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Thursday, June 15, 2006


You will excuse me for writing something so far fetched. But outside of our friendly and welcoming vegan circles, being vegan in today's society is far fetched. Hence, I though that moving at the fringes of the culinary discussion may be interesting.

What did i do? I went looking for old recipe books, to find proof of vegan dishes dating back in the centuries. But unhappy of that (we all know how our ancestors were unable to put meats on their plates most of the days, therefore, unsurprisingly, vegan recipes abunds in old cooking text), I went as far as I could strech it in history: the first cookbook recorded in the Western World that has survived to us, De Re Coquinaria, written by Apicius, in the last decades of the 1 st centuryA.D. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the ancient Rome!

First a few words about the author and the time this recipe book was written.
Marcus Gavius Apicius (you can find some information about him on ViciPeadia, that's right folks, WikiPedia in LATIN! Alternatively, here in English) was one of the greatest gourmet of his times: he was so in love with food that the legend states he suicided because scared of dieing of starvation, unable to afford the sumptous banquets he got famous for, when he ran out of money at the end of his life: fear of death by starvation caused him to take his own life!
He wrote in the 1st century A.D., in the high time of the emperial era of the Roman Empire, closed the Republican time with the deth of Ceasar in 44 B.C. While the Republican time was a period when morigeration was considered a sign of virtue and was applied to as many public and private occasions as possible, with an emperor sitting on a throne things changed dramatically. The presence of one family dominating clearly above all the others meant that everybody tried to show off their money in every way possible: morigeration was thrown to the wind, and display of luxury became the rule.
In fact Apicius wrote the De Re Coquinaria as a guide for the lucullian banquets of his time: and indeed he was a contemporary of Lucullus himself, even if likely the two weren't friends since Apicius never make any reference of him in his book.

Was I going to find vegan recipe in this book, almost 2000 years old, together with recipes to cook cranes??? Well, keep on reading to discover!

I have been having this short book for years, but put off from the introductory chapter on minced meats, I never gave it too much thought. Until curiosity clicked in. And I became able to skip chapter I and II to land pretty safely on chapter III: Cepuros - The Vegetables.
Do not think this is a classic recipe book: there is no ingredient list nor exact quantities. Everything is pretty approximated, since anyway a scale was not a kitchen tool at the time! Each recipe is just given a title and the preparation instruction, giving the chef an idea of the ingredients to be used. Nevertheless, each recipe is pretty clear and not hard to follow.
Also, remember that Romans cooked without potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, chocolate and lots of other ingredients that are staples of our diet nowadays. Cherries had just ben introduced, honey was the only sweetener known, desserts were pretty rare and seldom prepared.
Yet, the recipes are interesting and they seem pretty tasty!

In my browsing throught the chapters, especially the III and even more so the V, titled Ospreon - The Legumes, I found a number of recipes based on vegatables, legumes and fruit. And, hidden in the lines, even a hiddedn gem: the reference of an ente-litteram vegan!!!
This little discovery made my day! The first recipe for moist bread is named after Didus Julianus, Roman emperor who was said to eat vegetables only! Now, this emperor was not particularly famous or deserving praise (as a matter of fact he does not seem to be a ruler gifted with a strong sense of morals, since he got his title basically with bribe): nevertheless, I am willing to break a lance in his favour, since he was a vegan in those ancient times (think! No carob chocolate, not vegan ice cream, no vegan chips available. No wait: none of this exhisted in the non vegan variety anyway!).

And flipping the page over, voila'! I found my vegan recipe: "Fave beans cooked at the manner of Vitellium". It has been a pretty hard task and for a pretty silly reason: while vegatbles based recipes not calling for meat, fish or dairy abunds, I had not kept into account the fact that salt in the Roman times was a luxury good and not very widespread. For this reason, to flavour food, most recipes calls for (a pretty nasty) fish sauce. But swapping it with salt, many recipes are easily veganized.

This one does not even need that extra step. So I cooked and taste and approved the flavour!
The onyl thing you are left to do is to treat yourself to a 2000 years old recipe!

Snow Peas or Fava Beans at the manner of Vitellium

Pisam sive fabam vitellianam:
Pisam sive fabam coques. Cum despumaverit, mittis porrum, coriandrum et flores malvaru. Dum coquitur, teres piper, ligusticum, origanum, feniculi semen, suffundis salem et vinum, mittis in caccabum, adiecies oleum, cum ferbuerit, agitas. Oleum viride insuper mittis et inferes.

And now in English, shall we? Keep in mind I improvised quantities, so feel free to change amounts as it feels good.

-240 grams cooked or almost cooked fava beans (can be substituted with snow peas)
-half a leek
-some malva flowers (it is a medial plant I was so luck to discover in my garden: looking at the picture should give you and idea of how they look like, but if you do not find any, no worries. In my opinion their presence did not change the taste that much!)
-one stem of wild (or regular) celery
-some fennel seeds
-about a third of a cup of wine (I used white cooking wine)
-olive oil

Cook the beans or peas. When they will have produced the typical foam, remove it and add the sliced leek, the coriander and the malva flowers. While the beans are cooking, grind some pepper together with the fennel seeds, the oregan and the celery. Add the mixture to the beans and add the wine, salt and a tablespoon of olive oil. Stir when boiling and when ready, serve with a teaspoon of olive oil on top.

The oregan, coriander, fennel and celery add quite a bit of flavour to this dish: dose to fit your taste. I served the fava beans just like that, but I guess they would go well on a typical cereal of the time: bulgour (cracked wheat). Otherwise, if you are ok loosing the historical fidelity of the recipe, they could taste even better on steamed rice.
By S.P.Q.R. (Senatus PopolusQue Romanorum = the Senat and of the People of Rome, to whom this recipe belong and who have gifted us with it today)!

P.S. Given the fact that Apicius has been dead for over 1900 years, we could not get permission from him to repost this recipe. Nevertheless, we are pretty sure he would be pretty happy to see his recipes prepared in today's kitchens, after so long since they were popular!
Once again, we would like to compliment Virginie of Absolute Green: not only she managed, at her total surprise, to be featured in the super prestigious Elle Magazine (French edition) as one of the favourite food blogs of the editors, but she was also mentioned in the newspaper Ouest-France, as one of the most interesting blogger of the city of Nantes! Once again, deserved congratulations!


Blogger Virginie said...

I heard about gorgeous roman menus (for rich people) but have never seen a vegan recipe. This one looks so good. It's very old and at the same time so contemporary. Thank you for the explanations about roman cooking. I've never thought about the use of salt at this time. Well, I know the malvas but can't find some in my town. I'll try with dried ones, even if you say we can put it off. That's so nice with them... A mix of favours and wild countryside. All I like.
Thank you for posting it and your compliment.

12:14 am  
Blogger Urban Vegan said...

I admire your scholarship--very interesting! And the photo is lovely.

2:40 pm  
Blogger t. said...

My high school was a super conservative nightmare and Latin was part of the requirements: at least now I can put that knowledge to same use!!!

7:54 pm  

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