Wine was a favorite drink of the Romans, but women weren’t supposed to drink. According to legend, they came up with a sweeter variety, which was made with raisins. Here is a story of the drink and a recipe you can prepare.
A glass of the passum, or raisin wine, I prepared using the recipe below.
The Greeks held wine as an essential beverage and a necessary trade commodity. It only makes sense, then, that when Hellenic explorers from the states of Achaea and Euboea established colonies in Magna Graecia (southern Italy), viticulture became a big deal.
As grapes were perfectly suited to the climate in these new settlements, wine caught on quickly with the Latins and other Italic peoples to the north. The drink took on many roles, becoming a hallmark of ancient haute cuisine and even being used for religious purposes in the Bacchanalia, a drunken frenzy of a holiday celebrating the designated wine god, Bacchus.
Now, within Roman culture, there were certain unwritten rules that were expected to be followed with regards to etiquette and social norms. This was called the mos maiorum or the “way of the ancestors,” and was used to uphold traditional Roman values, whatever they were thought to be. As women were in classical times believed to be delicate and easily swayed by vices or devious behavior, the mos maiorum decreed all “moral” women ought to abstain from drinking.
These customs weren’t actually law, but even if they were, policing “proper” behavior was incredibly difficult, especially in a large empire like Rome. Drinking wine in different forms remained a mainstay of Roman culture, and one particular variety became especially popular among women. Called passum, this wine was made from regular grape juice or must but included the addition of raisins during the aging process.
An author named Polybius describes passum specifically in a part of his work The Histories. Although he wasn’t Roman-born (he was a native Greek), Polybius has a very solid reputation as far as ancient historians go. Here’s what he wrote:
Among the Romans women are forbidden to drink wine; and they drink what is called passum, which is made from raisins, and tastes very like the sweet wine of Aegosthena or Crete. This is what they drink to quench their thirst.
Further along, he mentions the reason women drank passum was to hide the alcoholic, winey taste on their breaths from their husbands! Whether or not this is truly why the beverage caught on, it’s surely a delightful story.
Passum is a tricky drink to prepare: it takes months of fermenting and several pressing sessions. Columella, who recorded a recipe for moretum, describes how to make passum in great detail, but I’ll just be providing a summary. Essentially, the process involves harvesting a batch of grapes, leaving them in the sun to shrivel up and become raisins, adding them to a pot of grape juice, letting them ferment, pressing them, adding more juice, letting the mixture sit, pressing it again, and letting ferment for a month or so before it can finally be served.
Needless to say, there are a lot of steps for a fairly straight-forward drink. I’ve come up with a much simpler, less labor-intensive recipe you can prepare at home with only two ingredients:
½ cup of raisins (red or white/golden)
1 pint of dessert wine (red or white)
Add the raisins to a bottle and pour in the wine. Seal and refrigerate for around 3 days. Strain the wine and press the remaining liquid from the raisins. Put back in the bottle and chill until use or pour to serve.
The ingredients for the passum and the final product in a bottle after sitting for three days.
I chose to use golden raisins and moscato, a white wine, so my preparation was significantly lighter than it could have been. I wasn’t sure if the Romans would’ve drunk red or white wine (the same goes for grape juice in my syrup recipes), so I used the ingredients I figured would do. Though I was certainly interested in sampling the wine, I can’t (for legal reasons!), so I enlisted the help of a trusty adult taste-tester. Understandably, they said it was very sweet — almost too much so.
Although I can’t really comment on the recipe myself, this drink had a significant place in ancient cuisine and was used in numerous other recipes and, what’s more, its story is an interesting one regardless of its truthfulness!