Nuts were luxurious ingredients in Roman cooking, but there are many ways the ancients served them. Here is a brief story of nuts' roles in ancient dining, as well as a historically indulgent recipe.
A photo of the nut patina I've prepared using Apicius's recipe.
One thing I have to keep reminding myself as I pore over Latin cookbooks and read about Roman society is that ancient cooks didn't have the ability to get in their cars and drive over to the supermarket to buy produce somebody else grew. All fresh ingredients came from fields or gardens, from pears to parsley and basil to beets.
This reliance on the land certainly wasn't a problem for the Romans, but some crops took significantly longer than others to fruit. As a result of the time required to grow time- and labor-intensive plants, they fetched high prices at market.
Nuts were one group of these crops: almond trees can take almost a decade to mature and produce fruit consistently, so they became prized ingredients. Some other types of nuts like pistachios came from far afield (from central Asia, around Iran and Afghanistan), so the cost of getting them to Rome alone accounted for their magnificence.
Because of the difficulty associated with getting a hold of nuts, they took on a divine sort of status in ancient cooking. The Latin word for walnut, iuglans, actually comes from a combination of Iovis glans, or Jupiter's acorn, a name hinting at the godlike prestige the Romans conferred on them.
Simply put, nuts were expensive treats often only enjoyed by those who could afford them. However, ancient cookbooks document many ways for preparing nuts, presumably because many of the other recipes in those texts were also extravagant.
One of the more popular ways the Romans prepared nuts was by making a patina, a type of flat tart named after the broad, shallow dish it was often served in. In Apicius, the patina is an incredibly common dish: there is a stretch of sixteen recipes for different types of patina in the book, some savory and others (including this one) sweet. The recipe I found and its English translation go as follows:
Patina versatilis vice dulcis. Nucleos pinos, nuces fractas et purgatas, attorebis eas, teres cum melle, pipere, liquamine, lacte, ovis, modico mero et oleo.
Sweet turnover patina. Roast pine nuts and other cleaned and chopped nuts. Mix with honey, pepper, liquamen, milk, eggs, a little wine and oil.
In typical Apician fashion, this recipe is incredibly vague. There are no recorded measurements, times, or even really cooking methods, except for chopping and roasting the nuts. Even then, questions arise: How finely should they be chopped? How much should they be cooked? This absence of information can be quite baffling and makes it difficult for us modern recreators to nail preparation and taste. At the same time, though, not having prescriptive recipes makes ancient cooking feel like a bit of an adventure.
All the same, I’ve done a bit of experimenting and have come up with what I find to be a suitable modern day nut patina:
1½ cups of walnuts
¾ cup of almonds
½ cup of pistachios
½ cup of pine nuts
3 tbsp of white wine
½ cup of honey (plus more for serving)
½ cup of goat milk
½ tsp of olive oil
½ tsp of liquamen
Pepper, to taste
Slivered almonds (optional)
Crush the walnuts, almonds, and pistachios (I put them into a Ziploc bag and smashed them with a rolling pin). Add in the whole pine nuts and pour onto a lined baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 12 minutes at 350ºF, mixing halfway through. In a saucepan, stir the wine and honey together and bring to a boil. Once the mixture starts to foam, take it off the heat and pour into a bowl with the nuts. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and pour in the milk, oil, garum, and pepper. Take the milk mixture and combine with the nuts and honey, stirring until mixed throughout. Pour into a springform pan and put in the oven to bake for 30 minutes at 350ºF. Take out of the oven and let rest. Once cooled, remove the patina from the pan and flip over. Garnish with slivered almonds or honey and serve.
Pictures of the ingredients and the finished product.
When I read the recipe and started to toy with it in the kitchen, something struck me. I had absolutely no idea why the Romans decided to put fish sauce in a dessert. After making some liquamen a week or so ago, I hadn’t forgotten about the sauce’s funky marine aroma. I thought I’d be safe by picking a dessert to make, but no! There it was, hiding in the middle of the recipe! Fortunately, I had no need to be afraid. The liquamen was barely noticeable at all in the finished product, and acted as a salt substitute for the dessert more than anything.
I really enjoyed making this recipe, despite its questionable combination of ingredients. I’d say the consistency was unlike anything I’ve had before. The closest comparison would be banana bread without the bananas — so basically indescribable. It was very dense and crumbly, a result of the nuts.
The flavor was mild — I couldn’t pick anything out in particular — and even though I added a good bit of honey (½ cup), the patina wasn’t all that sweet. Regardless, by preparing this recipe, I got an interesting look into the world of Roman desserts, and indulged a bit in classic historical fashion.