Patina de Rosis [Baked Brains & Roses] (Roman, ca. 5th century CE)

img_5800.jpg“Take roses fresh from the flower bed, strip off the leaves, remove the white from the petals and put them in the mortar; pour over some fish sauce and rub fine. Add a glass of fish sauce and strain the juice through the colander. This done, take four cooked calf’s brains, skin them and remove the nerves; crush eight scruples of pepper moistened with the juice and rub with the brains; thereupon break eight eggs, add a glass of wine, a glass of raisin wine and a little oil. Meanwhile grease a pan, place it on the hot ashes or in the hot bath in which pour the above described material; when the mixture is cooked in the double boiler, sprinkle it with ground pepper and serve.”
~ De re coquinaria (Apicius) Book 4, Chapter 2, ca. 5th century CE

I’m a big fan of eating brains.

My Roman ancestors felt the same way. The Roman cookbook Apicius contains recipes for brain sausages, brain-stuffed squash fritters and rose patina (patina de rosis), a baked dish of scrambled brain and eggs, flavored with roses.

Except among zombies and evil meteors, eating brains is far less popular globally than it once was. Modern science has found brains to be very high in cholesterol, and also tarnished their reputation by associating them with a deadly epidemic. That would be mad cow disease, properly known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In the 1990s, a BSE outbreak in the UK caused a global panic, leading to the deaths of over 200 people and the slaughter of 4.4 million potentially-infected cattle.

Caused by the malfunctioning of DNA proteins called prions, BSE results in holes in the victim’s brain tissue (hence the name “spongiform”), leading to neural degeneration and death. It can be contracted from eating the meat and especially the brain of an infected animal, and transmission is unaffected by cooking. Which raises a reasonable question–didn’t the brain-craving Romans suffer from mad cow disease? Not exactly.

A Medieval copy of Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae, Vegetius’s guide to veterinary medicine. The prion disease of goats and sheep mentioned within might be scrapie, which was formally described by science in 1732. Photo by Sailko (2013).

BSE is not the only prion disease, and similar livestock illnesses are described by ancient writers such as Hippocrates in 400 BCE and Vegetius, who lived at the same time when Apicius was composed (4th and 5th centuries CE). But most prion diseases cannot pass from animal to human, making mad cow disturbingly unique. There is no ancient account of a person contracting a prion disease, although Hippocrates mistakenly conflated prion disease in animals with epilepsy in humans because of their similar symptoms.

BSE was first identified in 1986, and its development and spread were directly linked to the industrialization of 20th-century farming. Undesirable bits from slaughtered cattle, including their brains, were ground up and fed to living cattle as a protein supplement called MBM or “meat and bone meal”, inadvertently infecting the animals with prion disease (and giving me grisly flashbacks to Soylent Green and the “soap” from Cloud Atlas). Because of the ’90s BSE outbreak, most countries have banned the use of MBM in feed for ruminant (cud-chewing) animals such as cows and sheep, although it is still an ingredient in commercial pet food.  As a further precaution, since prion diseases do not manifest until adulthood, it is now illegal in many countries to sell brain from an adult cow. Which is to say that this recipe, which uses calf brains, is just about as safe as it was in Roman times.


The sweet wine in the original Roman recipe, called passum, was made from raisins, making it a type of straw wine. Passum is still made in Italy today under the slightly-different name of passito. You can also use marsala, sherry, or Manischewitz.


The main ingredient, looking exactly how you would expect.

Apicius provides some unusually specific instructions about incorporating roses into this dish: take fresh roses, “cut off the white” (presumably separate the petals from the flowerheads), grind with fish sauce and strain. I attempted this with fresh roses and their flavor/scent did not carry over into the fish sauce, so I ended up using rosewater (or rose tea), which I made by soaking dried rose petals in hot water.

-2 calf’s or pig’s brains (available, fresh or frozen, from halal butchers and some Mexican or Asian grocery stores)
-4 beaten eggs
-1/3 cup rosewater
-1/3 cup fish sauce
-1/2 cup sweet cooking wine
-1 teaspoon black pepper
-rose petals for serving (optional)

Rinse the brains in cold water and pat dry. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, lower the heat and simmer the brains until they are gray and a fork can pierce them easily (about 10 minutes).

