Origins: The Food of Rome - #123

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

There are a number of legends that tell the story of how Rome was founded.  The most popular, though perhaps not the most accurate, is the tale of the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, the offspring of a local princess named Silvia, and Mars, the god of war.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Silvia was a member of the Vestal Virgins, so her pregnancy at the very minimum can be viewed as a conflict of interest.  It was also a source of embarrassment to her uncle the king, who was not particularly interested in having a couple of kids around who might challenge his right to the throne.  So he put them both into a basket and sent them down the river.  When the basket got stuck on a mud bank the children’s cries attracted a she-wolf who cared for them and fed them and raised them.  And when they eventually grew up, they founded the city of Rome.

The city is now punctuated with works of art commemorating the valiant efforts of the wolf.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I always love it when the wolf gets a compassionate role.

Whatever its true origins, what we do know is that ancient Roman civilization covered a time period that lasted over a thousand years.  With Rome itself starting out as a small agricultural community, and eventually becoming the capital of an empire that controlled most of what is now Western Europe, England, the Middle East and North Africa.  And in the process, evolving from a self-sufficient village that produced almost everything that its inhabitants ate and drank, into a magnificent city that imported its foods from around the world.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Much of what we know about the eating and drinking of ancient Rome, we learned from a man named Marcus Apicius.  He lived during the first century A.D. and was quite a character.  He attended many of the great banquets, organized a few of his own, invented recipes and demonstrated his cooking skills to his friends.  He may have come up with the original idea for force-feeding geese in order to increase the size of their liver.  In which case, foie gras, which we normally associate with the French, was actually the invention of an ancient Roman.  We know about ancient Rome from his accounts, but Marcus was no accountant.  He was not in touch with his personal finances, and at one point went into shock when he discovered that he had spent so much of his money that he was going to have to cut back on his lifestyle.  The idea of downsizing really didn’t appeal to him, and so he committed suicide.  A big price to pay for not balancing your checkbook.

On the other hand, you have the Emperor Trajan.  One nice thing about being emperor, or a member of the U.S. Congress, is that you can do your big spending from the nation’s checkbook and not really worry about balancing it.  Emperor Trajan was the ruler of Rome from 98 to 117 A.D., and the story of his military skill is illustrated on his column, which is made up of seventeen marble drums that run up to a height of 175 feet.  It stands in the heart of Rome.  Tall deeds on a tall monument.  A bronze statue of Trajan stood on the top until the middle of the 1500’s, when the Pope replaced it with the statue of St. Peter -- which is still up there.

Trajan’s master builder was Apollodoro of Damascus.  Apollodoro was responsible for Trajan’s forum... and for the covered market that stood behind it.  It was put up in the year 109 A.D., and was a very original idea for the time.  An early shopping mall and very successful, especially when you consider the fact that it was all food, wine and flowers.  Not a single shoe store.  It contained 150 different shops set out on a semicircular plan.  There are six floors to the complex and it goes up for over a hundred feet.

The bottom floor was given to shops that sold fruits, vegetables and flowers.  Many different types of vegetables were part of the Roman diet.  Asparagus was a big deal.  So were carrots, and cabbages, onions, leeks, and lots of leafy greens.  Many of the vegetables were served as a first course.  Lentils and chickpeas were important and used as the basis for soups.  And mushrooms were a great favorite.  Fruits were often presented as dessert.  There were apples, berries, plums, cherries, figs, dates, grapes, and my personal favorite... watermelon.  Peaches were brought in from Persia and apricots from Armenia.  There was also a wide range of nuts.  Olives had a dual role, as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal and  as a dessert at the end.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The second floor was given over to dealers in olive oil and wine.  Most of the wine came from the area that is now Italy, but they also imported wines from Germany, and Spain, and Greece.  The wines of ancient Rome were pretty strong and usually cut with water.  The standard proportions were one part wine to three parts water.  They had a wine that they served at the beginning of a meal called Mulsum... it was wine mixed with honey.  They also served a sweet wine at the end of the meal.  It was made from grapes that were allowed to dry on the vine -- what we would call today a late harvest wine.  They made beer, but most people thought that beer was medicine or just too common to serve to people of good taste.

