Ancient Roman Cured Olives – Epityrum


Olives and olive oil are staple ingredients in the ancient Mediterranean cuisine. Roman agronomists dedicate many pages to the best way to take care of the olive trees, to pick and preserve olives, and, of course, to prepare the most precious condiment, in these times as well as today: olive oil.
Thanks to authors such as Martial, Horace, Petronius, and others, we know that olives were usually served at the beginning of the dinner (and sometimes at the end), as appetizers with the other dishes of the gustatio: for example, eggs and vegetables.
Olive trees, fundamental in the ancient economy and agriculture, are a relatively recent introduction at Cato’s age (2nd century BCE), the author of the two recipes we are presenting today. Pliny, source of important information about the history of agriculture, writes in his Naturalis Historia that they are absent in the Italic peninsula before the kingdom of Tarquiny the Elder, in the 6th century BCE.
Olive recipes cross all the history of Roman agriculture. We find plenty of them in the books of all the Roman agronomists, from Cato to Palladius (4th century), with few substantial changes.
Today we prepare the epityrum, a recipe originally Greek but common among the Romans, as Columella writes. Two recipes survive, Cato’s and Columella’s. While Columella specifies clearly the way to cure olives before the preparation of the epityrum, Cato skips this step. As a consequence, we chose to cure the olives using the previous recipes we find in his book.
We served the epityrum with cheese and mustacei, a bite-sized bread from Cato’s book that we have prepared a few weeks ago. It is perfect also paired with libum, an ancient savory cheesecake.
Below, you find both the recipes with the original Cato texts, the translation into English, and a note about the ingredients.

Cured Olives
1 liter freshly-picked black, green, and half-ripe olives
fennel and lentisk seeds
extra virgin olive oil
white wine vinegar
grape must
40 gr sea salt

Pound slightly the olives in the mortar to break their skins. Let them soak in water for a week, changing the water three or four times a day.
Drain the olives and put them in a jar, adding the salt and lentisk and fennel seeds. Pour a little quantity of extra virgin olive oil, and fill the jar with half vinegar and half grape must. Now, close the jar and let it rest for a few days.

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Original text
Oleae albae quo modo condiantur. Antequam nigrae fiant, contundantur et in aquam deiciantur. Crebro aquam mutet. Deinde, ubi satis maceratae erunt, exprimat et in acetum coiciat et oleum addat, salis selibram in modium olearum. Feniculum et lentiscum seorsum condat in acetum. Si una admiscere voles, cito utito. In orculam calcato. Manibus siccis, cum uti voles, sumito.
Oleam albam, quam secundum vindemiam uti voles, sic condito. Musti tantumdem addito, quantum aceti. Cetera item condito ita, uti supra scriptum est.

Cure in this way the green olives. Before the olives are turned black, pound and soak them in water, changing it frequently. When they are macerated enough, strain them pouring vinegar, oil, and half a pound of salt in a modium of olives. Add in the vinegar fennel and lentisk [seeds] separately; if you want to mix the spices, use the preserve soon. Press the olives in a jar. When you want to use the olives, pick them up with dry hands.
If you want using the green olives immediately after the grapes harvest, add the same quantity of must and vinegar, and cure them in the same way described above.

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cured olives
white wine vinegar
extra virgin olive oil
cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds

Grind in the mortar cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds. Pit and mince the olives, then cut the aromatic herbs. Mix all the ingredients together in the mortar pouring a little olive oil and vinegar. Put the epityrum in a jar coating with a layer of extra virgin olive oil or serve immediately.

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Original text
Epityrum album nigrum variumque sic facito. Ex oleis albis nigris variisque nucleos eicito. Sic condito. Concidito ipsas, addito oleum, acetum, coriandrum, cuminum, feniculum, rutam, mentam. In orcuam condito, oleum supra siet. Ita utito.

Prepare in this way the epityrum with green, black, and half-ripe olives. Pit the olives and cure them in this way: mince them, adding oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue, mint. Put them in a jar pouring oil, then use.

Ancient Roman Olives - Epityrum 3

Note about the ingredients
The procedure to prepare both the recipes is very simple but has required a couple of weeks. If you have not fresh olives or just prefer to shorten the times, we suggest using yet pickled olives, and the outcome will be delicious in any way.
You can substitute the fresh grape must with reduced grape juice. This recipe for cured olives is meant for short preservation. If you want to keep them for a longer time, use just vinegar without adding must.
We reduced the doses of the ingredients keeping the ratio.
Lentisk seeds may be quite difficult to find without having a lentisk tree. But this ingredient is not, luckily, mandatory: Cato writes that you can prepare the olives with both the spices or use them separately, so you can add just fennel seeds. Cato does not specify whether we have to use lentisk seeds or berries, but Columella uses seeds for similar recipes.
Rue and mint are among the most common aromatic herbs in ancient Roman cuisine. Rue, Columella writes, improves the flavor of the olives. Its bitter aroma, indeed, combines perfectly with olive flavor. If you don’t have rue, you can use just mint.

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