Seeing that I have blogged about Food in the Roman period before, I will treat this post as an update, and hope you will enjoy the recipe given by Stephanie Hoss as she explores how a Mediterranean passion for the delicacy of Asparagus developed in the northern provinces.
The Romans are renowned for having been gourmets ,but their services to horticulture are less widely celebrated. Their talent for farming successfully generated many new fruit and vegetable cultivars, which were developed using selective breeding. While maps of the Roman Empire are often seen as marking territory subject to its laws and, in some cases, occupied by soldiers, the green fingered imperialists also introduced a wealth of different fruit, vegetables and herbs to their provinces north of the Alps.The list is long and includes such supposedly quintessential English herbs as mint, as well as cherries and peaches. Among the vegetables, though, asparagus is surely their most famouse import.
Asparagus plants grow wild in the Mediterranean area, and proved agreeable to the Ancient Greek palate. Dried asparagus was also used as a medicine. The famouse Greek physician Hippocrates(c 460 BC – 370 BC ) recommended a tea made from dried asparagus as a diuretic, and another made from the plant’s roots as a remedy for toothache. Hippocrates also refers to another of asparagus’ reputed properties; an aphrodisiac. Since no Greek sources refer to asparagus being farmed, wild plants were most likely sufficient to sate their appetite for it. The same cannot be said of the Romans.
CULTIVATION OF ASPARAGUS
The oldest description of asparagus cultivation can be found in the writings of the Roman polymath, M. Porcius Cato Censor (234-149 BC) This prominent military commander, historian, and politician also found time to turn his hand to gardening, and he published the treatise Deagri cultura (On Farming ). Other asparagus tips can be found in Pliny the Elders Naturalis Historia (1st century AD) and the agricultural works of Colmella and Palladius (1st and 5th centuries AD, respectively).
The possible Roman asparagus beds discovered in a rural settlement, under excavation by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit nr Cambridge
The cultivation methods laid out by the Roman authors were geared towards mass-producing asparagus for the commercial market, which seems to have been highly lucrative. The methods they used stood the test of time, not changing significantly until well into the 19th century. According to Pliny the Elder, asparagus cultivated near Ravenna was especially bountiful, with three shoots weighing one Roman pound (or 327.4g) At first sight this may seem like an exaggeration to rival the statistics provided for some Roman victories, but modern asparagus shoots can weigh more than 100g. The quality of Ravenna’s asparagus is also invoked by the poet Marcial (c40-104 AD), who elected to introduce a more affordable gift with the ( perhaps optimistic ) declaration. The delicate storks cultivated on the coast of Ravenna will not be more grateful to the palate than this wild asparagus.
Three recipes for asparagus survive in Apicius’ cookbook De re coquinaraia – (4th century AD ) compendium for cooks in wealthy houses. Then as now, though, asparagus was probably usually enjoyed after being simply steamed or boiled, something for which a recipe was hardly necessary. One of Apicius’ recipes describes cooking dried asparagus, which needed to be blanched- that is, immersed into boiling water- before use. The other two recipes are both for a patina, or soufflé- style dish, that would be baked in a flat earthenware receptacle in hot ashes from the fire. In the first, asparagus (probably boiled ) is pounded in a mortar with fish sauce, oil, water, and pepper before being thickened with eggs and then baked. This dish is served sprinkled with pepper. The second patina involved the baking of songbirds coated with asparagus pure’e.
In addition to the written sources, various vestiges of Rome’s experience with asparagus have survived. Aside from the possible Roman asparagus beds recently reported from Cambridge, asparagus can be seen upon still- life wall paintings found in Pompei. These frescoes depict various delicacies from the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and were supposed to impress viewers.
Roman Mosaic depicting food including Asparagus.
Roman fresco Pompei
ASPARAGUS in the NORTHERN PROVINCES.
In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny also mentions a variety of asparagus being grown on the plains of the Roman province of Germania Superior ( roughly equating to modern Switzerland , western France and southern Germany, which needed less care than farmed asparagus, but was more tender than Mediterranean wild asparagus. Further relics of the cultivation- and indeed the consumption of – asparagus in Rome’s northern provinces include two groups of exceptional artifacts. The first are 15 bronze knife-handles modeled on asparagus shoots. These shoots are more mature than those harvested in modern Britain, but asparagus is still consumed this way in Italy. Analysis of the bronze side-shoots on the knife handle suggests they were cast in a mould. If so, it is likely that the remarkable life-like handle finish was achieved with help of an actual asparagus shoot.
A Roman bronze knife-handle found in Woerden,, Netherlands. On the left side ,the remains of the iron blade can be seen.
In order to make the knife-handle the asparagus would need to be completely encased in clay (including some twigs to create a channel for the bronze) and then baked in the oven until the clay was hard enough for the asparagus and the twigs to have been reduced to ashes. Liquid metal could then be poured into the clay mould. After cooling the mould was then broken and the bronze shoot extracted.
A third of these handles were discovered in and around Trier, while the rest are all from other Germanic provinces. The quality of the craftsmanship makes it likely that they were produced for wealthy middle-class buyers, who presumably used them as ‘ everyday knives ‘ for all sorts of purposes; It is unlikely they were used exclusively to prepare or eat asparagus, as harvesting it is best done by simply breaking then stems off, and it is most convenient to eat asparagus with fingers. The unusual form of handle most likely had a certain social cachet, and they must have been a status-symbol of some sort or other, as well as an advert for their owner’s appreciation of asparagus.
Two price tags discovered from Trier provide the only direct evidence for the price asparagus could command in the northern provinces. These tags were inscribed with both a merchants name and ‘ asparagus’, while a whole for string had been punched through them so they could be bound to the produce. Both of these tags give a price of one denarius, which is far too high for a single asparagus bundle. Studying Diocletian;s price edict of AD 301, which factors in the huge inflation of the period, and among many other products, sets a price for cultivated and wild asparagus, suggests that one denarius would buy 10-12 bundles of asparagus. On the strength of this, the tags probably provide a whole-sale price for a producers shipment. If so these tags are a fitting testament to the taste that developed for asparagus in Rome’s northern provinces.
Courtesy of Current Archaeology.