Sala Cattabia – Ancient Roman Summer Dish


Collected and stored to be sold during the summer, snow was used by Greek and Romans to cool wine and some foods, as reported by Athenaeus, Martial, and other authors. Pliny the Younger mentions a preparation with spelt and mulsum (honeyed wine) cooled with snow. In the cookbook conventionally attributed to Apicius, De Re Coquinaria, we find it used two times for the same kind of preparation, Sala Cattabia, which we are presenting today. Another way used by the same author to refrigerate food consists in placing the plate in cool water.
Sala Cattabia looks like an ancient ancestor of traditional Tuscan panzanella, a summer dish prepared (with various local variations) with stale bread soaked in water seasoned with olive oil, vinegar, basil, onions, and tomatoes. Clearly, ancient Romans did not know the tomato, but the principles are similar.
Another interesting ingredient of this recipe is posca, which deserves an explanation. Posca was a plebeian beverage commonly drunk by the Roman army, also called acetum, which means vinegar: it is made diluting vinegar in water. Called in Greek oxykraton, it appears in medical books without explanations about the ratio between water and vinegar. In the Byzantine sources, for example Paolo Aegineta and Anthimus’ books, there are medicinal recipes for posca which calls for other ingredients: pennyroyal, cumin, fennel, thyme, parsley, and others.
We diluted 1 part of vinegar in 7 parts of water: posca is meant to be drinkable, so the quantity of vinegar should not be excessive. Drinking vinegar may seem strange to us, but it is not really different from mixing water with a squeeze of lemon. From the Vita Catonis by Plutarch, we learn that Cato showed off his moderation drinking plain water habitually, posca just when he was particularly thirsty, and wine when he felt exhausted. Other commanders and emperors too drank posca during military expeditions, according to the chronicles reported in the Historia Augusta, probably for the same reason as Cato’s: ancient Romans valued greatly moderation and self-restraint, according to the mos maiorum, the customs of the ancestors.
Below, you find the original text with our translation, the video of the recipe, and a note about the method and ingredients.

200 gr bread
200 gr cheese
1 clove of garlic
black pepper
olive oil
posca (white wine vinegar and water)
snow or ice
aromatic herbs (mint, cilantro)

Sala Cattabia Piatto

To prepare posca, mix 1 part of vinegar with 7 parts of water. Remove the internal part from the bread and soak it in posca. In the meantime, mince the mint and cilantro. Grind in the mortar the black pepper, adding a clove of garlic, the minced herbs, a bit of honey, and the cheese. Dilute the sauce with a bit of oil and water until it reaches a creamy texture.
Squeeze out the excess liquid from the bread and place it on the bottom of the plate, covering it with the cheese sauce and a final layer of snow.

Sala Cattabia Preview

Note about the method and ingredients
If you do not have snow at disposal, grate a block of ice with the knife just before serving the dish.
We suggest using an excellent extra virgin olive oil for a better outcome.
To prepare the bread, we used the basic Cato’s recipe described in this article, without the seeds and egg, to make a 500-grams loaf with white wheat flour, the most common flour in ancient Rome.
The author recommends using salted cow cheese. There are no other sources of salt in this recipe: if you use a cheese that is not salty enough, we suggest tasting the sauce and, if necessary, adding a pinch of sea salt.
If you do not have mint or cilantro, use other fresh herbs instead, for example parsley, dill, basil, arugula, or the tender tops of celery, all used in this cookbook.
We suggest adding just a clove of garlic to obtain a well-balanced dish.

Sala Cattabia Thumbnail

Original text
Sala Cattabia: panem Alexandrinum excavabis, in posca macerabis. Adicies in mortarium piper, mel, mentam, alium, coriandrum viride, caseum bubulum sale conditum, aquam, oleum. Insuper nivem, et inferes.

Sala Cattabia: remove the internal part of an Alexandrine bread and soak it in posca. Add in the mortar pepper, honey, mint, garlic, fresh cilantro, salted cow cheese, water, oil. Place upon it snow and serve.

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