Sweeteners were pretty hard to come by for Roman cooks, so they resorted to using an ingredient with many other culinary purposes. Here you can read about these syrups and how to make them yourself.
A mosaic of a bunch of grapes, from the Bardo National Museum, Tunis.
After a bit of a break, I’ve finally gotten back to writing! I had a handful of AP exams over the past two weeks and I’m glad to be done, so what better to try making than something a little sugary?
When it came to sweeteners, ancient chefs didn’t have a whole lot to work with. Sugar, which is ubiquitous today, was impossibly difficult to get a hold of two millennia ago, as it had to be shipped from southeastern Asia. Corn syrups of any fructose level didn’t exist, either, as corn itself was just being cultivated across the Atlantic. Honey was the preferred option, but bees took lots of time and energy to care for. Thus, Romans made use of another source, one that had already taken root around the Mediterranean.
Grapes were one of the fundamental crops for the ancient Greeks, along with wheat and olives. Hardy and resilient, grapes were able to flourish in the regional climate of hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Other civilizations, including the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and, indeed, the Romans, grew grapes.
The fruit could be eaten off the vine, but grapes found many other uses, becoming wine, vinegar, and most importantly for this, juice. Roman cooks discovered that boiling down grape juice could make it even sweeter, providing an easy, less labor-intensive alternative to honey.
The author Pliny the Elder wrote the following about the several syrups made from grape juice in his work Natural History:
All these [grape] mixtures have been devised for the adulteration of honey.
Not only were grape syrups knowingly used in place of honey, but apparently to make cheap, knockoff honey mixtures! For the average diner, it seems that these grape sauces were to honey as, say, artificial maple syrup is to the real deal today. The flavor and quality can be approximated, but most people agree the more expensive product is better.
Although they were tantalizingly sugary, these grape syrups had an unlucky dark side. Based on archaeological findings, it seems like the Romans prepared these grape syrups in lead pots. This may raise a red flag, knowing that lead has been phased out almost completely nowadays.
However, the devastating effects of lead toxicity weren’t fully realized and the Romans were beguiled by the chemical magic at work here: as the juice boiled, molecules of lead acetate would leach out from the pot. Also called sugar of lead, this compound has a naturally sweet taste that would further enhance the sugary flavor of the grape syrup, in the process slowly giving diners chronic lead poisoning.
All that doom and gloom aside, in Latin culinary literature, there are three varieties of grape syrups described, each with slightly different recipes. Pliny also wrote in his Natural History that one, called defrutum, is boiled to half of its original volume, and another, sapa, is cooked down to one-third volume. The third syrup, named caroenum, is only reduced to two-thirds volume. Presumably, with different concentrations (and sweetnesses), each concoction was preferred for a specific purpose, but I wasn’t able to find those roles recorded anywhere.
For ½ cup of caroenum, use ¾ of grape juice.
For ½ cup of defrutum, use 1 cup of grape juice.
For ½ cup of sapa, use 1½ cups of grape juice.
And for all three, pour the juice into a small pan and bring to a boil, checking the volume every now and then.
From the left, glasses of caroenum, defrutum, and sapa.
As you can probably tell from the picture above, the syrups look about the same. When I prepared them I didn’t noticed any real difference in their flavors, either. In fact, aside from knowing which was which, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell them apart too well. These syrups appear in loads of other recipes, though, so despite their very small differences, their collective importance can’t be overlooked. Now you can go and try to make these recipes in your own kitchen, sans lead poisoning!