Buying Meat in Roman Times
According to Plutarch (circa AD 50 to circa 120), there were two colleges of butchers in Rome. One group slaughtered oxen, calves, and sheep. The other slaughtered the huge number of pigs that were used to satisfy the Roman taste for their favorite meat: pork.
We have some knowledge of meat-selling practices from The Satyricon, a satirical comic novel by Titus Petronius Niger or Arbiter, who was governor of Bithynia in AD 61 while a favorite of Nero and committed suicide in AD 66 when he was accused of treason. One surviving section of The Satyricon describes an extravagant banquet hosted by Trimalchio, a wealthy freedman who was exceptionally vulgar by Roman standards. The banquet scene is often used as a source of information about dining practices of wealthy Romans. According to Petronius, meat was bought and sold by the pound in his day.
An unusual process for selling cattle in earlier times was described by Cato the Elder (324-149 BC) in De Re Rustica (On Agriculture), the oldest surviving complete work of Latin prose. It was sometimes based on a “choosing” game, micatio or micare, that was used much like rock-paper-scissors in the United States or flipping a coin.
In the version of micatio played in southern Italy today, opponents count off, then hold up some fingers of the right hand. Before seeing the other person’s hand, each player calls out what the total number on both hands should be. The first to get it right wins. The game may or may not have involved being the first to win a certain number of the “flashing fingers.” A variant called morra is also played in Italy today, where the winner is determined by correctly choosing whether the total number of fingers is even or odd.
The game was common enough in Roman times that it became the basis for a Latin proverb: dignus est, quicum in tenebris mices. (He is a meritorious person, with whom you could play micare in the dark.) The complete phrase for the game was digitos micare (to flash the fingers).
The version used to determine whether the Roman buyer or seller won is not clear. When playing micare as the basis for selling and buying cattle, the winner set the price for the animal.
Preserving Meat with Salt the Roman Way
Roman butchers sold both fresh and preserved meat. In the days before refrigeration, the preservation process was usually based on salt. While it is common today to preserve meat using brine (concentrated salt water), the Romans used a different approach. First, they boned the meat and sprinkled it with crushed salt. After this had dried the meat enough to remove any noticeable dampness, they sprinkled on more salt and put the pieces in a container previously used for oil or vinegar. The pieces were arranged so they wouldn’t touch each other. Sweet wine was poured over the meat, and straw was placed on top. If snow was available, it was spread around the container.
An additional preservation technique that needed no salt could be used in the wintertime. The meat was coated with honey (a good antibacterial agent), sealed in an air-tight container, and stored in a cool place.
When it was time to use the salted meat, it was first boiled in milk and then in water to extract the salt.
Sauces for Use with Boiled Meat
Apicius provides a number of sauces to use with boiled meat. While we commonly pour sauces over the meat before serving, several Apician recipes specifically say that the sauce is poured or spread under the boiled meats or other boiled food items (viands). As usual, Apicius assumes the recipe will be used by the chef of a wealthy house who knows without being told what proportions of each ingredient to use. If you try one of these recipes and it turns out well, I hope you’ll share your more detailed recipe with me to post here.
Jus in elixam omnem (Sauce for All Boiled Dishes)
Many of the ingredients in this sauce are used in Worcestershire sauce.
Pepper, lovage, origany (oregano), rue, silphium*, dry onion, wine, reduced wine, honey, vinegar, and a small amount of oil are boiled down and strained through a cloth. The sauce is poured under the hot cooked meat.
Jus in Elixam (Sauce for Boiled Viands)
Pepper, parsley, broth, vinegar, fig-dates, onions, and a small amount of oil are combined; pour under meat while very hot.
Jus in Elixam (Another Sauce)
Crush pepper, dry rue, fennel seed, onion, and fig-dates are combined with broth and oil.
Jus Candidum in Elixam ( White Sauce for Boiled Foods)
Pepper, broth, wine, rue, onions, nuts, and a little spice are mixed. Bread is soaked in this to the saturation point. Oil is added. This is cooked and spread under the meat.
Aliter Jus Candidum in Elixam (Another White Sauce for Boiled Foods)
Pepper, caraway, lovage, thyme, oregany (oregano) shallots, dates, honey, vinegar, broth, and oil are combined.
Apicius doesn’t mention the bread in this recipe, but presumably it is used as in the recipe above. The finished sauce is probably spread under the meat.
* Silphium in this recipe might be the same as laser (also called laserpicium, or lasarpicium), which is the resin from the silphium plant. It is believed to have been a type of giant fennel, probably extinct. Genuine laser was very expensive. A cheaper substitute that is still available for today’s cooks is asafoetida. Although the raw resin has a fetid (stinking) odor, it has a pleasant flavor after cooking that reminds one of leeks.
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.