A Saturnalia Recipe – Ancient Roman Pork Roast with Saffron Sauce


Last week, we explained the meaning of the word muria, a fish sauce that can be considered the ancestor of colatura di alici, and showed you how to prepare it. This time, we will use it to prepare an interesting and simple recipe selected from an unusual source: Horace’s Satires, also called Sermones. We used a poem of the same author in the past to recreate a simple meal based on lagana, chickpeas, and leeks.
The recipe we are preparing today is reported in a poem about a cook, Catius, who shows off his gastronomic expertise, among which, a sauce that he invented, which is prepared in two steps: the simple sauce is made with just olive oil, excellent wine, and the muria of Byzantium; the double sauce, instead, is made adding minced herbs (the author does not specify which ones), warming the mixture, and adding saffron of Corycus, an unusual ingredient for ancient Roman cooking. The sauce is then cooled down and then served with the excellent olive oil of Venafrum.

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A recipe for Saturnalia
Despite the simplicity of this recipe, all the ingredients are costly and selected one by one: merum (in Horace’s works, it is synonimous with Falernian wine), muria of Byzantium, saffron of Corycus (celebrated in the Antiquity for its extraordinary flavor), and oil of Venafrum (according to Pliny, the best Italic oil).
We find most of the ingredients for this recipe among the gifts for Saturnalia mentioned by Martial in the 13th and 14th books of his Epigrams, except saffron that, as we wrote above, was quite rare as a cooking ingredient in ancient Rome.
Martial writes about the precious oil of Venafrum, used to make parfums: hoc tibi Campani sudavit baca Venafri: unguentum quotiens sumis, et istud olet (“this is the oil produced by the olives of Venafrum: every unguent you use is fragrant with this”).
There is a difference between the first kind of oil used and this one: in any case, it is not a bad idea to use both times an excellent extra virgin olive oil.
Muria and Falernian wine, the kind of wine meant by Horace writing about merum, are other two products mentioned by Martial in the same book of epigrams. The Falernian is a wine as sweet as nectar that must be drunk unmixed (merum), since even the Attic honey makes it turbid, and this merum is worth to be mixed by Ganymede himself, the cupbearer of Zeus (Attica nectareum turbatis mella Falernum. Miscere decet hoc a Ganymede merum).
The outcome is a refined, delicious sauce, very different from the ones that we find in De Re Coquinaria and for this reason, interesting to taste. We paired it with spit-roasted pork tenderloin, but Horace writes nothing about how to serve the sauce. Pork seemed fit for a Saturnalia recipe, from a Martial’s epigram: “may this pork, fattened with acorns among foaming boars, bring to you merry Saturnalia” (iste tibi faciet bona Saturnalia porcus, inter spumantes ilice pastus apros); however, in the lists by this author we find any kind of meat.
We suggest a delicate meat to enhance the flavors, for example veal, goose, or pheasant. The best substitute for muria is colatura di alici, being the garum we prepared recently a bit too intense for this sauce.
Choose the aromatic herbs among the ones commonly used by Romans, for example young celery tops, cilantro, dill, or parsley, according to your taste.

500 gr pork tenderloin
aromatic herbs (mint, rue, oregano)
olive oil
white wine

Spit-roast the meat on charcoal.
Mince the herbs and mix them with a bit of olive oil, muria, and white wine. Warm the sauce on the fire. As soon as it starts boiling, add the saffron and let it cool down. Add the oil on top and stir. Serve the meat covered with the sauce.

Original text
Est operae pretium duplicis pernoscere iuris
naturam. Simplex e dulci constat olivo,
quod pingui miscere mero muriaque decebit
non alia quam qua Byzantia putuit orca.
Hoc ubi confusum sectis inferbuit herbis
Corycioque croco sparsum stetit, insuper addes
pressa Venafranae quod baca remisit olivae.

One must know the nature of the double sauce. The simple one is made with sweet olive [oil] mixed with rich merum and muria, the one whose fragrance fills the jars of Byzantium. This, mixed with minced herbs and boiled, is sprinkled with saffron of Corycus and kept to rest. On top, add the juice obtained from the olives of Venafrum, squeezed.

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Translations of Historical Sources
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Registrum Coquine (first part) by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Registrum Coquine (second part) by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Varis by Johannes Damascenus (8-9th century)

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