The third and fourth levels of Trajan’s Market offered spices and gastronomic items considered to be luxuries.  The ancient Romans appear to have had a great interest in spices.  One reason may have been the need to cover the taste of food that had become, shall we say, overripe as a result of the lack of refrigeration.  They may also have needed intense flavors.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A great deal of lead was used in the ancient Roman cooking equipment, in the pipes that brought them their water, and in the make-up that they used.  As a result, almost everybody in ancient Rome suffered from some level of lead poisoning.  Three of the most common symptoms of lead poisoning are an inability to taste flavor, a general loss of appetite and a metallic taste in your mouth almost all of the time.  The ancient Romans may have needed intense spices just to taste anything at all.

The top floor had large tanks that displayed both fresh- and salt-water seafoods.  The highest price paid for any food was always paid out for fish and shellfish, usually two or three times what they would pay for pork or lamb.  The Romans just loved the stuff from the sea.  Wealthy families kept their own fish ponds, and there was a big business in fish breeding.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The ancient Romans liked meat but most of it came from pigs, goats and sheep.  Cattle were considered as animals for commerce not cooking.  And besides, the work that they did made their meat tough.  There was lots of wild game and poultry, and hens were raised for their eggs.  As a matter of fact, an egg dish was the most common first course at an ancient Roman meal.

The kitchen of the average ancient Roman family was rather limited in terms of size and equipment.  A rectangle of bricks, set against one wall, was the oven and range.  If the family could afford it, they burned charcoal rather than wood because charcoal gave off less smoke than firewood.  A couple of holes in the top of the oven would hold the pots and pans that were made of ceramic or bronze.  There were also grills that look just like the grills that we use today.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And in every Roman kitchen a jar of garum.  Garum was a seasoning sauce that was used in most of the recipes in ancient Rome.  It was used pretty much the way we see soy sauce being used in the Chinese community today.  It was made in commercial garum factories, there were different levels of quality and different prices.  But the basic preparation technique was always pretty much the same.  You took a big jar and put in alternating layers of salt and seafood.  And you took the jar out in the sun, and let it sit there for a couple of months until everything turned into a nice, thick sauce.  Doesn’t that sound yummy?  Well, don’t laugh.  Anthropologists have discovered that the demand for garum was so great, that the manufacturers produced a variety without shellfish that was considered kosher and sold only to the Jewish community.

When dinner was served in ancient Rome, and it was presented in the proper environment, the room was known as a triclinium.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I wanted to show you a real restoration, but I ran into three problems.  First of all, a good restoration is very hard to come by, and the two that there are are under the control of the Italian government --  which was my second problem.  In 1990, the Italian government, like many other governments around the world, was running out of money.  Word came down from the top to find new sources of income.  And one of those sources was a charge that they made to television crews for filming inside their national monuments.  The guy I spoke to from the Italian government wanted 5,000 U.S. dollars for two hours of taping, PLUS a $25,000 deposit, in case I did anything to ruin his ruin.  But the third problem was the one that really got me.  While I was recovering from the shock of this news, I called a friend of mine who is a producer here in Rome.  I asked him, “Is there any way around these fees and deposits?”  And he told me that for the past two years, he has been trying to get his deposit back.  So... let me show you this photograph that I borrowed from a friend.

The table with the food was in the center.  Beds were arranged around three sides of the table.  Three people would stretch out on each bed facing the food.  If there were more than nine people, more beds would come in.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Each person would lie on their left side, holding a plate with their food in their left hand and eating it with their right hand.  The food was chosen to be something that could be eaten out of hand, usually cut into bite-size pieces, or something that could be taken with a spoon.  Knives were never brought to the table... much too aggressive... and the fork hadn’t been invented yet.

Rome is still a great place for good eating and drinking and you can see modern Rome’s love of gastronomy all over town.

The Campo de’ Fiori is in the southern part of Rome’s historic district.  Campo de’ Fiori means “field of flowers,” and during the Middle Ages that’s what was here.  But by the 1500s the district had become the heart of Rome.  In the center of the square is the statue of Giordano Bruno, who was executed in the year 1600.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  At the time, the official word from the church was that the earth was the center of the universe and everything in the sky moved around us.  It was an ego thing.  Poor Bruno, he was only interested in the scientific aspects of the universe and really wasn’t getting the macho message from the monks.  His experiments led him to the belief that, in fact, the sun was the center of the universe and the earth actually moved around the sun.  Well, let me tell you, this was an unacceptable belief.  And worse than just believing it, Bruno was going around and telling that to other people.  Clearly, this man was a heretic.  And the monks burned him at the stake.