In a blender or food processor, combine brains with all the other ingredients and blend until smooth. Pour the liquid into a pie dish greased with olive oil.

Apicius instructs the chef to cook the dish by placing it in termospodio, “in the embers.” You can use a double boiler to replicate the even, gentle heat of hot coals. I balanced my 9-inch pie dish on top of a cast-iron pan filled with water and added a lid.

Cook the patina over low heat for 40-45 minutes, until a fork inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with rose petals and more black pepper.


The flavor of brain resembles liver mousse, rich and creamy. The roses are an interesting addition, with a subtle flavor balanced by the sweetness of the wine. Like many baked Roman patinae, this one is soft and wet enough to require a spoon. Eat it by itself or with bread, while it’s still hot (nobody likes cold brains).


Ancient Recipe: Tlahco (tacos) (Aztec, prehistory – 16th century CE)

img_2942-e1505310168777.jpg“The good cook is honest, discreet, one who likes good food; an epicure, a taster. She is clean, one who bathes herself, prudent; one who washes her hands, who washes herself, who has good drink, good food.” ~ An Aztec quoted by Bernardino de Sahagún in La historia universal de las cosas de Nueva España (The General History of Things of New Spain”, also called the Florentine Codex), 1569

When Hernán Cortés and his men arrived in what is now Mexico in 1519, they discovered a civilization as complex and developed as their own. By the time of the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs had already accomplished great things in art, literature, urban planning, government, and yes, food.

In several reports to the King of Spain written in the year 1520, Cortés acknowledges the grandeur of the Aztec capital, despite incorrectly recording the city’s name as Temixtitlan instead of Tenochtitlan (ten-otch-teet-lan). Built in the middle of a lake like a North American answer to Venice, the city contained some 30,000 inhabitants, making it “as large as Seville or Cordoba” in Cortés’s time. The future conqueror, writing about a city he would lay siege to and destroy in the next two years, notes that “every thing that can be found throughout the whole country is sold in the markets,” and while there are many animals and plants he recognizes, alongside them are “articles so numerous that to avoid prolixity and because their names are not retained in my memory, or are unknown to me, I shall not attempt to enumerate them.”* From cornfields and mountainsides, steaming jungles and bitter salt lakes, the Aztecs gathered nature’s resources to develop a unique and complicated cuisine. Yet among all this variety, there was one notable thing missing from the Aztec diet: fat.

The lack of fat is the major thing which separates indigenous from modern Mexican cuisine, and indeed, from almost all cuisines. It’s hard enough to imagine the Aztecs making the first tacos and tamales without limes, cilantro, or cheese (all brought to Mexico by the conquerors), but how could they have also done it without oil and lard? But no archaeological evidence has uncovered in Mesoamerica a cooking vessel capable of frying. In the Aztec chef’s repertoire, the closest equivalent to frying in fat was the technique used to make sweets like tzoalli, toasted seeds tossed over heat in a honey-based syrup. In her book America’s First Cuisines (1994), Sophie Coe reports that “the distaste of the American Indians for the fat of European animals is recorded over and over.” As late as 1937, a Mayan of Mexico’s isolated Lacandon people is recorded to have spurned an offer of coffee, out of fear that being a European drink, it might contain grease.

This aversion to concentrated fat would become a cultural preference, but it springs from a matter of practicality. There were few large land animals known to the Aztecs. Between the dog, the peccary (a small, lean pig), the deer and the jaguar, there was no creature that produced consumable milk or had large deposits of fat. The only other option would be the human, and while the Aztecs did engage in cannibalism, it was an occasional practice reserved for religious rituals, not a dietary staple. There were also only a few plants in pre-colonial Mexico that could produce oil, namely avocado, cacao and pumpkin. The Aztecs ate these plants in many forms and seem to have been aware of their fat content (small quantities of oil might have been used as medicine or incense, and avocado was used to fatten up dogs raised for meat), but for the most part they simply made do without. Oil was not produced in large quantities from native Mexican plants until after the conquest, when Europeans craving greasy food began to experiment with local flora.

