Ancient Roman Roast Pheasant


Throughout the history of Italian cuisine, pheasant has always been a prized, expensive meat, considered particularly delicate and good. In Diocletian’s Edict of Maximum Prices, issued at the beginning of the 4th century, we notice that a fattened pheasant costs more than eight chickens, a little less than a peacock. A wild pheasant, instead, is less costly, but in any case, more than four chickens.
Pheasants were both hunted and bred in the villae, as we read, for instance, in Martial’s Epigrams, in which these birds are listed among poultry kept in the backyards. Records of the breeding of pheasants are even older in ancient Greece: in the Deipnosophists, Athenaeus mentions a pheasant breeder, Leogoras, who lived in the 5th century BCE. This practice continued in the following centuries. We find pheasants among the poultry that must be kept in the farm even in Carolus Magnus’ Capitulare de Villis, in which it is specified that they are birds that the farmer must breed pro dignitatis causa: essentially, as a status symbol.
The dignifying nature of pheasant is very clear in the ancient and medieval sources: according to Petronius, in the Satyricon, it is the difficulty to find this kind of meat that makes it more palatable (whereas the goose and duck, way more common, have a plebeian flavor), and Michele Savonarola, in the 15th century, writes that pheasant is rare and expensive (rara e cara). Despite the cost, however, not all authors seem enthusiastic about the flavor of this meat: Ugo Benzi, contemporary with Savonarola, writes that it tastes halfway between a hen and a gray partridge.
The success of pheasant, however, is not limited to its appeal as food for the rich. Ancient and medieval physicians (such as Galen and Savonarola) believe that it is well digestible and suitable for the convalescent, elderly, and weak.
In De Re Coquinaria, pheasant appears a few times. It is also mentioned in the index of the sixth book, which we used for the recipe we are preparing today, but the recipes are unfortunately lost. We chose a method for a white sauce to accompany whichever kind of bird. In this case, the sauce is for simmered birds, but pheasant is way better roasted. If you prefer, use different kinds of meat, simmered or roasted to taste: in De Re Coquinaria we find, for instance, duck, goose, chicken, guinea fowl, ostrich, dove, pigeon, gray partridge, and many others.
We used almonds, but the text also recommends hazelnuts and walnuts, peeled to make a white sauce. Actually, this sauce is not white, for the presence of spices, honey, garum, and olive oil, differently from medieval sauces and dishes, which are, generally, completely white, for instance blancmange. To obtain a balanced sauce, we used a part each of the spices, two tablespoons of olive oil and vinegar, a tablespoon of garum, and 15 grams of almonds, but feel free to adjust this ratio to your taste. If the sauce is too thick, add more vinegar; if it is too liquid, add a couple of almonds.
Garum may be substituted with a South-East Asian fish sauce, muria or colatura di alici, or salt. If you do not have lovage, use cumin or fennel seeds, which were common substitutes for lovage in the Antiquity according to Pliny and Dioscorides.
For this recipe, we used our testum, an ancient portable oven perfect to be placed in the fireplace or a brazier, but you can use your regular oven without changes in the outcome.

For more information about ancient cuisine, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources. Moreover, the first nine books of De Re Coquinaria are available on Patreon, with further translations of ancient and medieval sources.
To know more about the passage between ancient and medieval cooking, check out 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; if you are interested in late-medieval cuisine, we recommend Libro de la Cocina. Medieval Tuscan Recipes and Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
If you are interested in vegetables in historical cuisine, read Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers available in English and Italian, with recipes from the Antiquity to early Modern Era.
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15 gr almonds
spices (white pepper, lovage, cumin, celery seeds)
white wine vinegar
olive oil

Roast the pheasant in the oven or under the testum for about an hour. In the meantime, prepare the sauce. Toast the almonds. Pound a pinch of each spice in the mortar, then add the almonds and dilute with the liquid ingredients: just a bit of honey, a tablespoon of garum, and two tablespoons of olive oil and vinegar. Stir the sauce well. Plate the pheasant with the raw sauce on top.

Original text
Ius candidum avem elixam: piper, ligusticum, cuminum, apii semen, Ponticam vel amygdala tosta vel nuces depellatas, mel modicum, liquamen, acetum et oleum.

White sauce for simmered birds: pepper, lovage, cumin, celery seeds, toasted hazelnuts or almonds or peeled walnuts, a bit of honey, garum, vinegar, and oil.

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Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano. Medieval Tuscan Recipes
Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers
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 1-9
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 (13th-14th century)
Enseignemenz (14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Libro de Arte Coquinaria by Maestro Martino – first and second part (15th century)

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