Perna (Pork Shoulder or Ham)

Roast pork

The pig held a special place, both favored and abhorred, in different cultures of the ancient world.

The Jews were forbidden to eat pork in the Law of Moses. Egyptian priests thought the mere sight of a pig would defile them. On the island of Cyprus, people didn’t eat pork. Instead, they reserved it to use as an offering to Venus. On Crete, pigs were fed acorns and pampered because Jupiter was supposedly suckled by a sow on their island.

The Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, considered a pig an excellent offering to sacrifice to the Earth, the Lares (the Roman guardian deities of the hearth, fields, boundaries, and fruitfulness), and Ceres (the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility, and motherhood).

They also considered it excellent eating. Galen of Pergamon, the renowned physician of the 2nd century AD, recommended it as food for those who worked hard or engaged in violent exercise.

Roman chefs devised many pork recipes. Apicius preferred pork over all the other meats available to him. Perhaps one of the most exotic recipes is Trojan pork.

Trojan Pork

Drain blood with a cut under the shoulder. After bleeding is completed, draw the intestines out through the throat and wash by passing a large amount of wine through them. Hang pig up by the feet and wash it with wine. Prepare a gravy with ground meat and pepper. Stuff the intestines and work them back inside through the throat. Pour in a large amount of the gravy and fill the animal with small game.

Cover half of the pig with a paste of barley meal, wine, and oil. Roast over a slow fire. When the skin has reached a “fine color,” remove it from the fire and boil on the other side. Remove the paste and serve the cooked pig.

The small game, often thrushes and other small birds, within the Trojan pork represented the Greek soldiers who hid inside the wooden horse to sneak through the walls of Troy.

Here’s a pork recipe that can be prepared in contemporary kitchens.

Pernae Cocturam

Cook pork shoulder in water.

Dress with figs on a platter (or other baking pan).

Sprinkle with crumbs and reduced wine or, still better, with spiced wine.

Glaze under open flame or with a shovel containing red-hot embers.

Perna is the term for the shoulder of pork, either fresh (uncured) or cured ham. Both salt and smoke were used for preserving (curing) ham.

Coxa is the hind leg or haunch of pork and can be fresh (uncured) ham.

For non-alcoholic substitutes, see this list of substitutes for wine.

**Condensed wine has been heated to reduce its volume.

Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1977.

Soyer, Alexis. Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times: Alexis Soyer’s Pantropheon. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby