Ancient Recipe: Snails with Pepper and Cumin (Roman, ca. 5th century CE)

“They need little food, and require no one to feed them…the cook usually doesn’t know whether they are alive or dead when he is cooking them.”
~ Marcus Terentius Varro, De re agricultura (On Matters of Agriculture)IMG_5532

If you’ve ever eaten land snails in the form of French escargots, rich with butter, parsley and garlic, I have upsetting news: depending on where you live, there’s a good chance those snails arrived at the restaurant dead, in a can.

There are a few reasons why. First, the importation of live land snails is highly regulated in many countries because the animals can become serious agricultural pests. As snails are hermaphrodites, just one escapee is enough for a population explosion. Another reason canned snails are commonly used in restaurants is that snail-farming is a daunting task, requiring a great deal of time, money, and space. Snails have a remarkable adaptation to prevent overpopulation: there are chemicals in their slime trails that inhibit reproduction in other snails. If one snail slimes across the trail of another, it becomes less likely to breed. The more snails sharing a tight space, the more likely they are to cross each other’s trails, meaning fewer baby snails and less profit for the aspiring heliciculturist (try saying that three times fast).

Despite the challenges of snail-farming, the Ancient Romans seem to have had it pretty well-figured out. The Roman snail-pen was called a cochleariumthe Latin word for snail being cochlea (a Greek loanword that can also mean “spiral”, hence the spiral cochlea in your inner ear). Cochlearia were a common sight on the grounds of Roman villas, alongside apiaria (beehives) and gliraria (dormouse hutches). The Roman scholar Varro, who lived in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, describes how to set up your own snail farm, including a pre-Industrial sprinkler system to keep the little molluscs hydrated:

“You must take a place fitted for snails, in the open, and enclose it entirely with water…The best place is one which the sun does not parch, and where the dew falls. If there is no such natural place…you should make an artificially dewy one. This can be done if you run a pipe and attach to it small teats, to squirt out the water in such a way that it will strike a stone and be scattered widely in a mist.”

Romans fed snails on milk, bran, and bay leaves. One disturbing recipe in the Roman cookbook Apicius (which has a whole chapter on snails) describes the force-feeding of snails for the table. The chef is instructed to remove the operculum, the flat, hard “door” that snails use to seal their shells, before placing the snails in a shallow layer of milk. Without the operculum, the snail can no longer withdraw into its shell, and its body will hang outside and grow unnaturally fat.

IMG_5504The Romans ate many species of snail. Archaeologists have uncovered the shells of Otala lactea (the milk or Spanish snail) in the Roman city of Volubilis in modern Morocco. Helix pomatia, the snail most commonly served as escargots, is still known as the “Roman snail” in the UK because it was introduced there from mainland Europe during the Roman period (43-410 CE). Varro names others whose species is difficult to guess; the “small white snails” of Reate in central Italy, medium snails from Africa, large ones from the Balkan province of Illyricum. The very largest snail, which Varro calls the solitanna, also came from Africa. Varro claims that a shell from one of these whoppers had a volume of 80 quadrantes; around 2.5 gallons. This is almost certainly a member of the Achatinidae family, several African species known for being the largest land snails in the world, but no snail recorded in modern times matches the size of Varro’s solitanna. Perhaps a comparison can be made to another historical mollusc: the oysters of New York City. For centuries, humans scoured the East and Hudson Rivers for the largest oysters they could find, so that they gradually dwindled in size from dinner plates to pennies before disappearing altogether.

The recipe below is adapted from Apicius 324 (Book VII, Chapter XVI: Snails). As Apicius often lacks serving suggestions, I followed the example of Pliny the Younger, pairing the snails with bread and lettuce.

THE RECIPE

-1 can of land snails (mine contained 24, which is about two servings. I bought it at Hong Kong Supermarket in Manhattan’s Chinatown.)
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-2 tablespoons fish sauce (Asian fish sauce is a close substitute for Roman liquamen and garumThree Crabs is my favorite.)
-1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
-2 teaspoons ground cumin
-crusty Italian or French bread, sliced
(whole wheat is more authentically Roman)
-butter lettuce

Remove snails from the can, rinse in cold water, and pat dry.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the snails and stir for 2-3 minutes.

Add fish sauce, pepper, and cumin. Mix thoroughly and cook a little longer (total cooking time should be 7-10 minutes; too long and the snails will get rubbery).

Serve hot, with sliced bread and lettuce.IMG_5541

THE VERDICT

The snails are tender, very flavorful and salty, and the bread and lettuce balance them out nicely. I’ve eaten French, Vietnamese, and Korean-style snails and whelks, and this is the first time I’ve had them without garlic. I feel like garlic might have taken this recipe to the next level, but I’m pleased with it overall. Try it at your next Roman dinner party! IX out of X.

Ancient Recipe: Parsnip Fries with Wine Sauce (Roman, 5th Century CE)

“Then there is the carrot. ‘This vegetable,’ says Diphilus, ‘Is harsh, but tolerably nutritious, and moderately good for the stomach; but it passes quickly through the bowels and causes flatulence. It is indigestible, diuretic, and not without some influence in prompting men to amatory feelings, on which account it is called a love-philtre by some people.” ~ Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae [The Philosophers’ Dinner-party], 2nd century CE 

IMG_4654

The Ancient Romans didn’t eat fries in cones of wax paper, but they should have.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: carrots are orange, parsnips are white. But it wasn’t always that way.

