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Cooking Apicius Paperback – October 6, 2006
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Sally Grainger has done meticulous research into the elements of Roman cooking, and actually worked the recipes out into very palatable dishes. I've read through almost all the so called Apicius cookbooks and this is by far the most thorough explanation of the ingredients and how they are made, including mulsum and garum, and in depth descriptions of the unusual seasonings like lovage.
This will change how our reenactment and reconstruction efforts will present Roman food from now on, and make the accompanying academic book that much more interesting.
I was also pleased to receive Grainger's "Cooking Apicius". Grainger is both a scholar and an excellent cook of Ancient Roman food. Her book is written in a friendly, personal, and sometimes chatty manner, and contains many Britishisms, but, then, she is British, after all.
Her discussions of various ingredients and cooking techniques were informative. I have cooked from the Flower/Rosenbaum translation, and also own Andre Dalby & Sally Grainger's "Classical Cookbook", "Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome" by Patrick Faas, "Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens" by Mark Grant, "A Taste of Ancient Rome" by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa.
I've found all these books instructive, but I enjoy working out the recipes myself and making my own decisions on what substitutes to use here in the US. At the same time, I always appreciate hearing how another cook interprets a recipe, and I very much appreciated Grainger's explanations throughout of her decisions to make certain interpretations or use particular ingredients.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in cooking recipes from the Apician cookbook, but shy of starting out from the original recipes themselves, which can be rather vague.
First, the history section at the beginning is interesting, detailed and marvelously informative. I enjoyed reading about what the items of food likely were, how they were likely prepared, and who likely did the cooking. The academic work may get into more footnoted details but this was wonderful. Pleasant to read and chock full of details I can USE.
Then there are the recipes. She cooks. The recipes are clear. Understandable. She gives information on period techniques and suggestions for modern methods that give a similar result. USEFUL! I am delighted that I could put a dish in front of my family from the 1st Century AD and know that it is not too different from what people would have eaten.
I love living history. My Byzantine persona for the Society for Creative Anachronism would have likely eaten like this. What bits and pieces I have read from 10th Century, they were eating very similarly to the foods in Apicius and unlike many extant writings, Apicius was written for the cook, likely by a cook, or cooks, and so is practical and not merely philosophic meanderings about food.
For the cook who loves history, or the history buff who wants to cook period appropriate foods, I highly recommend this book.
The one major failing of the book is that it lacks an index. I am talking about the ink-and-paper, hardcopy, book. Not Kindle. Printed books should have an index, in my opinion.
A minor annoyance is her use of a variety of spoon sizes with no real information. She specifies four sizes of spoons in somewhat vague terms, and only gives the metric volume of the largest. It should have been easy enough to measure and specify the other three spoons that she uses. This would not have been so annoying had she not said that you needed to stick closely to her amounts of ingredients the first time you cooked any recipe of hers, and only vary amounts after you are sure how the dish tastes when cooked her way. That's a little difficult to do if you don't know what amounts she is actually using.
I don't feel it is wise to advise people to wander the streets picking berries from people's hedges, especially when you admit that the ones you are instructing them to pick closely resemble some that are very toxic. On that topic, it might have been useful to suggest alternatives for some of the more difficult-to-obtain ingredients, on the off chance that your reader has bought the book heading into winter and doesn't happen to have some dried abortificant plant leaves in her kitchen cabinet (I am referring to rue in this case).
Those complaints aside, I was inspired by this book to try cooking some ancient Roman dishes. It happens that the first one that I tried was one that I found on another author's blog, but that is the way of things. That dish turned out wonderful, by the way. I used colatura for the garum, which I bought on Amazon.
I have to wonder why someone who so obviously dislikes the flavor of garlic chose to specialize in reproducing recipes from a part of the world where either garlic or another spice, asafetida, which tastes much like garlic, is used in so many recipes. I get the idea that she likes fish sauce because she can use it to drown out everything else. I will attest to the truth of her statement that you can use the umami quality of fish sauce to cover up the other spices in a dish. I had made a highly spiced turkey dish, in a Chinese mode, that I accidentally over-sweetened. I decided to follow some published advice that one can balance sweetness with salt. I added miso paste, which is a salty vegetable-based source of umami. By the time the sweetness was balanced, the dish tasted like beef pot roast. It was like tasty beef pot roast, cooked with onions and carrots until the vegetables dissolve into nothing but flavor, but it was nevertheless not turkey with Chinese spices.
So because she obviously knows what she is doing in the kitchen, I gave her four stars even though I don't necessarily agree with her goals or some of her instructions. I also bought the book co-authored by her husband, which has all of the Apicius recipes translated. It's what I really wanted in the first place.