Guide to eat like the Romans for a day
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Do you want to teach your kids about life in ancient Roman times? A great starting point is to appeal first to their senses. Ancient Roman food is a fantastic gateway, from its appealing hands-on preparation to the pungent smell of the spices!
I experimented with Roman ingredients for a week, and I will give you my favourite – and most scrumptious – recipes to whip up at home with the kids. I will also add some ideas for complementary resources that you may want to use.
But before I move on to Roman food, I would like to outline the learning highlights from our experience. I have two very young kids - and a ketchup loving husband, so this may of course look different if you have an older crowd!
1. What we think of as “traditional” food has not been around for that long, whereas some ingredients we thought were more exotic were already staples in Roman times!
Roman week gave us a perfect opportunity to talk about migration, wars, conquest, commerce and, most specially, cultural identity. I suggest you get a big map ready, because you will be tracing many journeys!
2. How do we even know what we know about the Romans?
This activity is the perfect opportunity to show children that history is not a set of facts but a constant search to find out what life was like in the past. Get them to work as archaeologists for the day, and they will see the work that goes on behind the scenes making the history books! For example, before you make your panis quadratus (recipe below!) you could show them this fresco from Pompeii and ask them to draw conclusions about bread production in Pompeii.
3. Preparing food from scratch without all the gadgets is labour-intensive.
Our kitchens are so automated and the shelves in the supermarket so well stocked, that it is easy for children to forget the process behind the ingredients they eat. This Roman day is a perfect way to work on their knowledge of food processing, from tools to sources of energy, including the life conditions of enslaved workers.
My husband is a physicist, and he really enjoyed telling us about the reasons why the Romans would have cooked with a testum. The testum was a terracotta pot that was placed over the food - something like a cloche covering it. The testum would be placed under coals to create what we nowadays would call a dutch oven. It is all about moisture, air circulation and achieving great crunch!
As you can see, for us one topic led to the other, and it was pretty much smells, noises, and textures that ended up driving most of the conversations.
And here is the bonus you were perhaps not expecting: by the end of the day the kids will be using vocabulary they did not even know before, both Latin and English words. Below is a list of suggested keywords that you may want to introduce during the day, but before that I will answer some basic questions:
How can I get my Roman food day organised?
I started by asking my family questions using prompts. You can tailor this to your particular interests, but below you have some questions with prompts if you need a bit of inspiration.
How do we know what the Romans used to eat?
Even though there are plenty of resources to look at this, it is by far much more exciting to try to figure it out first before hitting google. You can try looking at images of the time (mosaics, frescoes, etc), reading bits of literature, checking out archaeological remains, etc. I find that children usually love to find out about the pots in which they fattened doormice before eating them!
How could we make bread from scratch?
This can be a long conversation until you get to the flour mills and even the life of working donkeys! We did not try to grind our own grain, but did look at whole grain and different types of flour, and tried cooking both leavened and unleavened loaves, which was great fun.
How did they preserve food without a fridge?
This is a great starter to talk about using spices as preservatives, as well as talking about fermentation (talk to them about garum and liquamen!) and food seasoning according to climate – for example, you can look at which countries traditionally smoke their food and which countries use other drying methods. See below for my recipe for a Roman dessert which is a great example to look at how to preserve milk and fruit!
Have we inherited our traditional dishes from Ancient Rome?
My children are very young, and my daughter, who is in reception, was rather surprised that the Romans did not have chocolate, tomatoes or potatoes. The linguist in me went into talking about the original languages words come from, but I think I will leave Nauatl and Persian for another blog post!
Who decides what is to be eaten - and what isn’t- beyond amongst all the edible possibilities?
I bought different fish sauces, from northern Europe to Thailand and Vietnam, and my idea was to taste them alongside some preserved anchovies from the Catalan coast very near where we are from. Reader, I must warn you: my children (along with my husband AND parents) did not think the ‘ketchup’ of the Romans was anywhere near edible! I now have a larder full of fish sauces and pastes, but I have sneaked it into some of the savoury recipes that they actually did enjoy, so the secret is in the balancing!
