The Romans have been a source of fascination for centuries now, but after the collapse of the Roman empire and the world subsequent drift into the dark ages, much of the lives of ordinary Romans is shrouded in mystery.

So, what did the ancient Romans eat?

For the ordinary Roman, food was basic. Their staple diet consisted mostly of a wheat-based porridge, seasoned with herbs or meat if available. But if they were lucky, and in season, the occasional baked dormouse would have been presented!

However, archaeologists researching the ancient Roman fort of Vindolanda  have uncovered a fascinating insight into what the wealthier Roman classes with their discovery of what is now known as the Vindolanda tablets. It turns out that the diet of these particular inhabitants of was pretty varied. Within the Vindolanda tablets, 46 different types of foodstuff are mentioned. Whilst the more exotic of these, such as roe deer, venison, spices, olives, wine and honey, appear in the letters and accounts of the slaves attached to the commander's house; it is clear that the soldiers and ordinary people around the fort did not eat badly. We have already seen the grain accounts of the brothers Octavius and Candidus, demonstrating that a wide variety of people in and around the fort were supplied with wheat.

Added to that are a couple of interesting accounts and letters which show that the ordinary soldiers could get hold of such luxuries as pepper and oysters, and that the local butcher was doing a roaring trade in bacon.

However, as Sally Grainger's recipes show, on special occasions the table would be festooned with even more luxurious fare.

Stuffed Kidneys
Serves 4

8 lambs kidneys.
2 heaped tspn fennel seed (dry roasted in pan).
1 heaped tspn whole pepper corns.
4 oz pine nuts.
1 large handful fresh coriander.
2 tbspn olive oil.
2 tbspn fish sauce.
4 oz pigs caul or large sausage skins.

Skin the kidney, split in half and remove the fat and fibres. In a mortar, pound the fennel seed with the pepper to a coarse powder. Add this to a food processor with the pine nuts. Add the washed and chopped coriander and process to a uniform consistency. Divide the mixture into 8 and place in the centre of each kidney and close them up. If you have caul use it to wrap the kidneys up to prevent the stuffing coming out. Similarly stuff the kidney inside the sausage skin. Heat the oil and seal the kidneys in a frying pan. Transfer to an oven dish and add the fish sauce. Finish cooking in a medium oven. Serve as a starter or light snack with crusty bread and a little of the juice.

Pear Patina
Serves 4

1½ lb firm pears.
10fl oz red wine.
2 oz raisins.
4 oz honey.
1 tspn ground cumin.
1 tbspn olive oil.
2 tbspn fish sauce.
4 eggs.
plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Peel and core the pears and cook in the wine, honey and raisins until tender.

Strain and process the fruit and return to the cooking liquor. Add the cumin, oil and fish sauce and the eggs well beaten. Pour into a greased shallow dish and bake in a preheated oven (375º F) for 20 mins or until set. Let the custard stand for 10 mins before serving warm.

Serves 2

10 oz ricotta cheese.
1 egg.
2½ oz plain flour.
Runny honey.

Beat the cheese with the egg and add the sieved flour very slowly and gently. Flour your hands and pat mixture into a ball and place it on a bay leaf on a baking tray.

Place in moderate oven (400ºF) until set and slightly risen. Place cake on serving plate and score the top with a cross. our plenty of runny honey over the cross and serve immediately.

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