Ancient Roman Gilt-Head Sea Bream


The last two books of De Re Coquinaria, the widest source of ancient Roman cooking, collect plenty of recipes for fish and seafood, among the most costly and appreciated food in the Antiquity. The recipes are frequently complex and refined, full of Mediterranean herbs and spices that enhance the delicate flavor of the fish incredibly.
This week we chose a recipe for gilt-head sea bream in which the author uses four Mediterranean spices and two aromatic herbs, creating a great balance between them and the liquid ingredients that, as very common in this source, include sweet (honey), sapid (garum), fat (olive oil), and acidic ingredients (wine and vinegar), softened by egg yolk. The author does not specify to hard boil it, but this step seems to be taken for granted.
To create a great sauce, like always, we recommend moderation: do not add too much garum and honey, and remember that the author of this recipe uses small quantities of olive oil. For one fish, we recommend a pinch each of pepper, lovage, and caraway (very spicy mixed together), three or four berries of myrtle and rue, a few leaves of oregano and mint (fresh or dry, depending on your taste), an egg yolk, a bit of honey, and a tablespoon each of garum, wine, and vinegar. If you want to prepare more sauce, we suggest keeping more or less the same ratio.
Berries of myrtle and rue may be very difficult to find if you do not grow a plant. Rue begins blossoming in its second summer, so you need to be patient to harvesting the berries. However, rue berries may be easily substituted with the leaves or a few seeds, whereas instead of myrtle berries you may use the leaves (keep them whole and remove them from the sauce before serving it) or even bay laurel leaves or berries, using the leaves in the same way. Instead of lovage, according to Pliny and Dioscorides, you may use fennel, anise, or cumin seeds. Garum may be substituted with salt, a South-East Asian fish sauce, colatura di alici, or ancient muria.
We cooked our fish under a testum, a sort of portable oven made with clay, but feel free to use your regular oven or, if you prefer, roast the fish on charcoal. The recipe does not specify the cooking method, but in this cookbook, generally, the fish is roasted or simmered.

For more information about ancient cuisine, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources. Moreover, the first seven books of De Re Coquinaria are available on Patreon, with other translations of ancient and medieval sources in addition to several articles on historical food.
In addition, our new book Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers is available in English and Italian. The text collects many recipes from the Antiquity to early Modern Era, accompanied by an introduction about vegetables in the history of Italian cooking in the cookbooks and their relationship with dietetic, philosophical, and religious practices.
To know more about the passage between ancient and medieval cooking, check out our new book, with the 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. This book contains some of the earliest medieval recipes, in addition to information about the diet of the Franks and the differences between their food habits and the alimentation of the Mediterranean populations, showing the passage between ancient and late-medieval cooking.
If you are interested in late-medieval cuisine, we recommend Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
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gilt-head sea bream
spices (pepper, lovage, caraway, myrtle berries, rue berries)
fresh herbs (oregano, mint)
olive oil

Gut, scale, and roast the fish in the oven or in a testum for about 20 or 30 minutes, depending on the size. In the meantime, prepare the sauce. Hard-boil an egg, mince the aromatic herbs, and pound the spices in the mortar. Add the egg yolk and herbs in the mortar, diluting with a bit of honey, vinegar, olive oil, garum, and wine.
Warm the sauce for a few minutes and serve the fish coated with the sauce.

Original text
Ius in pisce aurata: piper, ligusticum, careum, origanum, rutae bacam, mentam, myrtae bacam, ovi vitellum, mel, acetum, oleum, vinum, liquamen. Calefacies et sic uteris.

Sauce for gilt-head sea bream: pepper, lovage, caraway, oregano, rue berry, mint, myrtle berry, egg yolk, honey, vinegar, oil, wine, garum. Warm the sauce and use it in this way.

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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 1-7
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 Preparandi et Condiendi Omnia Cibaria (13th-14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano – first and second part (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Libro de Arte Coquinaria by Maestro Martino – first part (15th century)

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