• Català
  • Español
  • English
  • Français
  • Deutsch
  • Italiano
  • Русский
  • Zhōngwén

Roman gastronomy

© Rafa Pérez

Ancient flavours, new techniques

Roman gastronomy, in the time of the emperors and the first stage of the Republic, was rather austere. The main dish on the table, generally the only one, consisted of a kind of porridge known as puls. A cereal-based preparation, as caloric as it was boring, for which the Greeks gave the Romans, with some derision, the nickname of polenta-eaters. With a bit of luck, a bug that had died, a few onions or some garlic, gave a little flavour to the mixture.

The figure of the cook

The conquest of Greece and the expansion across the Mediterranean and towards the East brought with it an extremely varied larder, a wealth of spices and the enhancement of the figure of the cook, who went from being the least valuable of the slaves to one of the most respectable professions during Imperial Rome. Pliny the Elder, author of Natural History, spoke of this fact: "Nowadays, cooks are bought for three times the price of a horse and fish for the price of three cooks". The arrival of the fishermen in port, then as now, was one of the most eagerly awaited moments of the day. The fish he was referring to were red mullet (Mullus surmuletus) and turbot.

© Rafa Pérez

The Roman diet

Tuna, sea bream, sea bass, octopus, prawns, oysters, and molluscs also formed part of the list of fish that the upperclass Romans consumed, as we have been able to find out thanks to the Fish Mosaic preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona. This mosaic, which decorated a house in the Roman villa of Calípolis, in the municipality of Vila-seca, shows up to 47 species of Mediterranean marine fauna.

The other source we have of the diet of the Romans, apart from archaeological remains, is that provided by some of the great gourmets of the time, such as Marcus Gavius Apicius, to whom the recipe book De re coquinaria is attributed. Seasonality and proximity, the flagship of current culinary trends, were the basis of the cuisine: the Romans were happy to experience the arrival of the seasons and with them the arrival of certain products. Sauces such as the ubiquitous garum, prepared with fish offal, were the result of secondary exploitation. From allec, the lowest quality, to what was known as garum flower, which was packed in perfume bottles, this sauce was used to season many dishes, as well as having medicinal applications.

© Rafa Pérez

Techniques, ingredients, and customs

The culinary techniques they used are the same ones we still use today: the oven and the grill, or fermentation, pickling and salting to extend the life of a product beyond its season. Fortunately, we have lost the use of certain ingredients: flamingo tongue, ostrich brain, camel's heels or elephant trunk callus were considered delicacies. Some customs, more related to table decorum, have also been left behind. For example, eating with your back to the table, having to take your napkin with you when you were invited to eat - or alternatively, wiping it with breadcrumbs - or the loud and unpleasant burp after you had eaten your fill.

© Rafa Pérez

Tàrraco a Taula (Tarraco at your Table)

The dishes prepared during Tàrraco a Taula, linked to Tarraco Viva, Tarragona's Roman festival, speak to us of all this, of history, in short. During these days, some of the best restaurants in the city try to reconstruct the cuisine that was prepared in Roman times. Representing ancient flavours with new techniques is a double challenge, firstly because the recipes that have come down to us speak of elaborations, not quantities, so the study and experimentation phase is fundamental. Secondly, the result must be adapted to today's palate: many of the dishes of that time would be too strong for our taste due to the abuse of spices or complicated sweet and savoury mixtures, among other reasons. Chefs such as Ramon Martí of El Llagut and Xavi Fernández of Seasons, who are taking part in the days, agree that they are working to create a brand identity for Tarragona's gastronomy, so that their dishes speak of the landscape, culture and past. The aim of the Tàrraco a Taula association is to go beyond a specific date in the calendar and to ensure that the history of the city can be reflected in some of its dishes throughout the year. The most complicated part is done, the regions of the province of Tarragona are a privileged pantry in which there is no lack of good fish, the blessings of the orchard, wine, extra virgin olive oil or products as appreciated as the truffle and mushrooms that come from the nearby mountains. Enjoy your meal!

Tàrraco a Taula 2023 (Tàrraco at your Table)

Ten restaurants from the city are taking part in this new edition of Tàrraco a Taula, which will be held from 4 to 21 May: AQ, Barmut, Barquet, El Cortijo, El Llagut, El Terrat, La Caleta, Pastisseria Velvet, Seasons and Twins Cerveseria Artesana.. Among the different proposals that will be served in their menus inspired by the ancient Roman world, these are some of the most outstanding ones:

  • Grilled squid with fish sauce with celery, fresh coriander, pepper, oregano, mint, onion, sultanas, honey vinegar, wine and garum, with fried broad beans.
  • Baked lamb with onions and prunes sautéed with spinach and sultanas
  • Clams with herb sauce from outside the walls seasoned with a sauce made with black pepper, parsley, mint, cumin, garum and olive oil
  • Chicken liver pâté with garum and pepper
  • Marinated wild boar loin on fermented and braised red cabbage with sweet and sour sauce
  • Almond soup, broad beans, mint oil, olives and pine nuts
  • Artichokes with smoked cheese and ham
  • Garum and musclum
  • Baked turbot with a sauce of spring onion, celery, dry wine, fish fumet and chopped anchovies, oil, pepper and honey
  • Fresh cheesecake with rosemary, honey and oatmeal base