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: Asparagus Patina (Roman, 4th century CE)

Asparagus patina is made like thisPut 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

patina cooked

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.

THE RECIPE

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.

raw patina

Asparagus and herb mixture.

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.

patina 2

Raw patina about to go into the oven.

THE VERDICT

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.