• Parker Johnson

Cabbage, native to the crags of Europe's Atlantic coast, has been cultivated into almost a dozen varieties. Here, a short history of the brassica family and of the avid cabbage-eater Cato the Elder, with a recipe for you to try.

A photo I took of the broccoli with leeks and olives on a plate.

Cato the Elder, a Roman writer and politician, may be famously remembered for his ardent patriotism — he was known to exclaim "Carthago delenda est!" in Senate meetings before the Third Punic War. Renowned as a statesman, Cato was also a farmer.

Born in the Latin town of Tusculum, situated in the Alban Hills of western Italy, Cato came from a plebeian family known for their military service. His father died when Cato (not yet the Elder) was a boy, and young Cato inherited an expanse of farmland in the Sabine country.

In his youth, Cato learned to conduct business and oversee the property. Though he went on to serve a distinguished career in the Roman army, Cato would regularly return to his childhood farm. In time, he compiled a manual on how to run a farm — meant to be read aloud to farmhands.

This work, titled De agri cultura (On Agriculture), is written simply but it addresses many aspects of ancient rural life. Among the book's many sections are writings on viticulture, weather, feeding cattle... and cabbage. Here's a quote from the section on cabbage:

It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables.

We might wonder why the cabbage was so special to Cato. It's a versatile vegetable, fitting equally well into simple stews and sumptuous salad spreads in opulent cenae (dinners). Cato writes in his paean to the vegetable that cabbage could be taken raw or with a dash of vinegar to help promote digestion before big meals.

But much of what Cato the Elder wrote is on the many medicinal properties of the cabbage. A poultice of cabbage leaves could cleanse sores and heal wounds; bruised cabbage restores bruised skin.

What's more, chopped cabbage soaked in vinegar and honey and eaten with rue, dried coriander, asafoetida, and salt remedies any form of joint pain. (As a disclaimer, not all of these are proven to work.)

This all may seem very ordinary if you've read some of the other posts on this blog: the Romans reckoned lots of food plants had curative value. But there's something interesting about the cabbage's lineage that I think is worth looking into.

Linnaeus gave cabbage the name Brassica oleracea. As it so happens, that's also the taxonomic name of kale... and broccoli, cauliflower, savoy, and Brussels sprouts. But how is that?

All of these vegetables happen to be cultivated varieties of the same species. B. oleracea grows in its natural state along the rugged limestone cliffs of southern and western Europe. Over the years, people living in these parts of the world farmed the wild cabbage, producing a number of specifically bred domesticated versions.

The cabbage, with its large, round head, was selectively bred for just that. Kale, which looks utterly different, was grown to bear broad, crinkly leaves. Ancient Germans, it's thought, bred wild cabbage for a thick stem. After many centuries, we now have kohlrabi. And medieval Italians cultivated geometrically appealing fractal-shaped buds of romanesco.

We can see how this process, where farmers have selected for specific traits in Brassica species, produces wildly different results. All of these vegetables, though, can be classified into one related group: the brassicas, or the crucifers (so named for their four crosswise petals).

When Cato professes his admiration for the humble cabbage, he uses the word brassica in Latin. This word doesn't, however, reveal to us what variety of brassica Cato was referring to: in Latin, as in English, "brassica" refers to the cabbage and its kin.

Could Cato be referring to what we now call cabbage? Was he referencing kale or cauliflower? Or did he mean to praise the species as a whole, with all of its varieties? With some investigation, we're able to see that the Romans had other words to call these cruciferous vegetables.

The first word, caulis, seems to refer broadly to a plant's stalk. The agricultural author Columella mentions caulis cepae ("stem of an onion"), and Pliny caulis fabarum ("stem of beans"). But, for some reason or another, it also referred to the standard round-headed cabbage we know today.

There's a series of recipes in Apicius, the jam-packed ancient cookbook, that involves brassicas. I've included the texts of two recipes a bit further down, but it's important to note that the vegetables in these dishes are called cauliculi.

That's another name for a brassica in Latin — cauliculus, or coliculus. With its diminutive suffix (-ulus), this word means "little stem" — essentially a smaller version of a caulis.

So if it's cabbage stems we're talking about here, I think we may have a solid candidate for the cauliculus of Apicius — a relative of Cato's beloved brassica.

