• Tastes Of History

Kew on a Plate

Updated: Aug 24


Back in 2015 BBC Two's re-ran its series 'Kew on a Plate' presented by Raymond Blanc and Kate Humble. They had spent the year at Kew Gardens in London growing heritage produce and cooking delicious seasonal recipes, all the while discovering the history behind our favourite fruits and vegetables. The series was incredibly interesting but when a 'patina of asparagus' was recreated, using fresh asparagus from Kew, it made us question whether we had correctly understood the original Roman recipe. What was produced for the episode did not resemble the tasty omelette-like dish we are familiar with, so what went wrong?


As with most recipes, however, the ingredients and method of cooking will differ, perhaps only slightly, as each chef produces their own interpretation. In the case of the surviving texts from classical antiquity, there are further complications for interpretation. Firstly, the recipes themselves are not usually presented in a form familiar to modern cooks. It was Eliza Acton (17 April 1799 – 13 February 1859), an English food writer and poet, who produced one of Britain's first cookery books aimed at the domestic reader. Her book, 'Modern Cookery for Private Families', introduced the now-universal practice of listing ingredients and giving suggested cooking times for each recipe. We are familiar with this format due to the popularity of Isabella Beeton's bestselling 'Book of Household Management' (1861), which included several recipes plagiarised from Acton's work.


In contrast, ancient texts from the classical period of Greece and Rome, such as the collections known to us as 'Apicius', what survives is essentially a list of ingredients for the cook to combine according to their taste and experience. With quantities and cooking times omitted it means getting the balance of ingredients, textures and flavours 'right' for the modern palate becomes the task for those of us who would recreate these classical dishes. To complicate matters further, the recipes, such as they are, usually have had to be translated from the author's original language. The very transmission and copying of ancient texts through the ages is fraught with dangers for today's interpreter. Missing bits of text, translation mistakes, spelling and typographical errors, both in the past and today, can change the meaning or leave significant gaps in our understanding. It is only by experimenting with these recipes that one can hope to recreate something of the original author's intent.


The asparagus patina reproduced by Ruth Goodman in the BBC's 'Kew on a Plate' series is a case in point. It is one of the few Apician recipes (Apicius 4.2.5 & 6) that actually records quantities, and the patina can be cooked as a custard, or as a frittata or omelette. While recreating this particular recipe, however, a common mistake was broadcast. The original text does not require the asparagus to be cooked. Instead it is supposed to be pounded and soaked in wine so that only the extracted juice is used. The asparagus itself is actually discarded.


What resulted on the programme undoubtedly tasted just fine, but if you fancy having a go at making the 'original' Roman style recipe, then try the following, extracted from Sally Grainger's superb 'Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today' [1]:

Endnotes:

1. 'Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today' by Sally Grainger (2006), Prospect Books, ISBN978-1903018446

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