Many of us have old recipes that we love to cook — perhaps they have been passed down through the generations on index cards, or are from old community cookbooks with frayed corners and well-worn covers. But few are as old as this post’s recipe for carrots simmered with cumin, mint and vinegar.
This recipe is really old: it’s derived from a book written more than 1,700 years ago, during (or before) the days of Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius.
In fact, it was the recipe’s age that first attracted my attention as I was browsing through Deborah Madison’s The Savory Way. I’m not usually a big fan of carrots, but after I tried it once, it was on its way to becoming one of my kitchen standards. The background of cumin and mint, a hint of sourness from vinegar, and the sweetness of the carrots meld into something delicious. And knowing that it might have been enjoyed by Caesar, Cicero, Augustus, Livia, and other Romans makes it even more exciting.
In her recipe notes, Madison wrote that the recipe “derives from chronicles of Ancient Rome.” Looking at her bibliography, I guessed that Madison’s likely inspiration was a book called Ancient Roman Feasts and Recipes by Jon and Julia Solomon (1977). That book led me to an ancient text by someone named Apicius. So I looked it up and found an interesting story.
Who Was Apicius? And What Do We Know about His Book?
When food historians say “Apicius,” they are almost certainly referring to De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), the most complete manuscript about food from the Imperial Roman era, with notes on almost 500 dishes. Although other ancient works have bits about cooking — a treatise on agriculture, for example, has some recipes — none have the breadth of De Re Coquinaria (which I will call “Apicius” for the remainder of the post).
Joseph Vehling (the first to translate Apicius into English)1 argues that the manuscript originated from old Greek works about cookery and medicinal by several authors. As Rome eclipsed Greece, they were adopted and adapted by Romans over the years2. What survived the centuries might have a small part of a standard reference book that was originally much more comprehensive (with sections on medicinal uses of food, for example).
Somehow, long after the end of the Western Roman Empire, the name Apicius was connected to the manuscript in honor of his gastronomic fame.
We know of two prominent men named Apicius who could be the namesake of the book: a Marcus Apicius who lived around 100 BCE (during the Republic), and the more likely candidate Marcus Gabius Apicius, who lived during the reigns of the emperors Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) and Tiberius (14 CE – 37 CE). The second Apicius was a legendary gourmet, with ancient books telling of his exploits (like spontaneous trip across the Mediterranean to purchase some famous shellfish) and death (committing suicide when he realized that his financial resources were far too meager to support his lavish diet, a story that is probably not true).
Not Quite a Cookbook
To modern eyes, Apicius is not a “cookbook” because it rarely has quantities or detailed instructions. Instead, it’s more like an ‘inspiration book’ or quick reference guide — ingredient groupings for particular dishes that would be useful in the hands of a skilled and experienced cook. For example, a slave who cooked in household kitchens for many years would likely know the relative quantities of herbs and spices, when to add each one, the cooking times, and so on.
To address Apicius’s vagueness, there are a number of books for today’s cook that supply quantities, timing, and replacements for hard to find ingredients3. The above referenced book by the Solomons is one example, as is <em>A Taste of Ancient Rome</em> by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa (1992) (which inspired my posts about tossing shells on the floor and bringing your own napkin to banquets for leftovers).
(Ancient) Roman Style
What does Apicius tell us about ancient Roman food? It shows a few characteristics:
- Unlike modern Italian cuisine, it relies on the extensive use of spices and herbs. Some of those listed in the ‘recipes’ include cumin, lovage, coriander, mint, rue, ginger, pennyroyal, and caraway. Judicious use of spices and herbs can bring enticing flavors to your cooking; in ancient Rome, it was also another way to flaunt your wealth, as many of the spices were quite pricey (it was a long and expensive journey from the spice islands or India to Rome).
- With their extensive use of garum, a fermented fish paste 4, the ancients knew about umami, which is sometimes called the ‘fifth taste’. Much like today’s fish sauce, the ingredient is bursting with the compounds that today’s science has connected with umami. The ingredient is in most of the savory dishes in Apicius. (The team at America’s Test Kitchen loves to use fish sauce as an umami booster in their recipes.)
