Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Honey and Poppyseed "Dormice"

Several weeks ago Caroline Lawrence very kindly sent me a copy of The Secrets of Vesuvius, book 2 of 17 in her 'Roman Mysteries' series.  The Roman Mysteries are works of historical fiction aimed at kids, introducing them to the people and places of the ancient world - they're the kind of books I wish I had growing up!  In my eyes, anything which makes history more accessible to children is great, so this week I'm going to take inspiration from Caroline and create a kid-friendly dish.  These "dormice" are easy to make, very tasty, and most importantly, they're fun.

My inspiration comes from a passage in Caroline's first book, The Thieves of Ostia (used with the permission of the author of course):

'For our next course we're having dormice stuffed with chopped sows' udders,' she announced brightly.
Mordecai and his children froze in horror.
Nubia looked blank.
'Flavia...' said her father with a warning look.
'Just joking,' giggled Flavia. 'My favourite food is really roast chicken.  You do like roast chicken, don't you?'

I love this scene - there's something truly Trimalchian about playing tricks with food!  Of course, like Flavia, we're not really going to be serving up dormice - they're not exactly easy to come by in the shops!

Honey and Poppyseed Dormice

"The dishes for the first course included... some small iron frames shaped like bridges supporting dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seed." - Petronius, Trimalchio's Feast


  • Chicken Thighs & Drumsticks
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Honey
  • Poppy Seeds
  • Salt
  • Pepper


  • Rinse the chicken and cut off all the nasty bits.  Leave the skin on if you want the 'mice' to be nice and crispy!  Once rinsed, pat the chicken dry.
  • Set the chicken onto an oiled/greased baking tray, making sure to rub some of the oil into the skin. Season with salt and pepper and place into the oven, uncovered, for 30 minutes at 180 Celsius.
  • Just before the chicken is due to come out of the oven, gently heat some honey in a pan, and sprinkle some poppy seeds out onto a plate.
  • Whenever it looks ready, roll the cooked chicken around in the honey and then the poppy seeds.  When all is done, pour the remaining honey and poppy seeds over the top of the chicken.
  • To make our thighs and drumsticks look more 'mousey' we're going to add some tails - stick a cocktail stick into each bit of chicken, as shown below.  Having the mouse on a stick also makes it much more easy to eat!  The drumsticks are already rather mouse-shaped, so you can leave them be.


  • Ingredient quantities depend entirely on how many mice you mean to make!


Our 'dormice' are sweet and crispy, with a slight crunch coming from the poppy seeds.  In short, they're delicious, and I dare say Flavia would be pleased.  Much more than that, they're seriously simple to make, allowing you to add a taste of ancient Rome to your dinner/party/classroom without the hassle of chopping herbs and grinding spices.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Asparagus Patina

Future historians will no doubt be equal parts amused and confused by the Asparagus Festival, an eight week celebration of the British asparagus season which sees people wear all manner of silly costumes and paint themselves several shades of green.  To celebrate this season I think it's only appropriate to cook up a Roman Asparagus Patina, given that it was the Romans who brought this most delicious of plants to Britain in the first place!

The 'Patina' is rather difficult to explain; all Patinas are egg-based, however some resemble oven-baked custards, whilst others are closer to frittatas and omelettes.  Regardless of how they turn out, they make for very tasty eating all the same.  So, whilst asparagus is at its finest, I urge you to go out, buy some, and get baking.

Asparagus Patina
(Serves 4)

"Make Asparagus Patina as follows: put asparagus tips into a mortar and add pepper, lovage, green coriander, savory and onions.  Dilute this with wine, liquamen, and olive oil.  Add this mixture to a well greased pan, adding some beaten eggs to thicken it if you like.  Cook without boiling the eggs and serve with finely ground pepper." - Apicius, 4.2.6


  • 10-15 Asparagus Spears
  • 180 ml White Wine
  • 25 ml Fish Sauce (Liquamen)
  • 25 ml Raisin Wine (Passum)
  • 40 ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1/2 tsp Black Pepper
  • 1/2 tsp Lovage Seeds
  • 1/2 Small Onion
  • 2 tbsp Fresh Coriander


  • Using just the tips of the asparagus seems rather wasteful, so we're going to prepare the whole lot.  Set 4 spears to the side for garnishing the dish at the end, and steam what is left for just a few minutes until tender.  Make sure to chop off the woody ends.
  • Grind up the peppercorns and lovage and chop up the onions and coriander. Add these, alongside all of the liquids (leaving a bit of oil for later), to a food processor.  The following magical transformation should occur.

