Heston's Roman Feast
Heston Blumenthal's historic cookery series on Channel Four took on Roman food this week (filmed, I guess, before the Fat Duck's brush with the norovirus). There was plenty of luxury and sex (almost) on display. The Romans we learned were "theatrical, deviant and orgasmic" -- and Heston set out to recreate their theatrical, deviant and orgasmic food for a group of celebs (below) who had been hired to consume and comment on the finished product.
There was a lot of library work going on in the background, and plenty of pictures of Heston scanning the Loeb edition of Petronius. But the fun came in seeing if he could actually make the dishes.
He did rather well with the Roman staple of garum -- their favourite sauce made out of rotten fish which, as Heston pointed out, they seem to have smeared over most things. It is this that usually defeats undergraduate Roman dinner parties (anchovy paste doesn't quite get it). But even if Heston didnt have the patience to rot his fish for the three months that the Romans did, he did manage to heat up and blend together a load of mackerel intestines, so that they ended looking rather like a Thai sauce and was (so Heston insisted) really 'delicious'.
The most interesting bit for me was the recreation of the 'Trojan pig'. This is a joking dish described by Petronius in the Satyricon, but known elsewhere in Roman literature. It's a large roast pig stuffed with sausages, so that when the flesh of the pig is slit, what looks like intestines tumble out.
In Petronius, it is a neat joke played on the dinner guests, staged between the host Trimalchio and his cook. The pig is brought in to the banquet, and with it comes the cook -- full of apologies that he has forgotten to gut the animal. Trimalchio feigns anger and orders the cook to strip for a whipping, until the other guests plead for mercy. 'Ok,' says Trimalchio, 'gut it now'. And out come all those sausages . . . and everyone applauds.
Heston had rather more trouble with this one.
He ended up having to push the pig in on a great trolley and arrange it rather awkwardly to have its belly slit. The sausages had been very carefully positioned inside, using a medical endoscope to get them in just the right place (not a facility available in the Roman kitchen). Even so when the knife went in, nothing exactly tumbled out very impressively . . . even though the celebs made suitable 'ooh aah' noises, and (as you can see in the picture at the top) he eventually managed to present them with a trayful of what you might easily have mistaken for innards.
He had better luck with Petronius' ejaculating cake, which was the centrepiece of his Roman pudding.
So how did Heston score for authenticity? Could have been worse I thought. True, it was the same old stuff about the Romans being the world's first bulimics and I kept having a nasty feeling that we were going to be told that old myth about them vomiting between courses (though we never actually were). And there wasn't even a gesture to the fact that even if the rich really did at this sort of stuff (which they probably didnt -- the Satyricon is a fantasy novel, for heaven's sake), the poor were on a much more subdued diet of cheese, fruit and cabbage.
All the same, I'm pleased to report that he passed the dormouse test. We learned about the Romans eating flamingos and sows' udders, and there was a lurid sequence in which Heston whipped up a calfs brain custard. But there was not a dormouse in sight.