- The ancient agricultural and trade system was advanced for its time, but was still inefficient at growing, transporting, and moving food, so raw ingredients were generally expensive. At the same time, slavery was widespread — even middle-class families had a few slaves — so labor was relatively inexpensive. Consequently, many dishes in Apicius are highly labor-intensive.
- Combinations of sweet and savory were common, what Vehling calls the “unnatural union of sugar and meats”. (To be sure, this combination continues today with ketchup on burgers, sweet and spicy BBQ sauces, pork and apples.)
- The use of souring agents, primarily vinegar, is widespread
The carrot recipe in this post shares a few of the above characteristics, but is relatively restrained in its use of herbs and spices. The original ‘recipes’ for the dish5 have many more flavorings:
 Another Way
The carrots are boiled and sliced, stewed with cumin and a little oil, and are served. At the same time, make a cumin sauce for those who have the colic.
 Another Cumin Sauce
Pepper, lovage, parsley, dry mint, plenty of cumin, honey, vinegar and broth.
The recipe in this post has cumin, fresh mint, vinegar, and pepper, while the original cumin sauce adds lovage, parsley, and honey, and uses dry instead of fresh mint. The original also calls for “broth,” which could be any number of things. My guess would be that the broth was garum based: perhaps garum diluted with water or wine.
Whatever this recipe’s history, it’s a less common approach to carrots that you should try. Preparation takes only as long as you need to peel and cut a few carrots and grab a few bottles from your pantry. And once the carrots are simmering, there’s not much to do. If you want to watch Gladiator, Spartacus, or any of Hollywood’s Roman epics during or after you enjoy these carrots, that’s up to you…
Ancient Roman-Style Carrots
A simple and delicious side dish that might have been served in Ancient Rome.
- 1/2 pound carrots 225 grams
- 8 small mint leaves
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 14 mL
- 1/2 tsp cumin seed 2.5 mL
- Salt to taste
- 1 cup water 240 mL
- 1 tbsp white, Champagne or white wine vinegar 14 mL
- Ground black pepper
- Chopped mint leaves for garnish
Peel or scrape the carrots. Cut into pieces 2 to 3 inches long, then cut the pieces lengthwise in quarters, sixths or eighths, depending on the size of the carrot. The goal is to have each piece be roughly the same size (so that they end up cooked the same).
Tear or chop the mint into pieces.
Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, cumin seeds and herbs. Cook for a short time until the fragrance of the spice and herbs are noticeable.
Add the carrots and toss well to coat with oil, mint and cumin.
Add the water, vinegar, and salt.
Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until the carrots are tender (20-40 minutes). Ideally, the liquid will evaporate and form a glaze on the carrots. If all of the liquid evaporates before the carrots are tender, add more water.
Season with freshly ground black pepper and fresh mint leaves.
- Serve hot, at room temperature, or cold.
Adapted from The Savory Way, by Deborah Madison. Her recipe is probably based on one in De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), (a.k.a. "Apicius"), the most complete manuscript about food from the Imperial Roman era.
Ancient Romans didn't use the black pepper that we use today (Piper nigrum), but instead most commonly used used "long pepper" (Piper longum), which can be found at specialty spice shops. An article at Leite's Culinaria has more details on ancient Roman ingredients.
Portrait of Julius Caesar by Johann Friedrich Leonard, after Peter Paul Rubens, in collection of the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands, via CC Search, CC0 1.0
Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. A Bibliography, Critical Review and Translation of the Ancient Book known as Apicius de re Coquinaria, by Joseph Dommers Vehling, Dover Publications, Inc. (1977, originally published in 1936). Full text of Apicius also available at Project Gutenberg in several formats.
(Originally published on April 27, 2008. Major update in December 2017 — new photos, content revision.)
- Vehling’s interest in ancient Rome was ignited by his first visit to Pompeii. His ‘day job’ was in hotel restaurants, catering companies, and other culinary establishments.
- “The conquered thus conquered the conquerors,” writes Vehling
- Like laser, a.k.a. silphium, a much loved plant in the ancient world that appears many times in Apicius. It was so beloved, in fact, that it went extinct during ancient times.
- It was made by layering small whole fish and salt in a container, letting the mixture sit in the hot sun for several weeks, then straining off the liquid to produce the final product. It was quite salty, so often provided all of the salt in a dish.
- Translations by Vehling