Ancient Sicilian Sea Bass (4th century BCE)


Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, the most important source for ancient Greek cuisine, collects several quotations of authors whose books would be, otherwise, lost. It is thanks to Athenaeus’ work that many fragments of Archestratus’ culinary book survived.
Archestratus of Gela (or Syracuse, it is unclear, as we read in Athenaeus’ Epitome), lived in the 4th century BCE, is the author of a treatise titled Gastronomy, also called Life of Pleasure or Art of Dining, in which he explains the various foods, especially fish (at least, in the fragments quoted by Athenaeus), with particular attention to the best Mediterranean places in which one may buy it.
In addition to this information, Archestratus provides a few recipes. Generally, his plates are very simple, in contrast with the bad habit about which he complains to create excessively complex flavors that ruin the fish.
Many recipes by Archestratus just require salt and a few more ingredients, as in the case of the preparation he considers the best for grey mullet and sea bass, which must be cooked whole without removing their scales. However, he describes how Syracusans and Italiots prepare them, considering it the perfect way to ruin these delicate fishes: they season them with cheese, vinegar, and silphium.
Syracusans were famous in the Antiquity for their luxury, as reported by Athenaeus, who mentions the opinions by Aristophanes (5th century BCE) and Plato (lived between the 5th and the 4th centuries BCE), who criticizes in a letter how the Sicilians live after his first travel in Italy. They eat excessively two times every day and never sleep alone, bad habits that they practice since their youth, which prevent them from reaching temperance and wisdom.
It is unclear how the fish must be prepared since Archestratus just lists the ingredients. We used another recipe described by Archestratus in another fragment about brill, in which the author writes to pinch the skin of the fish with a knife, pour oil, and sprinkle with grated cheese. Another possibility consists in filleting the fish and season it with the other ingredients.
We used a pecorino not excessively salty, but you can try other kinds of cheese according to your taste.
Asafoetida is equivalent to the cheapest variety of silphium, called silphium Parthicum, as we read in the descriptions by Dioscorides and Theophrastus. In the classical sources, the best variety appears to be the silphium produced in Cyrene, which does no longer exist.

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sea bass
olive oil

Gut and scale the fish, then pinch its skin with the knife. Season it with olive oil, vinegar, grated cheese, and asafoetida.
Roast it in the oven for 20 minutes. The cooking time may change depending on the size.
Serve still hot.

Original text
λάμβανε δ ̓ ἐκ Γαίσωνος ὅταν Μίλητον ἵκηαι, κεστρέα τὸν
κέφαλον καὶ τὸν θεόπαιδα λάβρακα
εἰσὶ γὰρ ἐνθάδ ̓ ἄριστοι.
[…] ὅλους δ ̓ αὐτοὺς ἀλεπίστους
ὀπτήσας μαλακῶς γλίσχρης προσένεγκε δίχ ̓ ἅλμης.
μηδὲ προσέλθῃ σοί περὶ τοὔψον τοῦτο πονοῦντι μήτε
Συρακόσιος μηδεὶς μήτ ̓ Ἰταλιώτης. οὐ γὰρ ἐπίστανται
χρηστοὺς σκευαζέμεν ἰχθῦς, ἀλλὰ διαφθείρουσι κακῶς
τυροῦντες ἅπαντα ὄξει τε ῥαίνοντες ὑγρῷ καὶ σιλφίου ἅλμῃ.

Take at Gaeson when you go to Miletus the grey mullet and the divine sea bass because in this place they are the best. They [the ones fished there] must be roasted with their scales and served moistened with brine. Do not allow a Syracusan or Italiot to approach you when you are cooking them, because they do not know how to prepare fish, but they ruin it by covering it with cheese, drowning it in vinegar with pungent silphium.

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Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes
Registrum Coquine by Johannes Bockenheim. A medieval cookbook

Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-3
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus – first part (6th century)
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 – parts 1-2 (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)

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