Between the 17th and 23rd of December, depending on the historical period, ancient Romans celebrated one of the most important festivities of the year, the Saturnalia, characterized by feasts and exchanges of gifts. Martial dedicates two books of his Epigrams to the notes that accompanied the gifts, frequently food and beverages. Among the gifts, we find cured pork belly, Lucanicae, hams, and shoulder hams.
The ham, called perna in Latin, was commonly prepared in winter by salting the pork legs and exposing them to smoke according to Varro (who appreciates in particular the ones produced by the Gauls), Columella, Palladius, and Cato. There are interesting and extensive descriptions in the works of these authors, which show the great importance of salting meat in the Antiquity, especially pork.
Greeks and Romans cooked salted meat, including ham and pork fatback, laridum in Latin. The habit to eat raw meat, indeed, was considered typical of the barbarians, as we also read in Anthimus’ De Observatione Ciborum, in which this Byzantine author wonders about the fact that the Franks consider raw laredum a delicacy.
These Saturnalia, we chose a recipe from De Re Coquinaria for ham wrapped in crust. This kind of preparation, called pastello or coppo in the medieval Italian cookbooks, as well as pies with various kinds of fillings, is very common in the Middle Ages, whereas is rare in ancient Roman cuisine, in which appears a pie called artocrea that looks like medieval pizza. Apicius’ recipe is meant for the whole ham, but we used just a piece. After cooking it, the author specifies that we must knead a dough with oil, remove the rind and substitute the rind of the ham with this crust.
The recipe includes carica, which is a variety of figs that were dried, boiled with the ham, and honey, spread on the ham. In this way, there is a good balance between saltiness and sweetness, improving the flavor of the salted meat.
We cooked the ham under the testum, a sort of ancient portable oven, covering it with charcoal to bake it evenly. You may use a regular oven. If the crust is sufficiently thin, the cooking time is short: as soon as the crust is cooked, the ham is done.
The first five 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. For more information about ancient cuisine, check out our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources.
In addition, it is available 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. 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, check out our book Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
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1 kg ham
bay laurel leaves
50 grams flour
Simmer the ham for about one hour with the figs and bay laurel leaves. The cooking time may change depending on the size and kind of ham.
Knead the dough with flour, olive oil, and a bit of warm water, then roll a sheet not too thin, but thin enough to cook evenly and quite quickly so that the ham doesn’t dry. Remove the ham from the water and cut the rind, then carve the part without rind with small squares. Spread with honey and lay the crust carefully, cutting the exceeding part. Cook the ham again in the oven. As soon as the crust is cooked, the ham is done.
Pernam, ubi eam cum Caricis plurimis elixaveris et tribus lauri foliis, detracta cute tessellatim incides et melle complebis. Deinde farinam oleo subactam contexes et ei corium reddis. Et, cum farina cocta fuerit, eximas furno et ut est inferes.
Simmer the ham with many dry figs and three bay laurel leaves, then remove the skin and carve it into squares, spreading with honey. Then knead flour and oil and substitute the rind with this crust [literally, give it back the rind]. When the crust is cooked, remove the ham from the oven and serve it this way
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Ancient Roman Recipes Playlist
Ancient Greek Recipes Playlist
Medieval Recipes Playlist
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 1-5
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 – first part (13th-14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano – first part (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
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