Updated: Jan 5
Spotted in the May 2020 edition of BBC History magazine (pg 66) was a recipe for “Ancient Roman Burgers” which prominently features Tastes Of History’s Roman “cocina”, or kitchen pictured right.
More accurately the image accompanying the recipe is of our folding frying pan sitting on an iron “craticula”, or grille/gridiron, both of which were made by Len Morgan co-founder of the Roman Military Research Society (THE RMRS). As for the burgers shown, they were being prepared for a press call ahead of a “Roman Burger Event” at Birdoswald Roman Fort back in May 2015. As can be seen below right, Jill's version of this burger recipe was very well received by Joe Jackson, English Heritage's tame Roman Centurion, and by all those who got to sample them served in a slider roll. For those interested, our recipe did differ from the one given in the BBC History magazine. Caul fat was not used to hold the patties together and we omitted the juniper berries.
After years of making these tasty snacks, however, it is slightly misleading to call them “burgers”. As usual any naming mix-up is to do with how the original Latin text is translated and interpreted by modern scholars and subsequently chefs. The term “isicia” for example would be most recognisable as forcemeat (derived from the French farcir, "to stuff"), which is a uniform mixture of lean meat with fat made by grinding, sieving, or puréeing the ingredients.
According to Apicius, there are many kinds of minced dishes. Seafood minces, for example, are made of sea-onion, or sea crab-fish, lobster, cuttlefish, ink fish, spiny lobster, scallops and oysters. These might be used in fish forcemeats, fish balls, fish cakes and similar preparations. The author goes on to write that isicia, the forcemeat, is seasoned with lovage, pepper, cumin and “laser root”, the latter also known as silphium.
Forcemeat may either be smooth or coarse and of course could be used to make burger patties, but there is a small problem. “Omentata” is derived from the word omentum meaning caul fat, the thin membrane that surrounds the internal organs of some animals, such as cows, sheep, and pigs. It is used as a casing for sausages, roulades, pâtés, and various other meat dishes.
So, according to Bill Thayer’s excellent website Lacus Curtius, the Apician recipe for omentata translates as:
What this seems to imply is that “isicia omentata” ought to be more akin to a sausage or a faggot than a burger. Does this matter? No, not really. The internet is flooded with references and recipes for “isicia omentata” as the 1,500-year-old forerunner of today’s ubiquitous burger. So, as the weather improves, perhaps these ancient Roman burgers would make an interesting addition to your barbecue. Enjoy!
Isicia omentata: a Roman "Burger"
1. A slider is an American term for a steam-grilled sandwich, typically around 2 inches (5 cm) across, made with a bun.
2. Wikipedia, Forcemeat, retrieved April 19th, 2020.
3. Thayer, W, Lacus Curtius, retrieved April 19th, 2020.
4. Wikipedia, Caul Fat, retrieved April 19th, 2020.
5. Apicius, De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), Liber II (Book II), Chapter I, Sarcoptes (Minces)
6. “Sarcoptes” is the Greek word for “chopped meats”.