Many varieties of brassicas are eaten for their leaves, but broccoli seemed to fit the bill as its shoots are edible. Besides, though we don't have any hard and fast dates for broccoli cultivation, I've found in my reading that the vegetable was grown in its early form during Roman rule.

Without further ado, here are the cauliculus recipes from Apicius, in Latin and English:

Aliter: coliculi elixati in patina compositi condiuntur liquamine, oleo, mero, cumino. piper asparges, porrum, cuminum, coriandrum viridem super concides.

Another: the boiled stalks are placed in a patina; season with liquamen, oil, pure wine, and cumin. Sprinkle​ over pepper, leeks, cumin, and chopped green coriander.

Below this recipe is another that adds to the first dish:

Aliter: coliculos condies ut supra, admisces olivas virides et simul ferveant.

Another: season the stalks as above, add green olives, and heat likewise.

The second recipe mentions that the cook ought to season the brassica "as above," referring to the first recipe. It also tells us to cook the vegetables in the same way, by boiling them. So the only difference in the second recipe is the addition of olives.

I've created a modern rendition of the second recipe just below, following Apicius's description. Give it a whirl!

2-3 large stalks of broccoli

1/4 cup of green olives

1 leek, sliced

8-10 sprigs of cilantro

1/4 cup of white wine

2 tbsp of olive oil

1 tbsp of garum

1/4 tsp of cumin

Pepper, to taste

Rinse the broccoli, then cut off the florets. Add these to a pot of cold salted water, and bring the water to a boil. After about three minutes, drain the broccoli and leave it to cool. Mince the cilantro, then mix it with the wine, oil, garum, cumin, and pepper to form a light dressing. Toss the cooked broccoli with the olives and sliced leek, then dress with the wine sauce. Enjoy!

Photos of the ingredients (cilantro not shown); the cooked broccoli; and a wild cabbage growing on the Little Orme, an outcrop along the northern Welsh coast.

The recipe is fairly simple medley of vegetables, but I think it's pretty tasty. Olives are salty, and the leek adds a strong onion flavor. The dressing certainly enhances the lot with sweet wine, pepper, and cumin.

It may not seem like much, but I could imagine this dish presented among plates of sausage, veal, and tuna in a dinner spread on a Roman table. In fact, the poet Martial references the same word used in the Apicius recipe, cauliculus, as he describes the menu for a cena he hosts.

However it was served in antiquity, I'd encourage you to test this dish yourself — for a taste of history and of Cato's favorite type of vegetable.

  • Parker Johnson

An enterprising Roman farmer brought snail farming into the mainstream many centuries ago, but people have been eating these mollusks for much longer. Here, a history of snails and a recipe to try.

A photo I took of the cooked snails put back in shells, with a bit of parsley.

They may be most familiar on the menus of French restaurants, but snails have been regarded as delicacies for a long, long time.

Thousands of artificial mounds made of snail shells — called escargotières — have been found across Algeria and Tunisia, dating all the way to the Paleolithic Age (over 6,000 years old in this case). Other land snail shells have been found clustered near human remains from Spain to Ukraine. It's safe to say that snails and people go back a ways — they may even lay claim to the earliest domesticated animals!

Despite such a long history, it wasn't until the first century BC that snail rearing arrived in Rome. We're able to learn from Pliny the Elder that the first Roman snail farmer was a man by the name of Fulvius Lippinus. From his rural estate near Tarquinia, Lippinus popularized (and perfected, he might have claimed) snail farming.

The author Varro tells that Lippinus raised a wide array of snail species, from small, white snails from the former's native town of Reate (central Italy) to giant African snails called solitannae.

Though Lippinus looked after all types of snails, he created a standard technique to raise them for eating. From what it seems, his mollusks were fed a mixture of sapa and flour until they grew fat. Lippinus's Tarquinian snails were pampered in other ways, too: the pens had their own sophisticated irrigation systems to keep the snails hydrated. Varro says the following about their design:

The best place [for a pen] is one which the sun does not parch, and where the dew falls. If there is no such natural place — and there usually is not in sunny ground — and you have no place where you can build one in the shade, as at the foot of a cliff or a mountain with a pool or stream at the bottom, you should make an artificially dewy one. This can be done if you will run a pipe and attach to it small teats to squirt out the water in such a way that it will strike a stone and be scattered widely in a mist.

Because of Lippinus's enterprise, snail pens became a common sight on countryside villas. These little paddocks were kept alongside bees, dormice, and other livestock like hares and chickens.

