Salting was the most common way to preserve meat and fish in the ancient world, as described by many authors, included Roman agronomists. In De Re Coquinaria, the cookbook conventionally attributed to Apicius, salted fish appear in a few recipes, whereas fresh fish is more frequent. In the Edict of Prices issued in 301 by Emperor Diocletian, we notice that salted fish was less expensive (6 denarii) than the cheapest fresh fish (8 denarii), the secund-quality freshwater fish, and in any case, cheaper than the less costly meat (goat, mutton, and beef costed 8 denarii).
Salted fish was used frequently by Greek and Romans as an appetizer. Is was preserved in brine, called muria. The liquid then was used as a condiment, in a similar way as garum: modern-day colatura di alici is a kind of muria. In the 4th century, Ausonius reports that muria was a sauce widely used by common people, but we know from other authors that some kinds of this condiment, for example tuna muria from Byzantium, were quite expensive
Pliny writes extensively about cured cuts of tuna. In an epigram by Martial, we find salted tuna with hard-boiled eggs.
The recipe we present today is salted fish with an intensely aromatic sauce, meant to be eaten in small quantities. We suggest serving it as an appetizer, with eggs, olives, vegetables, and bread. A good pairing is with poppy seed bread or mustacei.
Below, you will find the original source with our translation, a note about the ingredients, and the video of the recipe with subtitles in English and Italian. Enjoy!
fresh herbs (oregano, arugula, mint, rue)
white wine vinegar
ancient Roman mustard
Steep the salted fish in cool water. Mince finely the fresh herbs and grind in the mortar the pepper. Add in the mortar the herbs, the walnuts, one date cut into pieces, mixing with a tablespoon of mustard, a bit of honey, olive oil, and vinegar.
Discard the water and simmer the fish for about 30 seconds. Serve the fish coated with the sauce.
Note about the ingredients
Arugula is here used as an aromatic herb. Rue and arugola, mixed together, become intense and bitter: we suggest using just a few leaves of rue. If you do not have rue, you can use just arugula. Oregano and mint are better fresh, but you can use dry herbs if you do not have them at disposal.
The original text calls for salted gray mullet. We used anchovies instead, but you can substitute them with any kind of salted fish. The cooking time changes depending on the size of the fish.
Mustard is frequently used as an ingredient to prepare more complex sauces. We prepared a few months ago the recipes survived, by Columella and Palladius. If you choose Columella’s, add a bit more honey.
Nux calva is a kind of nut mentioned by Cato, Pliny, and other authors. We find it sometimes also in this cookbook. It is hard identifying it precisely. We substituted the nuces calvae with walnuts, but you can use also hazelnuts or almonds.
Ius in mugile salso: piper, origanum, erucam, mentam, rutam, calvam, caryotam, mel, oleum, acetum et sinape.
Sauce for salted gray mullet: pepper, oregano, arugula, mint, rue, nux calva, date, honey, oil, vinegar, and mustard.