Raw and cooked vegetables, as well as salads, were staple ingredients for ancient Romans. People from any social class ate them, usually at the beginning of the meal or to accompany meat or fish dishes. Many authors wrote about this topic, starting from the agronomists, but also poets such as Martial and Horace devoted many verses to salads.
One of the simplest dressing, according to Athenaeus typical of Ancient Rome, was the so-called oxygarum, a mixture of vinegar and garum, sometimes enriched with spices, as we can read in the source attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius. This was the most common dressing for lettuce, a fundamental vegetable on ancient Romans’ table.
Today we prepare a different and more complex dressing, called oxyporum. We have a few recipes of this written by Apicius and Columella, quite different, but both meant to be preserved. According to both authors, the cook has to dilute oxyporum with garum and vinegar before using it. We chose Apicius’ to accompany simple and delicious cuttlefish cakes. You find the recipe here, while the video shows both the preparations.
Below, you will find the original recipe with the translation into English and a note about the ingredients. Enjoy!
white wine vinegar
spices (ginger, cumin, white pepper)
Soak in vinegar cumin seeds for a couple of hours, then drain and grind them in the mortar with white pepper. Mince the ginger, a few rue leaves, and one date. Add them in the mortar with a pinch of saltpeter and mix well with the spices and a little honey.
Clean and cut the lettuce, then plate and dress it with oxyporum diluted with garum and vinegar.
Note about the ingredients
All three varieties of pepper (long, white, and black) were available to ancient Romans, according to Pliny. Apicius doesn’t specify what kind we have to use, so you can choose the one you prefer. Ginger is another spice frequent in ancient cuisine sources, and it was used both fresh and dried.
Saltpeter is present in a few ancient Roman recipes. Pliny writes extensively about this ingredient, used frequently to help the preservation of food. This sauce in particular is meant to be conserved.
Rue is one of the most important aromatic herbs to prepare ancient Roman dishes. If you don’t find it, you can use other aromatic herbs instead. For example, Columella’s oxyporum recipes include dried mint and celery seeds.
Garum was an ancient Mediterranean fermented sauce. Prepared with salt and fish, sometimes adding aromatic herbs and spices, garum was made in the same way as some kind of modern-day South-East Asian fish sauces. If you don’t find garum, you can substitute it with one of these sauces or use a pinch of salt instead.
Apicius gives us the quantity of spices to use. We adjusted the ratio to adapt it to the minor quantity of sauce we were preparing.
Lactucas cum oxyporio et aceto et modico liquamine.
Oxyporum. Cumini uncias II, zingiberis uncia I, rutae viridis uncia I, nitri scripulos VI, dactylorum pinguium scripulos XII, piperis uncia I, mellis uncias IX. Cuminum aut Aethiopicum aut Syriacum aut Libycum aceto infundes, sicca et sic tundes. Postea melle comprehendis. Cum necesse fuerit, [ex] oxygaro uteris.
Lettuce with oxyporum, vinegar, and a little garum.
Oxyporum: 2 ounces cumin, 1 ounce ginger, 1 ounce fresh rue, 4 scripuli saltpeter, 12 scripuli big dates, 1 ounce pepper, 9 ounces honey. Soak in vinegar either Ethiopian or Syrian or Lybian cumin, drain it, and pound [in the mortar]. When you need to use it, dilute with oxygarum.
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