it acted as both an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive. That combination of properties alone would certainly contribute to its popularity. The traditional heart shape as seen in Valentines is believed to be representative of the seeds of silphium. Hippocrates lauded its medicinal qualities; it was used to treat ailments of the throat, indigestion, and even warts. What the ancients called silphium is believed to be extinct, though its exact identity is unknown. That’s too bad, since a plant which could flavor foods, produce perfumes, act as a contraceptive, remove warts and serve as an aphrodisiac would certainly be of value today.
For many who live in urban areas the pigeon is ubiquitous. City dwellers often consider them little more than feathered rats. Numerous American cities have adopted falcons as a means of controlling the growth of pigeon flocks, though the pigeon population expands constantly. The ancients dealt with pigeons too, though through different means. They ate them. They ate a lot of them. Pigeons were considered a cheap and freely available source of meat, and the ancients ate them across the world, in both classic antiquity and in less developed societies, such as in North America.
They continued to be popular as food well into the 19th century in Europe and America with one particular species, the passenger pigeon, eaten into extinction in 1901. There has been discussion of using DNA from existing specimens of passenger pigeons to clone the species, though not as a potential food source. Considering the large numbers of pigeons extant in American cities and towns such an effort seems unnecessary. Pigeons are alleged to have a flavor similar to chicken (what doesn’t?) and numerous recipes for their preparation from both ancient and more recent times exist.
The Romans, at least the more well-to-do of them, enjoyed a dish which would be readily recognized today. They also enjoyed it in the same manner as its modern-day counterparts, as a snack or light meal. There is evidence it was offered by vendors in the arena at Pompeii and the Colosseum in Rome, a nosh to enjoy while viewing gladiatorial combat. Called moretum, it was essentially a cheese spread eaten with bread. It was made using a mortar and pestle, the former of which gave it its name.
Fresh cheese, most likely soft goat cheese, was mixed with herbs, oils, vinegars, wine, and nuts, or combinations thereof, and mashed into a paste. There were countless varieties of flavors for moretum, and it was eaten on several different styles of breads, including flatbreads resembling today’s pizza crusts. A garlic version was a predecessor of modern pesto. Dried and fresh fruits could also be added, creating a sweet moretum to be offered alongside its savory cousin. It was likely closest to modern cream cheese-based spreads in both consistency and taste, and was enjoyed throughout the empire by those who could afford it. It would certainly be so enjoyed today.