Today his statue is at the center of the Campo and one of Rome’s great markets moves around him.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In most ancient societies everybody ate and drank pretty much the same things.  Of course the rich had a lot more of whatever it was than the poor.  But in ancient Rome, perhaps for the first time, that began to change.  Because the Roman Empire was so huge and in contact with so many different parts of the world, the people of ancient Rome who had the money were able to choose from an extraordinary variety of foods.  Foods that were just not available to people who didn’t have the money.  But they were not just interested in variety, they were fascinated by quality.  And they would spend an enormous amount of time, money and effort getting the best of everything.

When Marcus Apicius heard that the shrimp off the coast of Libya were superior to those available in Rome, he outfitted a ship and sailed off to check it out.  When he got there and found that the shrimp were no better than what he was already using, he turned around and headed back without making a purchase.

And that desire for the “best of class” is still very much part of the attitude of the modern Roman food lover.  One of the first things that you learn as a traveling eater is that almost every town has a special interest in certain foods.  Those same foods may be available in other cities but not at the same level of quality.  And not subject to the same level of interest on the part of the local public.  In New York they would be bagels, pastrami, steak and cheesecake.  In Paris it would be pastry, wine, and chocolate.  Here in Rome, it’s bread, particularly in the form of pizza, ice cream, and coffee.

The place to try “best of class” bread and pizza is the Antico Forno at the edge of Campo de’ Fiori.

For ice cream it’s Gioletti.

And for the best thick chocolate ice cream with a whipped cream topping... the Tartuffo at Tre Scalini in the Piazza Navona.

And almost everyone seems to agree that the best cup of espresso is at Santo Eustachio.

If you would like a little Roman street atmosphere to go along with your coffee, you might take a seat at the Gran Caffe Doney at the Via Veneto.  This was the center of the life that film director Federico Fellini presented in his 1959 movie, La Dolce Vita -- “the sweet life.”  Things have quieted down a bit since then, but the life around here is still pretty sweet, and its been that way since the beginning of the century.

The Caffe Doney is actually built into a hotel called the Excelsior, which opened in 1906.  It still has the elegance and attention to detail that was part of its original plan.  Mario Miconi is the general manager of the Excelsior, but he first joined the staff as a pageboy in 1948. Over the years he has put together a collection of interesting memorabilia that relates to the dining room service that was standard for the early days of this century.

MARIO MICONI:  We have many different items to eat the asparagus.  And I took the one that gives me more sensation... it’s very nice... it’s very easy to use... you see, it’s unbelievable.  It’s been done, and this is like, uh, a jewelry piece.  You can use this.  It’s very, very elegant...

BURT WOLF:  I like the asparagus holder.  I want to take one of those with me when I go out to dinner.

MARIO MICONI:  Could be... remember it’s also for the cigar... you see, sometimes these things... really, I don’t... I mean you have the imagination here brings you... I don’t know.  But so all these things always show the way that a waiter or the server, any server couldn’t take, never with the hands anything.  So the one thing that amazed me more than the others is this one.  I mean... it’s very, very, very nice.  I think it’s very polite because when I take this it’s marvelous.

BURT WOLF:  It’s to hold a chicken leg...

MARIO MICONI:  To hold a chicken see...

BURT WOLF:  But you don’t touch it with your hands...

MARIO MICONI:  So you don’t touch, this was done by the waiters.  It’s very easy to understand, it’s very easy to put it.  But you see that both ways, you eat with your hands but you don’t touch the chicken.  But sometimes now it’s even better to touch the chicken leg because it gives you more taste, but this is very nice.

The hotel has a widely respected restaurant called “La Cupola,” which is keeping up the tradition of “the sweet life.”  But even in ancient Rome you had to finish your main course before you got the sweets.  Which seems only fair if the main course is Bucatini alla Amatraciana.

Chef Vittorio Saccone starts by putting a quarter of a pound of bucatini into a quart of boiling water and adding a touch of salt.  Bucatini is a round dried pasta, like a spaghetti, but hollow down the center like a thin straw.  He stirs the bucatini into the water until it’s completely submerged.

Then he starts on the sauce.  Two tablespoons of olive oil go into a sauté pan to warm up.  A quarter of a cup’s worth of onion is minced and added in.  A pinch of hot dried pepper goes in.  A half cup’s worth of cured pork is cut into bite-size pieces and added to the pan.  You can use pancetta, which is available in most Italian markets, or you can just use bacon.

