Asparagus patina is made like this: Put in the mortar asparagus tips. Crush pepper, lovage, green coriander [cilantro], savory and onions; crush, dilute with wine, liquamen [fish sauce] and oil. Put this in a well-greased pan, and, if you want, add while on the fire some beaten eggs to thicken it, cook without boiling the eggs and sprinkle with very fine pepper. ~ De Re Coquinaria (On Things Culinary) or Apicius, Book II
Originally, a patina was a specific type of Roman pottery; a round, flat, shallow dish. Over time, the word came to be used for the food cooked in the dish, not just the dish itself (compare modern terms like barbecue, hot pot, and terrine). The 4th-century Roman cookbook Apicius has a whole chapter devoted to patina recipes, including patinae of vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, and my personal favorite, calf’s brains and roses. The only common ingredient is ovae, eggs. As such, modern authors have often characterized patina as similar to a modern frittata, raw beaten eggs mixed with other ingredients and baked until solid. But the recipes in Apicius use eight different verbs to describe methods of incorporating eggs into patina, implying that the term was a general one covering everything from baked scrambles to delicate, airy soufflés. There were also egg-free variations, as in the recipe above, which instructs you to add beaten eggs only si volueris, “if you want”.
An element of surprise or trickery is found in many Roman dishes, making the food itself a form of table-side entertainment as guests attempt to identify what’s front of them. This celebration of the transformative aspects of cooking is found in many cultures, from Medieval European sugar-sculpted “subtleties” to the old Korean tradition of reshaping fruits and nuts into a confection shaped like the original. With its brilliant green color and the unusual step of pureeing the asparagus, I can imagine a group of Roman diners being similarly charmed and surprised by this recipe. I’ve made it for an Ancient Roman dinner I hosted and for my classes on Roman food, and it holds up to a modern taste-test quite well. It is named in the text of Apicius as “aliter patina de asparagis“, “another asparagus patina“, because there is a similar recipe immediately preceding it. The first asparagus patina is almost identical except for one ingredient: the meat of tiny birds called ficedulae (literally “fig-peckers”), three of them for one patina. I’ll be saving that for another time.
As it doesn’t deviate far from the modern palate, this is one of the most popular Ancient Roman recipes for revival, and there are numerous modernized versions out there. I mainly follow Cathy Kaufman’s reconstruction in her book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations (2006), but this recipe can also be found in other great books about Roman cooking, like A Taste of Ancient Rome (1994) and The Classical Cookbook (2012). The original Latin says to strain the crushed vegetable and wine mixture, a step which some translators follow and others, like the one quoted above, don’t. I personally think the recipe is better if you don’t strain. Roman vegetables were tougher and stringier than our vegetables, so this step was probably necessary to make 4th-century asparagus more palatable, but most modern asparagus will turn out sufficiently soft anyway.
Modern fermented fish sauce (available where Asian groceries are sold) will stand in for the near-identical Roman version. Savory and lovage are two herbs used in this recipe that you might not be familiar with, as they are less-popular today than they were in historical times. Savory is one of the traditional components of herbes de Provence and has a slightly bitter, spicy flavor. If you can’t find it, use thyme, marjoram or sage. Lovage has a similar flavor to celery, and crushed celery seed or the inner leaves of celery make a good substitute. All these substitutions were plants known to the Romans, so perhaps a strapped 4th-century chef might have done the same. The presence of pepper in the recipe hints at the intended audience of Apicius: enslaved or formerly-enslaved career chefs laboring in the kitchens of the wealthy. In Rome, pepper (known in three forms, black, white, and long) was a costly dried import from India. Households of more limited means used only fresh green herbs as seasoning.
First, gather your non-liquid ingredients: six eggs, 1 bunch of asparagus (trimmed), 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1/4 cup cilantro leaves, 1/4 teaspoon ground black or long pepper, 1 teaspoon dried savory or sage, and 1/8 teaspoon celery seed or lovage.
You will also need 1 tablespoon of olive oil (plus more for the dish), 1/2 a cup of white wine, and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.
Preheat the oven to 400 °F. Spread the inside of a one-quart gratin dish, pie dish, or cast-iron skillet with oil.
Puree all the ingredients except the eggs in a food processor or a mortar and pestle. Depending on the size of the equipment you are using, you may find it necessary to mash up the asparagus first and then add it to the other ingredients. Make sure everything is combined to a smooth, even texture. Beat the six eggs and add them to the pureed vegetables. Mix well to combine, and pour the mixture into the dish. Bake until set (about 35-40 minutes. If a fork or chopstick inserted into the center comes out clean, the patina is done). Serve with fresh cracked pepper.
The predominant flavor in this dish is, of course, asparagus, but the spices and herbs come through quite nicely. It’s best-served and eaten with a spoon, as it has a mushy texture. It goes well with crusty bread, white wine, and, I’m assuming, fig-peckers. VIII out of X.