by: Lady Gwynhwyvaer ingen Grig, CMC, CGHM
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The Romans used a varied assortment of herbs in their cooking. Many common herbs, such as parsley, garlic, and coriander, were grown locally. Other herbs, including pepper and ginger, were imported over great distances and were quite expensive. From the translations of Apicius, we can derive a substantial list of herbs used in Classical Roman cookery. Most of the common herbs used by Apicius are obtainable today at our local markets, international grocers, and health food stores. Live plants are available through nurseries and mail order services for home cultivation. Some of the exotics, such as gum mastic and asofetida, may be found at the import grocer. Others, like spikenard, will usually have to be purchased from mail order or Internet sources.
We most often associate the use of herbs in cooking as flavor enhancers. While it is obvious through the translations of Apiciusí works that the Romans were not fond of the taste of any food in pure form, many of the herbs were added for medicinal purposes as well as flavor. These were generally common digestive aids such as fennel, mint and cumin . A more comprehensive understanding of the medicinal values assigned to these common herbs in classic antiquity can be gleaned from the works of such writers as Pliny the Elder, Dioscordies, and Theophrastus.
Herbs from Apicius
There are two lists in this section. The first is a list of common herbs from Classical Roman cooking. These herbs are considered common by todayís standards. The second is a list of exotic herbs. While common in Classical Roman cuisine, they are generally unknown or not readily available to the modern cook. Recommended substitutions from the translation and the author of this paper are included with the second list. Both lists have been extrapolated from the Flowers and Rosenbaum translation of Apiciusí The Roman Cookery Book. The purpose of these lists are to aid the modern cook and herbalist in better understanding the herbal content of Roman cooking and as a guide for recreating the flavor of Classical Roman Cuisine according to Apicius. The lists include the Latin names, from the Flowers and Rosenbaum translation, as well as the modern equivalents.
The herbs in this list are generally considered common by todayís standards and can usually be located and purchased for cooking in your local grocers and import markets. Little or no explanation is needed for the herbs listed here.
Exotic and Imported Herbs
While these herbs were common to Classical Roman cuisine, many of the herbs in this list are not well known by modern cooking standards. In the Flowers and Rosenbaum translation of Apicius, a substitution is given for laser based on the origin of the herb (see addendum). I have also done some research concerning flavors and properties of herbs. I have made a few suggestions according to my studies. Origins of substitutions are noted.
The following suggestions are based solely on the authors cooking and herbal knowledge and experience. It is advisable before using any herbs in cooking that you familiarize yourself with their properties, especially when using them for feast or any other public function. These suggestions for replacement have not been documented through historical manuscripts or other sources information. They are provided at the authorís discretion.
Catmint/catnip: This herb has a mild sedative effect and is best avoided when cooking for feast or other public function. Some people are extremely sensitive to narcotic herbs. A suitable replacement for catnip is one part peppermint to three parts oregano.
Wormwood is a powerful narcotic herb. Avoid using it and replace with liquid bitters.
Pennyroyal: This is a known toxin and can cause miscarriage and induce labor. It is suggested that this herb not be consumed internally.
Rue: While the indications for this herbs abortive power are questionable by some, it can be dangerous in some instances when ingested in large quantities during early pregnancy. It is also a known skin irritant and many people have severe allergic reactions to rue. Because of the irritating quality, avoid this herb when cooking for feast or group gatherings and replace it with liquid bitters.
Indian Spikenard: This herb is still marketed today. It can be found at many import markets or ordered via the Internet by some of the larger spice suppliers. If you chose to replace this herb with the recommended blend, use valerian sparingly. Many people are very sensitive to its sedative quality. Always check a modern herbal for contraindications when using any herb for feast or group gatherings and list them accordingly.
Laser or Silphium: Flowers and Rosenbaum give us a great deal of information concerning this herb. They refer us to Plinyís Natural History; book XIX, 3,15 ff. (38 ff.). He tells us that the silphium grew in abundance in Cyrenacia, and was one of the chief exports of the province. It had become a symbol of the region and its likeness was minted onto coins. In spite of all of its importance, no one could identify the plant in Classic Rome. By Plinyís time, it was virtually extinct. Only a minute quantity could be discovered under the reign of Nero and was delivered to him promptly. A lesser quality came from Persia, Armenia, Media and was imported in huge quantities. The silphium from Cyrenacia was very expensive and even when grown in great quantities, only thirty pounds a year were sent to Rome and given to the state, according to Pliny. Laser is still used today in India and can be found in many of the larger import markets. It is a commonly known as heeng.
When cooking for a feast or other public function it is advisable that you list all of the ingredients in your dishes, especially herbs. Please consult a modern herbal for contraindications before adding any herbal ingredients to your food.
Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger. The Classic Cookbook (Los Angeles, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002.) Originally published, London: British Museum Press., 1996
Barbara Flowers and Elizabeth Rosenbaum. The Roman Cookery Book. A Critical Translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicius for use in study and kitchen, (London and New York: Peter Nevill LTD., 1958)
John Edwards. The Roman Cookery of Apicius. A treasury of Gourmet and Herbal Cookery Translated and Adapted for the Modern Kitchen. (Washington: Hartley & Marks Publishers., 1984)
Joseph J. Mooney. The Minor Poems of Vergil, Comprising the Culex, Dirae, Lydia, Moretum, Copa, Priapeia, and Catalepton. (Birmingham, Cornish Brothers, LTD., 1920)
Mistress Katrine de Baillie du Chat, O.L. How to Cook Forsoothly. (Raymondís Quite Press., 1979)
Michael Tierria. The Way of Herbs. (New York: Pocket Books., 1998)
Paul Huson. Mastering Herbalism. (New York: Stein And Day Publishers., Fourth edition, 1983 A Scarborough Book.)
P. Vergilius Maro. Appendix Vergilliana: Moretum. http://www.virgil.org/appendix , May 31. 1998
Edited by David Wilson-Okamura. Site last accessed: 9/27/03
Philemon Holland. The Historie of The World, Commonly Called The Natural Historie of C. Plinius Secundus. Translated into English by Philemon Holland, 1601 http://penelope.uchicago.eud.holland/index.html.
Edited by James Eason. Site last accessed: 9/27/03 Endnotes
Pliny the Elder- http://penelope.uchicago.edu/holland/index.html, Huson- p.50, 71, 113 , Edwards- introduction: xxiv