Ancient Roman Gustum de Praecoquis – Appetizer with Apricots


Gustum or gustatio was the first part of a Roman banquet and included the appetizers, served with wine and mulsum, a wine prepared with honey and grapes. From the lists of dishes that we find for example in Martial’s Epigrams or Petronius’ Satyricon, we know that Romans usually ate eggs (dressed in many ways), lettuce, mallow (and other vegetables), salted fish (here the method to prepare it), olives, and other plates, some of them quite complex like the ones that we find in De Re Coquinaria, the source for the recipe that we are presenting today. After that, there were served the main dishes, called primae mensae. The dinner concluded with the secundae mensae: dry and fresh fruit, sweets, legumes, and other dishes.
Gustum, however, is not just a part of the dinner, but also the name given to the appetizers. Today, we prepare the gustum de praecoquis, an appetizer made with apricots from the 4th book of the massive collection of recipes conventionally attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius. There are just two recipes for apricots: this one and another with ancient Roman pasta (tracta) and pork.
Roman and Greek authors as Pliny, Galen, Dioscorides, and Palladius consider apricots, also called Armeniaca or Armenia, a precocious variety of peaches, whence the name praecoquia, since they ripen before the time: in summer instead of fall like the other peaches, writes Pliny.
Recipes with fruit are quite rare in De Re Coquinaria and are usually savory, like the salads with peaches and melon that we prepared in the past. This is not due to a scarce use of fruit, very common e fundamental in the alimentation of ancient Romans, but just to the fact that it was eaten fresh, preserved in many ways (dried, preserved in honey, or kept into brine with other ingredients) or used to prepare compotes, whereas it was clearly less used as a cooking ingredient.

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1 kg apricots
black pepper
dry mint
raisin wine
wheat starch

Clean and pit the apricots, then place them in cool water. In the meantime, grind in the mortar black pepper, mixing with two pinches of dry mint, a bit of honey and garum, and diluting with wine, raisin wine, and vinegar.
Place the cooled apricots in a pan with a bit of olive oil, pouring over the sauce. Cook at low heat. As soon as it starts boiling, add a bit of starch diluted in water and cook for a minute until it is thickened. Plate and serve dusting with black pepper.

Note about the ingredients
This appetizer with apricots is savory and spicy, with just a hint of mint to freshen its flavor, perfect to accompany meat or even cheese. It is easy to make but requires attention with the use of the ingredients and most of all, balance, essential when we prepare the recipes from this cookbook.
The plate is meant to be slightly sweet and sour: the author recommends using hard, small apricots and prepare a sauce sweetened with honey and raisin wine (that can be substituted with mead, aqua mulsa in Latin) and acidified with wine and vinegar, with garum to give sapidity. Garum can be substituted with a pinch of salt, muria (the ancestor of colatura di alici), or a South-East Asian fish sauce. Here you find an article about how to prepare garum at home from scratch.
Use just a small quantity of pepper, because you will add it two times: the first in the sauce, the second on the finished dish.
In this recipe, the author recommends placing the cleaned and pitted apricots in cool water before cooking them. Romans used snow (preserved all the year) to cool water, wine, or even for the baths. To know something more about snow in ancient Rome, check out our recipe for sala cattabia.

Original text
Gustum de praecoquis: duracina primotina pusilla praecoquia purgas, enucleas, in frigidam mittis, in patina componis. Teres piper, mentam siccam, suffundis liquamen, adicies mel, passum, vinum et acetum. Refundis in patinam super praecoqua, olei modicum mittis et lento igni ferveat. Cum ferbuerit, amulo obligas. Piper aspargis et inferes.

Clean small, hard apricots, remove the stone, place them in cool water, and arrange them in a pan. Grind pepper, dry mint, pour garum, add honey, raisin wine, wine, and vinegar. Pour the sauce on the apricots, add a bit of oil, and cook them at low heat. When they boil, thicken with starch. Dust with pepper and serve.

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Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes
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Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-3
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus – first part (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano – first part (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)

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