Sauces have been used to modify and accentuate food throughout history, transcending all cultures. Here we will examine ancient Rome, for it offers-in the strictest sense of recipes-the earliest cook book De Re Coquinaria, which is perhaps erroneously believed to have been written by the gourmet Apicius in the first century A.D. This discrepancy is made evident by Athenaeus, who compiled the anthology The Deipnosophists, circa 230 A.D. This latter book is regarded as one of the leading sources of information about ancient times, and its author knew all about Apicius as a gourmet, but didn’t attribute a cook book to him. Regardless of the exact authorship of De Coquinaria, it supplies the rich basis of a worthy record of early cooking techniques.
With it come glimpses into the eating habits of the well-to-do, including sumptuous recipes, such as those for feasts. Note that contrary to established beliefs, the everyday Roman dining was simple: breakfast (jentaculum) was bread with a few olives or raisins; lunch (prandium) mostly consisted of leftovers, cold meat, or eggs; the daily main meal (cena) also reflected less extravagance-this latter was more elaborate only in households with an excess of slaves.
Even more than the fussy dishes concocted for guests, plain foods, like grain pastes, beans, and bread, required spices and strong sauces to transform them, with their disproportionate quantities of starch. This same rule is illustrated by the most intense of the world’s repertoire of sauces, such as the soy mixtures of China, the chili pastes of Mexico, and the curries of India-derived from the South Indian name kari meaning sauce. Here the common man basically developed sauces as seasonings for bulky carbohydrates, which both absorb and dilute them; on the other hand, the solid masses of fish and meat scarcely incorporate liquid at all.
In Food in History, Reay Tannahill states that all the qualities that give a cuisine its identity change in a society that can afford to eat meat and fish daily, with their staying sauces. (Such peoples utilize extensive creativity in sauce-making, the primary element of good cooking.) Thus, Tannahill suggests that the whole essence of cuisine may have thus changed in the rural society that was transfigured into Imperial Rome.
Showy receipts were prepared for company by that ancient culture. The full dinner party in Roman times was considered to be nine people, reclining on three couches, around a U shape table. These guests leaned on their left elbow, while eating with the fingers of their right hand. This was a messy activity; they washed themselves from top to toe before a meal, probably needing to do so after as well. By necessity, the dipping sauces for their flesh foods required a sturdy substance for easy eating; such thickening was achieved by adding wheat starch or crumbled pastry.
The use of liquamen (or garum) was predominant in Roman cookery. This clear, golden, fermented fish sauce was made commercially, by leaving out a mixture of fish and salt in the sun for two to three months (eighteen months for larger fish). Its presence in most recipes not only added strong flavor, which the Romans loved, but in turn, masked milder rancidity, so prevalent in their foodstuffs.
Imperial Rome grew to be a quarter of the size of modern Paris, unlike the other great, small urban centers of Sumer, Egypt, and Greece, which were small by comparison; this made transport of perishable foods, which were stockpiled in warehouses, very slow. With no refrigeration, food spoilage presented a large problem; thus, the powerful, fishy/salty flavored liquamen found its way into almost everything.
The recipes of antiquity were sketchy, with little more than a list of ingredients. Their sauces, as mentioned above, often called for wheat starch and crumbled pastry as thickeners, for there was no roux. Interestingly enough, roux was NOT the invention of 17th-century classical French cuisine, as is generally accepted; indeed, two printed German recipes remain employing this, which date back to late medieval times, 150 years before roux began revolutionizing cooking.
This paste roux-a combination of flour and butter cooked to varying degrees for different recipes-is the binder in four out of five of the leading mother sauces: brown sauce (espagnole), white sauce (veloute), milk-based béchamel, and traditional sauce tomat (the fifth is hollandaise). These five mother sauces were formalized in a code by Auguste Escoffier in Le Guide Culinaire (1903); they act as the basis of most sauce creations, chocolate being an exception.
Our lemon recipe, a béchamel, is time-efficient, for I feel a need to respect the modern sense of rush, which makes many afraid of a brown sauce that in a careful kitchen can simmer for up to ten hours. Enjoy this delightful dish prepared in less than 30 minutes!
Esther B. Aresty, The Delectable Past (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1964) pp. 14, 15, 18, 20.
Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1988, 1973), pp. 82, 83, 89, 90.
Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork (New York: Basic Books, 2012), p. 202.
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), pp. 616-618.
Swift Pasta and Spinach, with Lemon Sauce Yields: 2 servings (as a main course), or 4 servings (as a side dish). Total prep time: 25 minutes. Note: may use gluten-free pasta.
2/3 cup shallots, chopped small
1/3 cup or 1/3 medium onion, chopped small (If desired, may use more onions and less shallots; a total of 1 cup, of both together, is needed.)
2 med/lg garlic cloves (For easy prep, substitute 1 cube frozen garlic from Trader Joe’s.)
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice-2 small lemons (May add optional zest of half a lemon.)
5-6 oz of pasta
5 tsp butter
2 tsp flour (May substitute potato or rice flour for gluten-free version.)
2 tsp oil (Coconut or avocado oil is important for health, as olive oil is carcinogenic when heated to high temperatures.)
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream (Must be heavy cream, or it will curdle.)
Salt and white pepper, to taste (Real Salt, Himalayan, or pink salt, is critical for optimum health; a fine grind Himalayan salt is available very cheaply at Costco.)
Boil 2 1/2 quarts of water over med/high heat in a covered saucepan-add about a teaspoon each of salt and any kind of oil.
- Chop small the shallots and onions; measure and set aside. Mince garlic, if using fresh.
- Roll lemons on counter, pressing down hard with hand to loosen juices in meat; squeeze and measure lemon juice; set aside. (See above photo of hand-held juicer, ideal for easy juicing.)
- When water is boiling, turn heat down to medium, add pasta and cook for 7 minutes, or until al dente. Drain in a colander when done.
- Meanwhile, melt 2 tsp of butter in a small saucepan over med/low heat; stir in flour with a wire whisk; cook briefly for about 1 minute-traditionally, roux for a béchamel shouldn’t change in color at all.
Heat 1 tbsp butter and oil, in a medium-size sauté pan, over medium heat. Add shallots and onion; cook until translucent, stirring frequently. Mix in garlic; if garlic is fresh, cook for about 30 seconds more, just until aroma arises, or saute shallot/onions just until cube is dissolved, if using frozen.
- Add heavy cream, lemon juice, and roux to onions/shallots/garlic; stir constantly until sauce is thickened; see photo.
- Toss with prepared pasta, serve on a bed of spinach, enjoy!