A Saturnalia Recipe – Ancient Roman Pork Shank with Apician Sauce


The Saturnalia, one of the main Roman festivities, were celebrated between the 17th and 23rd of December, depending on the period, as analyzed in the 4th century by Macrobius in the book titled, indeed, Saturnalia. This period of celebrations and feasts was characterized by banquets, exchanges of gifts, candles, and the reversal of roles between masters and slaves.
Macrobius reports a series of stories connected to the origin of the Saturnalia, for instance, the one that records how Saturn arrived in Italy, in a time that predates the foundation of Rome, to teach king Ianus the art of agriculture and some fundamental techniques: transplanting, grafting, and manuring the soil. It was a time of abundance of the crops and absence of distinction between slaves and free men, and during the Saturnalia, the Romans celebrated that period by allowing the slaves to seat at the table with their masters.
Macrobius, in addition to other stories about the Saturnalia, writes that though some believe that the candles symbolize the passage from obscurity and a shapeless life to the light of knowledge (as we saw, the passage from an instinctive way of cultivation to actual, evolved agricultural techniques), there is a simpler explanation: to prevent the rich to ask expensive gifts and protect their poorest clients, the tribune of the plebs Publicius obtained that only candles must be given as a gift to them.
However, in Martial’s Epigrams we find lists of gifts, in addition to two books dedicated to the notes, mostly for satirical purposes, that the poet wrote to accompany them. In the poems, we find several foods, among which lucanica sausages, cured pork breast, ham and shoulder ham, fava beans, lentils, various kinds of alcoholic beverages, dry fruit, truffles, mushrooms, and others.
This year we chose a simple recipe from De Re Coquinaria to celebrate our Saturnalia. Other recipes we prepared in the past years for this festivity are laureate pork, roast pork with saffron sauce, and ham in crust.
The original preparation requires a whole suckling pig, simmered and dried with a cloth before adding the sauce. We used just a pork shank, roasting it, a cooking method more suitable for this cut of meat, but you can use the cuts you prefer of pork or suckling pig, depending on your taste.
The sauce is called ius Apicianus in the text. There are a few methods directly attributed to Apicius not only in De Re Coquinaria (considered by the tradition the masterpiece of this famous cook) but also in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, so, even if the authorship of this massive cookbook continues to be the subject of debate, we can reasonably suppose that at least some recipes were actually written by Apicius or following the Apician tradition.
As always, garum may be substituted with a South-East Asian fish sauce, colatura di alici or ancient muria, or two pinches of salt. If you do not have rue, use another aromatic herb instead, such as cilantro or parsley. The kind of pepper is up to your taste: Romans used black, long, and white pepper. Lovage seeds may be substituted with cumin, anise, or fennel according to Pliny and Dioscorides.

For more information about ancient cuisine, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources. Moreover, the first eight books of De Re Coquinaria are available on Patreon, with further translations of ancient and medieval sources.
To know more about the passage between ancient and medieval cooking, check out our translation, commentary, and glossary of a beautiful 6th-century source, De Observatione Ciborum, written by the physician Anthimus to the king of the Franks Theuderic; if you are interested in late-medieval cuisine, we recommend Libro de la Cocina. Medieval Tuscan Recipes and Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
To know more about aromatic herbs in historical cuisine, read Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers available in English and Italian, with recipes from the Antiquity to early Modern Era.
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pork shank
spices (long pepper, coriander, lovage)
aromatic herbs (mint, rue)

Roast the pork shank in the oven or under the testum for about one and a half hours. In the meantime, prepare the sauce. Mince the mint and rue and grind in the mortar the long pepper, coriander, and lovage, then add the herbs, a tablespoon each of honey and garum, and two of wine.
Mix the sauce and pour it on the roasted shank.

Original text
Porcellum lacte pastum elixum calidum iure frigido crudo Apiciano: adicies in mortarium piper, ligusticum, coriandri semen, mentam, rutam, fricabis, suffundes liquamen, adicies mel, vinum, et liquamine temperabis. Porcellum elixum ferventem sabano mundo siccatum perfundes et inferes.

Hot, simmered suckling pig with raw and cool Apician sauce. Add in the mortar pepper, lovage, coriander seeds, mint, rue. Mix, pour garum, add honey, wine, and dilute with garum. Dry the simmered pork with a clean cloth, pour the sauce, and serve.

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Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano. Medieval Tuscan Recipes
Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus. Early-medieval recipes at the court of the Franks.
Registrum Coquine by Johannes Bockenheim. A medieval cookbook
Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes

Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-9
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8th-9th century)

De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Tractatus de Modo Preparan
di et Condiendi Omnia Cibaria (13th-14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Libro de Arte Coquinaria by Maestro Martino – first and second part (15th century)

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