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The Classical Cookbook

To celebrate the opening of the Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition, here are two recipes from The Classical Cookbook, so that you can experience authentic flavours from the ancient world!

p141_113 Thetford treasur

Two silver spoons, one in the shape of a duck, dedicated to the Roman forest-god Faunus. Roman Britain, from a treasure found on Gallows Hill, Thetford, Norfolk in 1979. L. (of longest spoon) 9.2 cm. British Museum.

Parthian Chicken

Parthian chicken. Open the chicken at the rear and spreadeagle. Crush pepper, lovage, a little caraway, moisten with fish sauce, blend with wine. Arrange the chicken in a Cuman dish and put the sauce over it. Dissolve strong asafoetida in warm water; pour over the chicken as you cook.
Serve seasoned with pepper.

-Apicius 6,9,2

This is a simple dish, and very unusual in a Roman context, for it contains no sweetner. It is interesting that it is named after Parthia, Rome’s rival in the Middle East, and notable that asafoetida is the dominant flavour. This may confirm that the recipe was Parthian in origin – or at least it may explain how it got its name – for asafoetida came to Rome from the Parthian Empire. Caraway, on the other hand, is of central European origin. It was certainly the Romans who added to this dish.

Serves 4

4 pieces chicken (breast or leg)
6 fl oz (3/4 cup/170 ml) red wine
2 tbsp (30 ml) fish sauce
½ tsp asafoetida powder
or 5 drops asafoetida tincture
2 tsp chopped fresh lovage or celery leaf
½ tsp ground lovage seed
2 tsp caraway seeds

Place the chicken in a casserole dish and sprinkle liberally with pepper. Combine the wine, fish sauce and asafoetida, add the lovage and caraway seeds and pour over the chicken. Cover and bake in a pre-heated oven at 375°F (190°C/gas mark 5) for 1 hour. Halfway through the cooking time remove the lid to brown the chicken. Serve with a little of the sauce poured over the meat.


Cockerel, the ‘waking bird’. Introduced from southern Asia to Mediterranean lands around 700 BC, chickens soon became the typical barnyard fowl and a popular sacrifice. Mosaic panel from Halicarnassus in Roman Asia Minor (now Turkey), 4th century AD. Diam. 43.5 cm. British Museum.

Pancakes with Honey and Sesame Seeds

Let us find time to speak of other cakes, the ones made with wheat flour. Teganitai, as we call them, are made simply with oil. The oil is put in a frying-pan resting on a smokeless fire, and when it has heated, the wheat flour, mixed with plenty of water, is poured on. Rapidly, as it fries in the oil, it sets and thickens like fresh cheese setting in the baskets. And at this point the cooks turn it, putting the visible side under, next to the pan, and bringing the sufficiently fried side, which was underneath at first, up on to the top, and when the underneath is set they turn it again another two or maybe three times till they think it is all equally cooked. Some mix it with honey, and others again with sea-salt.

-Galen, On the properties of Foods 1,3

It is continual surprise how little food changes from one millennium to the next. The great physician Galen (AD 129-? 199/216), a tireless observer of details of food and drink, gives a description so serious and painstaking that we smile to imagine him making notes as he watched a cook turning pancakes. It is hard to remember that he is writing 1,800 years ago. What is more, the dish was already 800 years old in his time. The early Greek poet Hipponax had written of pancakes ‘drugged with sesame seeds’.  Comedy gluttons on the Athenian stage had spoken of ‘mist rising at dewy daybreak from warm pancakes’ and of honey poured over them as they sizzle: a breakfast meal, no doubt, and one that was possibly sold on the streets of ancient Athens from portable braziers.
You can serve modern pancakes with honey and toasted sesame seeds. However, what Galen is describing is not precisely the pancake familiar to us, but something as thick as a blini or even thicker, considering that it is to be turned so many times. I also suspect that more oil was used for frying than we would normally use, and this is reflected in the modern adaption…

4 oz/120 g/1 cup flour
8 fl oz/225 ml/1 cup water
2 tbsp/60 g clear honey
Oil for frying
1 tbsp/15 g toasted sesame seeds

Mix the flour, water and 1 tablespoon honey together into a batter. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a frying-pan and pour a quarter of the mixture into the fat. When it has set, turn it two or three times to give an even colour. Cook 3 more pancakes hot with the remainder of the honey poured over and sprinkled with sesame seeds.


Images ©Trustees of the British Museum

Recipes, text and images extracted from The Classical Cookbook, complied and edited by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, available for £10.99 from the British Museum online shop. British Museum Press 2012.

Category: History


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