Talking about likes a dislikes is a great starting point to talk about world cuisine, and there is plenty to discuss if your children are into curries, Thai food or even Mexican food. It is a bit more difficult for young ones to grasp, but looking at a map and seeing where all the ingredients come from in a dish can give a lot of perspective about the way different peoples interact and learn from each other. This is a great starter to look at migration, cultural assimilation, etc.
Below are some of the key concepts that you may find useful introducing during Roman day (or week!). Try to use them in your conversation so that they are acquired in effortless way:
1. Fish sauce (garum/liquamen): this was very prevalent in Roman food, and it added the umami flavour as well as the saltiness – they rarely used salt as such for cooking as we do nowadays. There is a variety of fish sauces depending on the process used to extract the juice and the trends of the time and place. It would take a whole experiment in its own to look at all the possibilities!
For the table, I chose to make some liquamen made with Thai and Vietnamese standard fish sauce (I preferred the Vietnamese one) by diluting it in reduced grape juice as Sally Grainger suggests in her great book Cooking with Apicius. You can also explain about the process of making garum and comparing with the manufacture of modern fish sauces – there is plenty of information on this online.
2. Asafoetida: if asafoetida is not usually in your spice repertoire, I would definitely use this opportunity to give it a try. It has a pungent garlicky smell, and the Romans used it to flavour food as a substitute for silphium, which ended up becoming extinct around Nero’s time - perhaps from overconsumption, but we cannot be sure. It is interesting to note here that asafoetida comes from aza, the word for "gum" in Persian, and foetida, the word for "stinky" in Latin. This is a great time to talk about the prices of spices, the visit to the East of Alexander the Great and the culinary links between Western and Eastern cuisine.
3. Import and export: these are two key terms to talk about the movements of ingredients across the ancient world. What did the Romans import from the East? What was the main export of Egypt? Those are great questions to research.
4. Leavened/unleavened: children find the magic of making bread irresistible. You can explain how originally the Romans would use unleavened dough to then move on to more refined white flour to which they would add yeast to improve the texture. We worked on different loaves and tried to give our bread the look of a Pompeian panis quadratus. It was plenty of fun! A fun fact is that they sometimes went to the extent of adding chalk to their bread in order to make it look whiter.
Below are pictures of our attempts at getting a nicely looking panis quadratus. The one in the center is the one that came out best, so we settled for twine rather than sticks to shape it. Notice the lovely bakers' mark. Could you create your own family brand? You canshape it with foil and then just imprint it on the bread.
5. Food preservatives: talking about how food can be stored and eaten out of season is one of my favourite topics. We had both fresh and dried figs, and talked about curing meat in pepper and the aging of cheese. And of course this led us on to talk about freezers, tins and E-numbers!
To simplify things, I have created a shortlist with essential Roman flavours that you may want to include, and some ingredients that you will want to leave out:
fish and seefood (see my cuttlefish recipe below!)
wheat – mostly in bread but also whole
milk from cows and sheep and its cheese
Spices and condiments: pepper, cumin, coriander, oregano, dry fruits and nuts
Note that rue, savory, lovage and quite a few types of berries where commonly used but I chose to leave them out for reasons of taste, health and safety and availability
Flavours missing from the world of the Romans
And finally, do not forget to include Latin words, such as prandium for your breakfast or cena for your dinner, panis for your bread and caseum for your cheese!
You can now download the recipes here:
If you would like to hear me in conversation about our Roman food week and find out a bit more about the experience, the video has been stored in my facebook page.
Further reading for grown ups:
My two favourite books on the Romans and food in general are The Classical Cookbook by S. Grainger and A. Dalby, and Good to Eat by Marvin Harris. The latter is a true Classics and a treasure trove of information on the anthropologie of food. For this activity, I looked at Apicius recipes and also learnt from Sally Grainger's approach to adapting classical food. Cato is a great source of information on Roman food and daily life.