Garlic Digestive Spread

Roman dinners could draw on for hours and contain lots of extravagant courses. Sometimes eating would take a toll on diners’ stomachs, so a “medicinal” garlic spread was created. Here is one recipe for a digestive you can concoct in your own kitchen.

An imaginative painting of a cena, aptly called A Roman Feast (Roberto Bompiani, c. 1892, Getty Museum).

Garlic received an interesting reputation in Rome. It was omitted from many dishes, not because diners found garlic to be too pungent or anything like that, but because they thought it tasted like medicine (you read that right, medicine).

Personally, garlic would be one of the last things I’d want to eat if I were under the weather. However, the Romans and other ancient peoples held garlic as an excellent cure for all sorts of ailments. Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, prescribed the plant for curing infections, leprosy, wounds, and stomachaches. As we’ve seen with other pseudo-medicinal plants like silphium, some curative properties may exist but are often overstated.

The Romans stuck to Hippocrates’ claims of garlic’s health benefits, but used it especially for one reason: digestive issues. Much as people today might take Alka-Seltzer or Pepto-Bismol to settle an upset stomach, ancient diners would scarf down some sort of garlic paste before dinners to avoid making a mess on their host’s triclinium floor.

Even with a pre-game digestif, cenae could get quite ugly: some diners still gorged themselves until they vomited (though contrary to popular belief, Roman houses didn’t have separate puking rooms — the word vomitorium refers to a type of auditorium passage that appeared to spew out people).

I found a recipe of such a digestive spread in the cookbook Apicius. The original Latin and the English translation go as follows:

Aliter salsum sine salso: cumini tantum quantum quinque digitis tollis, piperis ad diminium eius et unam spicam alei purgatam teres. Liquamen superfundes, oleum modice superstillabis. Hoc aegrum stomacum valde et digestionme facit.

Another sauce without salted fish: take as much cumin as you can hold between five fingers, half that quantity of pepper, and grind one cleaned clove of garlic. Pour liquamen over this and drizzle with a little oil. This will settle a sick stomach, and is good for digestion.

As I read the original Latin text, I noticed something interesting. The first part of the first sentence, Aliter salsum sine salso, uses adjectives in the place of nouns. The direct English translation is something like “Another [salty] without [salty],” which doesn’t make sense when taken for face value.

I think Apicius was referring to a sauce (salsum, the origin of the word “sauce” itself) made without some salted ingredient which is, in my interpretation, fish (salso). There are plenty of known recipes made from salted fish (garum, liquamen, etc.), so that translation seemed to fit. Below is the recipe I reconstructed following the original version from Apicius:

½ tsp of cumin

¼ tsp of peppercorns

1 large clove of garlic

½ tsp of liquamen

½ tsp olive oil

Grind the peppercorns in a mortar (or crack with a mill). Add in the other ingredients, mixing the cumin slowly to avoid making the paste too thick or gummy. Serve on a slice of crusty bread like a baguette, if you wish.

Pictures of my ingredients and the finished spread on a slice of bread.

I was uncertain about how this recipe would turn out — I’m not a huge fan of raw garlic, so I really wasn’t sure if I’d like this recipe. However, per Apicius‘s description and with respect to historical accuracy, I decided to prepare it anyway. As it turns out, it was a bit too strong for my taste. The spread was very sharp and peppery with an unusual marine flavor, and the garlic hung around for a while afterward.

I think this is the first recipe I’ve written about that I didn’t enjoy — and I’m all the better for it. I still learned a great deal about ancient cuisine, but if I ever find myself having a stomachache, I think I’ll probably stick to my Pepto-Bismol!

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