The Roman Empire's Cuisine Rested On These 6 Columns
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

WHEN a video claiming that men tend to think about the Roman Empire on a daily basis went viral online, a social media trend was born. Women took to asking their male partners how often they thought about the Roman Empire, and posted amused reaction videos as the men answered on a scale of “every day” to “several times a week”. While the trend itself has been analysed by experts for its gendered overtones, it certainly got us thinking about the Roman Empire, and more specifically, the food and drink that existed in the era. And the culinary foundation of Ancient Rome rested on six Corinthian columns: Panis, Vinum, Oleum, Garum, Fructus and Carnes.

Panis: The Daily Bread

Amidst the hustle and bustle of Roman life, panis, or bread, emerged as the sustenance of the masses. It was not the insipid bread of today; it was a symbol of nourishment, resilience, and endurance. Romans, from paupers to patricians, indulged in this most essential of foods. The ingredients might vary, from simple barley loaves to the more refined wheat-based bread enjoyed by the elites, but panis was the great equaliser of Roman society. It was the staple, the cornerstone of every meal, a testament to the practicality and frugality of the Roman spirit.

Vinum: Liquid Ambrosia

Vinum, the sacred liquid of the gods, flowed through the veins of Rome. It was not merely a beverage but a statement of identity, sophistication. From the verdant vineyards of Pompeii to the sun-kissed hills of Tuscany, Roman wines were a celebration of terroir. Vinum was the lifeblood of Roman revelry, integral to their feasts and Bacchanalian rituals. As Pliny the Elder noted, "In vino veritas" — in wine, there is truth. Vinum’s journey took it from the vineyard to the amphora, and finally, into the goblet of every Roman.

Oleum: The Empire’s Gold

Oleum, or olive oil, was the golden thread weaving through Roman cuisine. It was not just a cooking medium; it was anointed on the skin for eternal youth and poured into lamps to light Roman nights. Olive groves covered the Italian countryside, and this "liquid gold" was a symbol of prosperity and power. Oleum was the elixir of life for the Roman kitchen, the secret to their roasted meats, sautéed vegetables, and the silky sauces that graced their platters.

Garum: The X Factor

Garum was the fermented fish sauce that lent a distinct umami flavour to Roman dishes. It was the Roman equivalent of a well-guarded secret recipe, painstakingly crafted from the entrails of mackerel, anchovies or sardines. Garum was an acquired taste, but it was an essential condiment, elevating flavours beyond the ordinary. It was not just about the ingredients; it was about patience and artistry, where fermentation was the alchemy that transformed ordinary into extraordinary.

Fructus: Nature's Bounty

The Romans had a love affair with fructus, i.e. fruits. The orchards teemed with figs, dates, apples and pomegranates. From the honey-sweet medlar to the exotic loquat, Romans relished this abundance from nature. Fruits were not just a dessert but a symbol of wealth and indulgence. They signified the exotic and the sumptuous, the fruits of their empire extending beyond geographic borders.

Carnes: Meat Of Myth & Might

The Romans revered their carnes, their meats, with a passion that transcended gastronomy. They indulged in a variety of meats — pork, beef, lamb, poultry — and for the elites, the finest cuts of game and fowl. Meat was not just sustenance; it was a sign of power. Carnes adorned the tables of banquets and victory celebrations, symbolising the might and superiority of Rome.

In the corridors of the Roman Empire, culinary delights were more than just sustenance. They were the embodiment of culture, innovation, and luxury. Panis, Vinum, Oleum, Garum, Fructus, and Carnes were not mere ingredients; they were the gastronomic heartbeat of a civilisation that shaped the course of history.