Ancient Roman Sea Bass


Welcome! Today we prepare a recipe from the cookbook attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, the most famous cook of the Antiquity. It is poached sea bass with an aromatic sauce made with spices and fresh herbs. Despite the number of ingredients, the result is a plate whose flavors appear simple, concealing its refined perfection, able to satisfy the taste of people from every time period, included ours: a well-balanced dish that will make you enjoy the aromas of Ancient Rome.
Apicius does not specify the kind of fish, but we know that saltwater fishes were considered more fitting for wealthy people’s banquets, and the sea bass was one of the most appreciated at that time.
The historical source we are using is the most extensive collection of recipes of the Roman Imperial period. Below, you will find the original text and the translation. Enjoy your meal!

sea bass
30 ml white wine vinegar
100 ml dry white wine
extra virgin olive oil
wheat starch
dry onion
black pepper

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Grind the spices with dry onion. Choose the quantity freely according to your taste: early cooking sources, like this one, do not specify the amount of ingredients usually. Then mince the parsley and oregano. We suggest using more parsley than oregano to prevent the latter from becoming overpowering. Remember that Apicius’ recipes always aim at the balance between flavors.
Now we make the sauce, pouring in a pot extra virgin olive oil, wine, vinegar, and garum, with a bit of honey to balance the acidity. Use just a little of garum: it is pretty salty. Let the sauce boil, then add the spices and onion with the diluted starch. When the sauce thickens, add the fresh herbs and put out the fire.
Poach the sea bass. Apicius gives no direction about how to do this step. We chose following the instructions of later cookbooks and used water, vinegar, and salt.
Now, plate the sea bass pouring the sauce with minced parsley and oregano.

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Garum (or, better, liquamen, the liquid part of the garum) is a staple ingredient in ancient Mediterranean cuisine. Used by Romans, Greeks, and Phoenicians, it is a salty sauce made with fermented fish. The method of production was analogous to the modern-day South-East Asian fish sauces. You can either substitute garum with these fish sauces or use salt instead.

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Original recipe
Ius in pisce elixo*: piper, ligusticum, petroselinum, origanum, cepam aridam, mel, acetum, liquamen, vinum, oleum modice. cum bullierit, amulo obligas. et in lance inferes.

Sauce for poached fish: pepper, lovage, parsley, oregano, dry onion, honey, vinegar, garum, wine, a little oil. When it boils, thicken with starch. Serve in a plate.

*Pisce elixo means cooked in water: boiled, simmered or poached. We chose to poach our fish.

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