  • Pour this mixture into an oiled baking dish of some sort.  I am using the base of my tajine, but any oven proof dish should do the trick.  After spreading the mixture out, crack two eggs onto the top and beat them in thoroughly.
  • This will take approximately 25 minutes in an oven set to 180 Celsius.
  • The dish is cooked when it is omelette-like in consistency.  Use the asparagus spears you left over at the beginning to garnish the dish.  Sprinkle with a touch of pepper and serve straight away.  One similar recipe in Apicius (an Asparagus Patina with the addition of cooked bird embryos - no thanks!) suggests that it can be eaten cold, so refrigerate any leftovers and give that a go if you think you might enjoy it.


  • Rather unusually, this Asparagus Patina recipe seems to suggest that the eggs are optional.  The asparagus patina listed just prior to this one in Apicius (the one with the bird embryos) doesn't!  My explanation is that if you cooked the Asparagus mush without adding the eggs, you'd end up with an omelette-like consistency anyway.


The patina was light, fluffy, and full of subtle flavours.  The initial taste is of the fragrant coriander, followed by the bitter, celery-like taste of the lovage seeds.  As you might expect, we finish on delicious, delicious asparagus.  This is a great and unusual way to cook the plant, and one which would work well as a starter to meals both ancient and modern.  Although you would lose some of the subtle flavours, you could very easily leave out the fish sauce, lovage seeds and raisin wine if needs be.  Enjoy it whilst asparagus is at its finest!

Monday, 6 May 2013

Roman Seafood Sauce

The Greek manner of preparing fish is, as we have learnt, simple yet successful - cook it as you catch it, and if you absolutely have to touch it, stick to a sprinkle of cheese or a pinch of cumin.  Now, it's back to the beautiful complexity of Roman recipes, with lists of ingredients as long as your sword and a journey of flavours as epic as the Illiad.

At first glance, Apicius offers a vast array of seafood sauces, but a closer look reveals that they are all virtually identical!  Common to almost all of them are pepper, mint, lovage, rue, dates, honey, oil, and vinegar.  The Romans clearly liked their fish to be swimming with sweetness.  Let's see how well that works.

Roman Seafood Sauce
(Serves 2 as main, or several as a starter)

"Pepper, Lovage, Celery Seed, Mint, Rue, Figdate or Date Syrup, Honey, Vinegar, Wine.  Also suitable for sardines." - Apicius, ix.10.5


This is without the mint, and plus soap
(which you probably shouldn't use)

  • 2 Mackerel Fillets
  • Small Handful Fresh Mint
  • 1/2 tsp Lovage Seeds (or Celery Seed)
  • 1/2 tsp Black Pepper
  • 1 tsp Rue
  • 1 tbsp Date Paste
  • 1 tbsp Honey
  • 2 tbsp White Wine Vinegar
  • 2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 50 ml White Wine


  • Add the rue, lovage and pepper to a dry frying pan and heat them until they start to give off an aroma.  At this point, remove them and grind them up.
  • Combine all the liquids, herbs and spices in a food processor and let loose.  If you wish to use a mortar and pestle, make sure to chop the mint up first.
  • This is what you're going to marinate the fish in for a few hours, so once you have prepared the fish fillets, combine everything together in a shallow casserole dish.  This goes into the fridge for a couple of hours.
  • I cooked the fish, sauce and all, in an earthenware dish on a gas hob for around 25 minutes.  If you want, you can place the whole lot in an oven at 180 Celsius for 20 minutes to achieve the same effect.  Grainger suggests removing the fish from the marinade, cooking it on a griddle, then heating and pouring over some of the sauce.


  • The recipe isn't much of a recipe, but rather a list of ingredients.
  • I chose not to use both celery seed and lovage, because their flavours are remarkably similar.  Instead, I chose to use more of just one, rather than a little of each.
  • As ever, I advise you to use caution with the rue - if in doubt, leave it out!


I couldn't wait to try this, so dropped the knife and fork and tucked straight in with hands and fingers.  It was beautiful, sharing that same 'tangy-sweetness' common to so much Roman cooking.  The fish was delicate and soft and had soaked up a lot of sweetness from the honey and date paste.  The initial taste came from the sharpness of the vinegar and wine, but was soon tempered by the fragrance of the mint.  This fish was surprisingly rich in comparison to the cheesy-fish of the Greeks, which is why I reckon it would do two people as a main - I would be inclined to serve it as a starter for several people instead.  Overall, I think that my favourite ancient fish recipe is last week's ancient Greek Mackerel with Cumin, Cheese, and Oil, but it's up to you to decide which you prefer.