To the Romans, these were known as cochlearia. This comes from the Latin word for "snail" — cochlea a word ultimately loaned from Greek. It makes sense, then, why the cochlea of the inner ear bears the name that it does. The word cochlearium also means "spoon" in Latin. Probably because these spoons were designed to scoop snails (and other mollusks) from their shells to eat. And eat snails the Romans did!

We have a decent repertoire of snail recipes in the cookbook Apicius, each preparing the mollusks with different seasonings. Here is one I picked to recreate, in the original Latin and in English:

Cochleas: sale puro et oleo assabis cochleas. lasere, liquamine, pipere, oleo suffundis.

The snails are roasted with pure salt and oil. Pour over laser, liquamen, pepper, and oil.

At first glance, this recipe is different than many modern snail recipes — you'll notice there's no garlic, butter, or wine. However, some of the ingredients in the formula from Apicius will work as substitutes.

The oil clearly stands in the place of butter. The ingredient called laser is the juice of the silphium root, an extinct plant that I've chosen to swap out with the stinky herb asafoetida (subbing in for garlic). We don't have a replacement for the wine, really, but the addition of liquamen gives more liquid and more flavor to the snails.

After review, these all make sense in this snail recipe. But as I got a list together for this dish and hunted around for its ingredients, I found myself in a bind.

Snail farming nowadays is strictly regulated in the States. I'm not exactly sure of all the guidelines in place, but the bottom line is that it's a real challenge to get live snails. This is because the species commonly eaten and fellow members of the genus Helix are originally European, meaning a snail jailbreak could wreak havoc — try to picture a gastropod invasion!

I had to make do with snails in a can (which, believe it or not, is what many high-end restaurants in the U.S. use for their escargot), and I served them in their shells. Without further ado, here's my take on the recipe from Apicius, for ancient Roman escargot:

Large land snails (mine came in a can of about 16)

2 tbsp of olive oil, plus more for cooking

1 tbsp of liquamen

¼ tsp of asafoetida

Salt, to taste

Pepper, to taste

Warm the olive oil in a medium frying pan over low heat. Drain the snails (assuming they are in a can), rinse, and add to the pan. Saute for about five minutes, but be careful as the snails tend to sputter. Mix in the remaining ingredients and stir, then take the pan off the heat. Let the snails cool, then eat them plain or serve them in shells like I did. Enjoy!

Photos of the ingredients; the snails on a plate (in the shells); and a pair of cochlearia from the Hoxne Hoard, now in the British Museum — maybe once used to dislodge snails like these...

Some of the other snail recipes from Apicius call for the little mollusks to be smothered with milk and flour before cooking them like we see above. This preparation was a bit lighter than that lot, something I appreciated.

The combination of flavors was interesting. I think asafoetida added necessary pungent, cheesy flavor in garlic's absence, and depending on how much you like the aroma, you could even sprinkle in some more than the recipe calls for. And don't fret about the slightly earthy flavor of the snails. I found they tasted this way even with the sauce, but that should make sense if you consider their lifestyle!

It's truly a taste of history to try the same mollusks that have been bred for thousands of years. Gourmets around the world may have someone to thank in Lippinus and his early breeding efforts. These snails didn't come from an irrigated, pint-sized pen, but I suppose a can will do.

  • Parker Johnson

The centerpieces of ancient Roman townhouses, peristyle gardens were lush and vibrant with decorative plants. Here, you can read about ancient Roman homes, the flowers grown in them, and a recipe for rose wine you can try.

A photo I took of the rosatum in a glass after three weeks of steeping, with extra rose petals for show.

Enter the House of Menander in Pompeii, and you move into a tall foyer called the atrium. Walking through this hall, past colorful Trojan War-themed frescoes adorning the walls and abandoned ancient bedrooms, offices, and sitting rooms, you notice a great doorway that opens into the outside. It isn't the back door, though: it's the peristylium. Girded by columns, this broad central courtyard was — and is — the heart of this Pompeiian house.

A number of ancient Roman homes (domi), in cities at least, follow a pattern very similar to this, where the house opens to a main garden. The great peristylium of the House of Menander (and those in other townhouses) evolved from the hortus, a household food garden. As Rome's size and scope grew, it became less necessary for all food to be grown at home.

The Roman peristylium, inspired by Greek architecture with its colonnaded outer walkways, became largely decorative and added splashes of color to the hearts of republican-era houses. Rather than including just crops and herbs, the peristylium became a work of art for its owner, like the murals on the House of Menander's walls.