From a botanical standpoint, the two plants are different enough to keep them out of the same genus (they belong to Pastinaca and Daucus, respectively). Most modern people simply use color to tell them apart. But ancient people tended not to differentiate between these two tapered, edible roots, in spite of the fact that parsnips seem to have been first cultivated in northern Europe and carrots in Persia. In Old English, for example, both were called by the same name, moru. The Romans had two different words but used them interchangeably, just as the roots were used interchangeably in their cuisine. Apicius, the compendium of all things Roman and culinary, offers recipes for carotae seu pastinacae, carrots or parsnips. The ancient confusion hints at the carrot’s biggest secret: it wasn’t always orange.

Farmers selectively breed their crops, encouraging desirable traits like size, productivity, and sweetness to create new cultivars and strains. Our modern food plants have been genetically manipulated for so long by human beings that they look extremely different from their ancient ancestors (who says GMOs are a recent phenomenon?) Ancient fruits and vegetables had more of the “bad” qualities that have been bred out in the centuries since: you can bet that the Romans never heard of a seedless grape. Color is a trait that can be selected for just like any other, and Roman carrots, in addition to being smaller and less sweet than our modern ones, only came in purple or a very parsnip-like white. So where did orange carrots, rich in the same beta-carotene that gives everything from pumpkins to flamingos their color, come from?

Scientists believe that a genetic mutation in the purple carrot resulted in the first yellow carrots around the 11th century, which was then selectively bred to create our modern orange. A popular legend asserts that orange carrots were developed in the 17th-century Netherlands as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. The Orange in that family’s name refers to the French principality of Orange, a transformation of the Latin place-name Aurasio that came to be associated with both the color and the fruit. But should we believe the carrot-as-political-tribute story? Maybe. It’s true that the Netherlands was known for its carrot production in the 17th century. It’s also true that a century later, “carrots sold with their roots too conspicuously showing were deemed provocative” by the Dutch Patriot party who forced out the House of Orange. But whether the orange carrot was actually developed in tribute to the House of Orange is unknown, though it’s the kind of unqualified claim that frequently gets presented as fact in places like tourist guides and bar trivia.

All this means that when reconstructing a Roman recipe in your modern kitchen, orange carrots are to be avoided at all costs, but parsnips or carrots in other colors will do just fine. The Roman love for both vegetables is well-documented. In the first century BCE, they were demanded as tribute from the tribes of Germany by the Emperor Tiberius; two hundred years later, the Roman-Greek writer Athenaeus records their health benefits in the text quoted above, including the ability to rouse sexual desire in men.* Any aphrodisiac qualities attributed to carrots and parsnips by the Romans are likely due to their phallic shape. In ancient medicine, this was the plant’s “signature”, the physical resemblance between a plant and the part of the human body it could cure or affect. This belief continued well into the Medieval period, when for example walnuts were believed to be good for brain health because a walnut looks like a tiny, wrinkled brain.

In this simple and delicious recipe from the Roman cookbook Apicius, the roots are fried in olive oil and dressed with a pungent savory/salty sauce called oenogarum, a reduction of red wine, fish sauce (garum) and pepper. We might consider this recipe an antecedent of French fries with ketchup. The parallel is a surprisingly close one; the South American potato would eventually dethrone the parsnip as the favorite starchy vegetable in Europe, while ketchup arose from the same origins as Roman garum.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 large parsnips or (non-orange) carrots
  • Enough olive oil to fill a pot about two inches deep
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1/3 of a cup fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons ground black or long pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch

Wash and peel the parsnips and cut them into small pieces. I did half-circle wedges, but you could also try a traditional French fry shape. Dry the parsnip pieces thoroughly with a paper towel.

 

IMG_4638

This is what happens when you put moist, fresh vegetables into hot olive oil. Be careful!

Fill a pot with olive oil up to around two inches and raise the heat to medium-high. After a few minutes, drop a small piece of parsnip in to test if the oil is hot enough to fry. When the oil is ready, fry the parsnips a few pieces at a time (they are moist and will produce a lot of bubbles). Move the parsnips around with a wooden spoon or other tool to prevent them sticking.

 

When the parsnips are golden brown on the outside, remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Next, make the oenogarum. Bring the red wine to a low boil in a saucepan. When it has reduced by about one-third, add the fish sauce and pepper. Mix the cornstarch and about half a cup of water into a slurry in a separate bowl, Slowly add this to the wine while stirring with a spoon to prevent clumping. Reduce the mixture another third. The end result should have the consistency of barbecue sauce, thicker than water but liquid enough to pour.

Serve as you would French fries and ketchup, with the wine-sauce drizzled on top of the parsnips or on the side for dipping.

IMG_4645

These pastinacae are ready to prompt men to amatory feelings.

VERDICT

I feel like with every ancient recipe I make, I claim that it’s the best one ever. I’d better start on that rose-and-lamb-brain patina, or the dish invented by Emperor Vitellius that contained fish semen. This one really is good though! The parsnips are soft on the inside and crunchy outside, and the oenogarum has a powerful blend of flavors that provide the salt and other seasoning. I wouldn’t want to eat the oenogarum on its own, but it’s perfect when balanced against the bland starchiness of the parsnips. This is one of the first Roman recipes I could genuinely imagine someone ordering from a modern restaurant (or a food truck, for that matter, which inspired the photo above). X out of X.

* The aforementioned Emperor Tiberius was accused by his enemies of the most extreme sexual perversion. One wonders if his documented love of a vegetable considered to be an aphrodisiac is purely coincidental.