There are several recipes for mollusks in De Re Coquinaria, the widest collection of ancient Roman recipes conventionally attributed to Apicius, especially in the 9th book. This week we chose a recipe for octopus paired with a cucumber salad from the 3rd book. In the past, we prepared another cucumber dish from the same passage, which we paired with shrimp cakes.
In De Re Coquinaria, there is just one recipe for octopus, which was instead quite popular in ancient Greek cuisine, as we read in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. According to the physician Diophilus of Siphnos and the comedy writer Alexis, who lived between the 4th and the 3rd century BCE, octopus is an aphrodisiac. The physician considers it hard to digest and recommends cooking it at low heat to benefit the stomach.
Apicius’ recipe is very simple, but there is no need to add many ingredients to prepare an excellent plate with octopus, just to use the proper ones. In this case, the author recommends a condiment made with just garum, pepper, and silphium. We used asafoetida, a spice equivalent to ancient silphium Parthicum, the cheapest kind of silphium or laser, how Romans called it.
We dressed the cucumber salad with oenogarum, a sauce that Apicius uses frequently. Sometimes, he writes to add oenogarum simplex, the basic sauce made with wine and garum, but on other occasions, he provides some recipes, every time different. Among the fragments by the physician Gargilus Martialis, in addition, there is a recipe quite complicated to prepare oenogarum from scratch, making garum with lots of aromatic herbs, sifting the liquid part, and then mixing it with wine, spices, and honey. The oenogarum we are making today is, actually, a sauce to dress truffles taken from the 1st book.
Wine is not mentioned among the ingredients, but it is given for granted. It pairs perfectly with the cucumbers and octopus, being spicy, slightly sweet, and fragrant with Mediterranean aromas such as thyme, savory, and lovage. Thyme and savory are a bit different, but you can use just one of them without a substantial change in the outcome. Lovage can be substituted with cumin, fennel, or anise seeds, as suggested by Pliny and Dioscorides. We recommend avoiding an excessive quantity of lovage to prevent the sauce from becoming overly spicy, but it is up to your taste.
Garum is a very important ingredient for both the recipes, in particular for the cucumber salad, since Apicius writes that the use of either garum or oenogarum makes easier the digestion of cucumbers, but if you want, you can substitute it with salt, a bit of muria (the ancestor of colatura di alici) or a South-East Asian fish sauce.
The first three books of De Re Coquinaria are available in translation on our Patreon page, in which you find translations of ancient and medieval sources, in addition to many articles, among which some dedicated to ancient Mediterranean spices, lovage, and silphium.
To know more about foods in ancient Rome, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources (Italian edition here), available on Amazon in e-book and printed editions.
If you are interested in medieval foods, check out our new book on Amazon, with the translation (into English and Italian) and a commentary of the Registrum Coquine, written in the 15th century by Johannes Bockenheim, which collects more than 80 recipes. The translation is accompanied by an introduction about medieval foods across the social classes and a glossary.
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Simmer the octopus for about 40 minutes, depending on the size. Let it cool down a little, then cut it into pieces. Grind the pepper in the mortar. Dress it with garum, dust with pepper, and grate a bit of asafoetida on top.
In polypo: pipere, liquamine, lasere. Inferes.
Sauce for octopus: pepper, garum, laser. Serve.
aromatic herbs (thyme, savory)
spices (black pepper, lovage)
Peel and slice the cucumbers. Pound in the mortar the pepper and lovage, adding the thyme and savory. Pour a bit of honey, garum, and olive oil, diluting with wine.
Serve the cucumbers covered with their sauce.
Cucumeres rasos: sive ex liquamine, sive ex oenogaro: sine ructu et gravitudine teneriores senties.
Aliter [oenogarum]: thymum, satureiam, piper, ligusticum, mel, liquamen et oleum.
Peeled cucumbers: either with garum or oenogarum they will be lighter, since they will not cause belches and heaviness.
Another recipe [for oenogarum]: thyme, savory, pepper, lovage, honey, garum, and oil.
Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-3
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)
Copadia Agnina – Lamb Stew
Apothermum – Spelt Cakes
Pullus Parthicus – Roast Chicken
Tisana Barrica – Barley Soup
Beef Roast and Shallots
Staitites – Ancient Greek Sweet
Chicken Meatballs and Mashed Peas
Sweet Fritters – Dulcia Domestica
Columella’s Moretum and Hapalos Artos
Ancient Roman Frittata
A Saturnalia Recipe – Roast with Saffron Sauce
Muria – Ancestor of Colatura di Alici
Globi – Ancient Roman Sweet
The Diet of the Roman Legionaries – Buccellatum, Lardum, and Posca
How to make garum
Ancient Roman Gourd and Eggs
Ofella – Ancient Roman Steak
Fruit salads – Melon and Peaches
Isicia Marina – Shrimp Cakes and Cucumber Salad
Sala Cattabia – Snow and Posca
Copadia – Beef Stew
Puls Punica – Phoenician Dessert
Farcimina – Spelt and Meat Sausages
Ova Spongia ex Lacte – Sweet Omelettes
Flatbread and Chickpea Soup
Salted Fish with Arugula Sauce
Savillum – Cheesecake
Pasta and Meatballs – Minutal Terentinum
Venison Stew with Spelt Puls
Veal with Allec Sauce – Ius in Elixam Allecatum
Isicia Omentata – Meatballs Wrapped in Caul Fat
Placenta – Honey Cheesecake
Pork Laureate – Porcellum Laureatum
Poppy Seed Bread with Ancient Dry Yeast
Cured Olives and Epityrum