Evergreens like cypress, yew, boxwood, and myrtle were planted and pruned inside the peristylium's cloisters, alongside fruit trees like the mulberry and the date palm. The ground was likewise covered with flowers: roses, lilies, narcissus, irises, violets, and poppies were popular choices.

These flowers, however, weren't just meant to beautify home gardens. We can imagine that they were of course used to impress visitors to the garden. Flowers also colorfully garnished dishes to dazzle dinner party guests — the emperor Elagabalus used flower petals at a banquet to deadly effect! And in some cases, they even wound up in wine.

In my reading, I found a recipe from the cookbook Apicius, giving instructions on how to infuse wine with roses:

Rosatum sic facies: folias rosarum, albo sublato, lino inseris ut sutilis facias, et vino quam plurimas infundes, ut septem diebus in vino sint. post septem dies rosam de vino tollis, et alias sutiles recentes similiter mittis, ut per dies septem in vino requiescant, et rosam eximis. similiter et tertio facies, et rosam eximis, et vinum colas, et, cum ad bibendum voles uti, addito melle rosatum conficies. sane custodito ut rosam a rore siccam et optimam mittas.

Rose wine is made this way: rose petals, with the lower white part removed, are sewn into a linen bag and immersed in wine for seven days. After seven days, extract the roses from the wine and add a sack of new petals, allowing them draw for another seven days. Do this again a third time, extract the roses, strain the wine, and when you wish to drink it, prepare honey for the rose wine. Take care so that only the best petals dry of dew are used.

The practice of soaking flowers, particularly rose petals, in liquids isn't a one-off. Rose water, made by steaming rose petals, has been used for millennia as an aromatic drink and cooking ingredient. It probably originated in Persia, and continues to be used in Iran to this day. Rose water is consumed across the Middle East, southern Asia, and Europe, too.

Certainly ancient cooks and vintners who may have made ancient rosatum recognized the wonderful flavor roses imparted to the wine they sat in. But there could have been another reason for this culinary move. Pliny the Elder writes in his work Naturalis historia (Natural History) that roses were used medicinally, in lotions, poultices and eye ointment, without any "noxious result."

It seems possible, then, that steeping rose petals in wine was a way to ease the delivery of roses' curative properties. Other plants were prepared in wine to use as medicine: rue and pennyroyal, which we're familiar with, are two examples.

A photo of the Arcisate Treasure, an Italian cache of Roman silverware c. the first century BC (now in the British Museum). Shown is a pitcher, ladle, drinking bowl, and strainer — maybe used for rosatum!

Should you plan to sample some of this rosatum, I would encourage you to pick the roses yourself — they're most aromatic this way. I conveniently have a rose bush in my backyard, so this worked out well. In a pinch, dried rose petals can work, but be sure to steer clear of roses from a florist or rose extract as substitutes. The former can contain chemicals you won't want in your wine, and the latter evidently makes wine taste soapy (neither is good).

So supposing you're able to get your paws on a rose bush (though that might not be a great idea), here's my recipe for Roman rose wine to try out:

A bottle of dry white wine

1 1/2 cups of rose petals (I would suggest picking 1/2 cup each week)

Honey, to taste

Pour the wine into a large pitcher. Pluck the rose petals from the flowers and place them on a piece of cheesecloth. Tie the cheesecloth and submerge it in the wine, leaving to sit in the refrigerator for a week. After the week has passed, fish the sachet from the wine and replace with more fresh rose petals in new cheesecloth. Repeat this twice, so the wine steeps for a total of three weeks. Once it is done sitting, serve the wine with honey to taste (and optional rose petals for garnish).

Photos of the rose bush in my yard, the ingredients on the counter, a glass of the rosatum, and the peristylium of the House of Menander.

This recipe is straightforward — time is the only real limiting factor — and the final outcome was really nice. Since the wine was dry to begin with and didn't get any sweeter from the roses, I would encourage adding honey. The wine had a subtle floral flavor (go figure!) that I enjoyed, but I almost think three weeks wasn't enough time to get the proper flavor.

If you find yourself admiring fine flowers any time soon (maybe while sipping on this wine), take a moment to think of the delighted Roman dinner guests ambling through the peristylium of Pompeii's House of Menander: folks who felt much as you do, just 2,000 years ago.