Unable to fry, the Aztecs cooked their food in other ways. Roasting over an open flame or boiling in a pot were common, as was steaming, used to produce the ubiquitous corn dough tamalli. But most Aztec dishes were cooked (ungreased) on a flat, round pottery griddle called a comalli (Spanish comal), still used in rural Mexico today. It was with the comal that the Aztecs made one of their greatest contributions to the modern food landscape: the thin corn flatbread that they knew as tlaxcalli (tlash-cah-lee) and their conquerors as tortilla, Spanish for “little cake”. In Nahuatl (the Aztec language), tlahco means “middle”, and the best way to enjoy a tortilla was with something in the tlahco of it. The word tlahco for a filled tortilla is believed to be the origin of our modern “taco”.

16th-century Spanish chronicles such as the Florentine Codex (an ethnography of the Aztecs by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún) describe a dizzying array of possible taco fillings, all of which were also available as filling for tamales. A famished Aztec in the markets of Tenochtitlan could choose between vendors selling tacos filled with vegetables (beans, squash, tomato, nopal cactus), meat (dog, rabbit, turkey, eggs), or the stranger bounty of the lake itself (water-insects, amphibians, algae). All of these would have been spiced with the favorite seasonings of the Aztecs (salt and chili), plus indigenous herbs like pungent epazote and bittersweet hoja santa.

In developing this recipe (which I have served at my Aztec food class at Brooklyn Brainery), I aimed to recreate one of the more simple variations on an Aztec tlahco filling. I also followed the original Aztec cooking method by using no added fat or oil. Some notes on ingredients:

  • The Aztecs raised turkeys for meat and eggs, but they were much leaner than our modern turkeys and belonged to a different species: the beautifully iridescent ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata). I used regular store-bought ground turkey, which has a higher fat content and a milder flavor than pre-Industrial fowl.
  • Both tomato and chili pepper were known to the Aztecs, as was Kunth’s onion, but these and many other vegetables have changed and developed over time through selective breeding, making the 16th-century (or earlier) version quite different from the one we know today. Tomatoes, for instance, are described in accounts from the conquest era as sour and unsuitable for eating raw.
  • Fresh epazote is strong and skunky (the Nahuatl name epazotl literally means “skunk sweat”), but dried it has a slightly bitter flavor reminiscent of tea. I would have preferred to use the fresh herb for the sake of both authenticity and flavor, but wasn’t able to find them. I hear you can get live epazote plants in some of NYC’s authentic Mexican grocery stores, so I will have to search another time.


IMG_2903Ingredients: corn tortillas (store-bought or homemade), 1 pound of ground turkey, 2 large tomatoes, 1 onion, 3-4  serrano peppers (fresh), 2 poblano chilis (fresh), 1 tablespoon of dried epazote, pinch of salt, dried chilis or chili flakes (optional)

IMG_2956Core the tomatoes and peppers and peel the onion. Slice the vegetables into large pieces. Lay them flat-side down on a stove-top grill or on a bare burner with the heat turned low. Turn them with tongs occasionally until they become soft and you start to see charred black spots on the outside of the vegetables.

Transfer the charred veggies to a cast-iron pan over medium heat. Break them up with a wooden spoon. Add the turkey, salt and herbs. Continue cooking and breaking things up with the spoon until the turkey has cooked through.

Next, cook your tortillas. The simplest (and most Aztec) way to do this is on a bare stove burner with the heat turned all the way down, flipping the tortilla constantly with tongs until black spots start to show on both sides, just like you did with the vegetables. Each tortilla will take only about 45 seconds total to cook, so be careful not to burn them. As you can only safely cook one or two tortillas at a time in this way, wrap the cooked ones in a towel or tinfoil so they stay warm while you are cooking the others.

Serve the tlahco by spooning the meat mixture into the center of a tortilla. Add dried chilis and more salt if desired.


This dish is not quite as moist or flavorful as a modern taco full of oil and spices, but there’s enough moisture from the vegetables and meat that it certainly isn’t dry. Those spices I did use give it a little bit of bitterness, while the tomatoes make it slightly sour. I’ve also made this with tomatillos in addition to tomatoes. VII out of X.

*Further evidence of Cortés’ apparent difficulty with the Nahuatl language. Lucky he had La Malinche to translate for him….