In ancient Rome, red mullets were considered among the most prized fishes, and as a consequence, they were particularly costly. They were both fished and brood in the piscinae, pools filled, in this case, with saltwater – but they existed also for freshwater fish, considered apter for common people. Many authors wrote extensively about the piscinae, in particular, Marcus Varro in his book about agriculture. Horace and Martial in their poems wrote about incredibly big and expensive red mullets that weighted up to four pounds.
During the Middle Ages, freshwater fish begins to be considered better for the banquet of a noble, but within the 5th and 6th centuries, the time of today’s recipe, ancient Roman traditions still survive. The source for this recipe, indeed, is a short appendix, called Excerpta Vinidarii, at the end of one single manuscript of the cookbook attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, the most famous ancient Roman cook. About the author of these recipes, we know just the name, Vinidarius. Some scholars suppose he may have been a Goth. His recipes, methods, and choice of ingredients take inspiration from Apicius and ancient Roman cuisine, representing an interesting link between ancient and medieval cooking. From Vinidarius’ cookbook, we prepared before lamb stew and fried fish.
Below, you will find the original recipe with the translation into English and a short note about the ingredients. Enjoy!
dry white wine
spices (white pepper, lovage)
fresh herbs (mint, oregano)
Grind in the mortar white pepper and lovage, adding a bit of dried onion. Mince mint and oregano before pounding them with the spices. Squeeze the grapes to obtain the juice. Now, mix in the mortar the grape juice, a bit of honey, garum, and white dry wine.
Gut and scale the red mullets, then place them in a pan covered with the liquid. If the broth is not enough, add a bit of water. Cook for about ten minutes, adjusting the cooking time to the size of the fishes you are using. Serve the red mullets with the fish broth.
Note about the ingredients
Vinidarius recommends using for this recipe red mullets, eels, and morays, but we suggest any kind of saltwater fish at your choice.
We are using here grape juice, but the author writes to use defritum (spelled also as defrutum), that is concentrated grape juice. We preferred let it thicken directly during the cooking.
Used by many Mediterranean populations, garum was an ancient fermented sauce prepared with fish and salt, something adding spices and aromatic herbs. From the historical recipes, we know it was prepared in the same way as some modern-day South-East Asian fish sauces, a valid option to substitute garum. If you prefer, you can just use a pinch of salt instead.
Murenam aut anguillas vel mullos sic facies: purgabis, conpones in patinam diligenter. Adicies in mortario piper, ligusticum, origanum, mentam, cepam aridam, infundes vini acetabulum, liquaminis dimidium, mellis tertiam partem, modice defritum ad cocleare. Debent autem hoc iure cooperiri, ut super cocturam supersit aliquid iuris.
Prepare in this way morays, eels, or red mullets: gut and place them diligently in a pan. Add in the mortar pepper, lovage, oregano, mint, dried onion. Pour one acetabulum wine, one half acetabulum garum, and one third acetabulum honey, and a spoon of defritum. The liquid has to cover the fish, and during the cooking, a little broth has to remain.
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