Ancient Roman Pork Roast with Myrtle Berry Sauce


One of the most fascinating characteristics of ancient Roman cooking is the variety of ingredients and flavors, with a clear preference for Mediterranean aromas. We find plenty of seeds and spices, many of them rare in Italian cuisine today. Myrtle berries, for example, are still used, but not as much as in the past.
The most famous traditional preparation is a beverage typical of Sardinia, made by soaking the berries in alcohol, a technique similar to one used by Romans and Greeks who used, instead, wine. In the ancient recipes, there are different methods for myrtle wine, depending on the varieties of myrtle, which were black and white. In the books written by the ancient agronomists, in particular Columella, Cato, and Palladius, in addition to the Greek physician Dioscorides, we find several recipes. Preparations very common in the texts consist in fermenting the berries, on their own, or with grape must, or with honey, sometimes adding spices.
In addition to wine, myrtle berries are used to prepare an oil according to Palladius, but also for culinary purposes, as we read in De Re Coquinaria. Pliny, indeed, writes that they are a typical ingredient to season wild boar, as we saw in the past, and they were used once instead of pepper.
We selected the recipe we are presenting today from the 7th book of De Re Coquinaria. The author does not specify which kind of meat to use. We recommend pork, mutton, or beef, spit-roasted or cooked in the oven according to your taste.
Defritum is concentrated grape juice, very easy to prepare: pound in the mortar some grapes without crushing the seeds, then sift the juice, and cook it at low heat until it reduces by half. As an alternative, use raisin wine instead or a bit more honey.
Myrtle berries are an important ingredient for this recipe but may be difficult to find. If you do not have them, you may use the leaves, as well as the berries or leaves of bay laurel. If you use the leaves, do not crush them in the mortar, but soak them in the defritum for a few hours and remove them from the sauce before pouring it on the roast.
This recipe is simple to prepare, however, it is important to pay attention to the balance between the ingredients. A good ratio is 3 or 4 myrtle berries with a pinch each of pepper and cumin, one tablespoon of garum and defritum, two tablespoons of olive oil, and just a bit of honey to prevent the sauce from becoming too sweet. Instead of garum, you may use a South-East Asian fish sauce, colatura di alici or ancient muria, or just a pinch of salt.

The first six 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, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources.
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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500 grams pork tenderloin
spices (myrtle berries, cumin, black pepper)
olive oil
wheat starch

Simmer for a few minutes the meat in plain water, then discard the water and spit-roast it sprinkling the meat with salt. In the meantime, prepare the sauce. Grind in the mortar 3 or 4 myrtle berries with black pepper and cumin, then dilute with a bit of honey, garum, defritum, and olive oil.
Cook the sauce at low heat. As soon as it starts boiling, add a bit of starch diluted in water. When it thickens, remove the sauce from the fire, pour it on the roasted meat, and sprinkle with black pepper.

Original text
Myrtae siccae bacam exenteratam cum cumino, pipere, melle, liquamine, defrito et oleo teres, et fervefactum amulas. Carnem elixam sale subassatam perfundis, piper aspargis et inferes.

Grind seedless, dry myrtle berries with cumin, pepper, honey, garum, defritum, and oil. Warm the sauce and thicken with starch. Pour on meat roasted and previously simmered, dust with pepper, and serve.

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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 1-6
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 and second 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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