A few minutes of cooking and a half cup of white wine is added.  Then ten cherry tomatoes are sliced in half and their seeds are pressed out.  Then they’re cut into small slices and added to the pan.  A little stirring.  A touch of salt.  Two minutes of cooking.  The pasta is drained away from the water and added to the sauce.  A few flips to mix everything together.  A little grated Parmesan cheese.  Then a little grated Pecorino Romano cheese and the bucatini is ready to serve.

And for dessert, Chef Saccone is going to make a Romana Sambuca Cheese Cake.  Four cups of flour are mounded up.  Eight ounces of butter go into the center of the flour, followed by three eggs.  A cup of sugar is sprinkled onto the flour, and all of that is blended together by hand into a soft dough.  That goes into the refrigerator for 30 minutes to harden up so it will be easier to work with.

When it comes out, the dough is placed on a floured surface.  It gets a little flour on its own surface and is rolled out to a thickness of a quarter of an inch.  It’s fitted into a round cake pan that’s about one-and-a-half inches deep and nine inches in diameter.  Next, two cups of ricotta cheese go into a mixing bowl; then two cups of dried fruit pieces.  A cup of sugar, and a half cup of Romana Sambuca, which is an anise-flavored drink.  All that’s mixed together until you have a batter-like consistency.  That should take about two minutes of mixing with a wooden spoon.

The dough-lined pan returns... and gets a light coating of pastry cream, an optional procedure.  Then strips of sponge cake are placed on top of the pastry cream to form a base.  The ricotta filling goes in and gets smoothed out on top.  The remaining dough is rolled out, floured, and cut into strips about a half an inch wide and twelve inches long.  Vittorio cuts ten of them, which are used to make a lattice-work on top of the cake.  A wash is made from a beaten egg and painted on top.

Then into a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for twenty minutes.  When the cake comes out of the oven it’s allowed to cool.  Then it’s taken out of the pan, given a dusting of powdered sugar, and it’s ready to serve.

When the ancient Romans first started making wine, their feel for the craft, in terms of taste, was not very good.  But the good feeling that they got from drinking it kept them highly interested.  To help the flavor along, they often mixed their wine with honey, or herbs and spices, or all of the above.  One result is that the ancient Romans developed a taste for beverages that were sweet and had an herbal flavor.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Much of the time their herbal drinks were considered more in the area of medicine, than in gastronomy, but that was often the case with wines and spirits that had been given an herbal flavor.  Over the centuries one of the spirits with an herbal flavor that had a medical claim to fame and was very popular, was the digestif,  something you drank after dinner to help you with your digestion.  And one of the most popular flavors was based on anise, a flavor that many people associate with licorice.

The ancient Egyptians knew about anise, and so did the ancient Greeks.  The ancient Romans often ended their banquets with anise-flavored cakes, pointing out that anise was a valuable aid to good digestion.  Roman weddings usually included an anise cake for dessert.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Even today, candied almonds with an anise flavored coating are part of weddings in France and Italy.  One scholarly source tells us that at the end of an ancient Roman battle, the generals would give anise flavored candies to their successful troops.  Now, that doesn’t strike me as a really great gift after a battle, but maybe there were little prizes in the boxes.  You know, you never know about these things.  The point is that for thousands of years people have associated the flavor of anise, spirits, good luck, good fortune, the end of a good battle or the end of a good meal.

At this point, the Romans have distilled all of that into a drink called Romana Sambuca.  They drink it after dinner.  They put it into espresso.  Sometimes they even top off the coffee with whipped cream, ending up with a sweet anise-flavored drink that they call Caffe Romana.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For thousands of years people have believed that certain plants had vital forces and critical energies.  The more unusual the shape and color of the plant, the more powerful these energies.  And the way to get to these force fields was to capture the aroma of the plant... and the way to do that was to burn the plant and capture the smoke... in Latin it was called per fumus... in English we call it perfume.  And one of the most powerful forces came from the anise plant.

Look at that.  An after-dinner drink and a little aromatherapy, all at the same time.  What a combination!  And as if that were not enough, it appears that Romana Sambuca can improve your luck.

WOMAN:  Yes, let’s have a toast with three coffee beans; one for wealth, one for health, and one for love.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  What can I tell you?  It’s Rome.  They have been running great dinner parties for twenty-eight hundred years and they have been in the tourist business since the 13th Century.  They want you to have a good time.  And I want you to have a good time.  And if you have had a good time ...I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the ORIGINS of the things that surround us.  From Rome, I’m Burt Wolf.