For many centuries Roman culture dominated Europe and parts of Asia. It is natural for people to take their foods with them to strange lands, and this had an effect on the eating habits of native peoples long after their departure.

Unlike the Celtic and Germanic tribes they encountered, the Romans did not consider meat a principle food. In fact, Roman legions mutinied when forced to eat meat when their grain rations ran out. Beef was eaten rarely, probably for two reasons. First, the Romans used cattle for draft animals and as providers of dairy products and second, it was difficult to keep a large carcass from spoiling in all but the coldest weather. Pork was the most favored meat. Romans raised chickens, ducks, geese and pigeons. Guinea fowl and peacocks were kept as luxury items. Wild birds such as cranes, grouse, partridges, snipe and woodcock were raised for eating on large estates. Small birds such as thrush were also served. Boars and rabbits were also bred for food. The dormouse was considered a delicacy.

Fish was especially popular in late Roman times. Mullet and turbot are two of the types we can identify. Oysters were popular as a food and as an aphrodisiac. Fish was also preserved by salting.

Dairy products were widely used, with the exception of butter. It was used occasionally as a salve, but never in cooking.

The most popular vegetable among the lower classes was the onion. Other widely used used vegetables were cabbage, beets, beans, carrots, radishes, turnips, artichokes, marrows, lentils and other pulses and cucumbers.

Condiments included honey, the only available sweetener, vinegar, mustard, and liquamen, a sauce made from fermented fish probably similar to the modern Vietnamese nouc roam or Thai nam pla. Salt was used as a seasoning and a preservative. Other seasonings included poppy seeds, anise, cumin, fennel and mint. Pepper was imported in large quantities.

Grains formed the major part of the Roman diet. They grew barley, oats and rye as well as wheat, but oats were used for cattle and barley, while know, was not widely used. The bulk of the wheat was converted into bread. Roman legions had small mills for each group of men to allow them to grind fresh flour for their bread. Coarse breads with heavy bran content were called common bread or army bread (panis plebeius or panis castrensis). During the later stages of the empire white bread was preferred, but whole wheat bread was considered more nutritious. Loaves were round and flat in shape and had lines through the center dividing them into four or more parts.

The olive was very important in the Roman diet, not only for the olive fruit but for oil which was used for cooking. The fruit was preserved in numerous ways including salting. storing in oil or boiled grape juice, or storing in vinegar with spices.

Fruits either native to Italy or imported included apples, melons, pears, plums, quinces, apricots, peaches and pomegranates and of course grapes. Cherries were a favorite and were introduced to Britain by the Romans. Nuts included almonds, filberts, hazelnuts, pistachios and walnuts. Fruit was preserved by drying or other means.

Next to milk and water, wine was the most favored drink among the Romans. 'Civilized' Romans always mixed it with water before drinking. Proportions varied, but could be as high as 8:1. Other drinks included mead, cider, wines from other fruits and cordials from aromatic plants.

Source: Johnson, Mary Roman Life. Scott, Foresman and Co. 1957.

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