Salt was an essential ingredient in the Roman kitchen, seasoning and preserving food. Here, I write about an ancient sort of salad with a refreshing touch, plus a recreated recipe to try.
A photo of the sala cattabia with shaved ice and mint. It tastes much better than it looks!
Greek, Caesar, Cobb, Waldorf, Niçoise… the list of salads goes on and on! There’s tons of variety, and with salads suddenly fresh on your mind, you may be running through all the types you know of. Now, you may be realizing that there are certain similarities between them all: many start with a base of greens (usually lettuce), and almost all are served cold, doused with or stirred together in a dressing.
This all may be true, but fundamentally, based on the name alone, all a salad ought to have is salt.
The word “salad” has arrived in English by way of Provençal and Old French, two languages that gradually developed from Latin. Our word comes immediately from the French salade, which descended in a roundabout way from the classical Latin sal, meaning “salt.”
This short little word, related to the English name for those briny minerals, has made its way into many other Romance languages. A number of these salty words have come into English, where they are now lodged in the language of food.
From the original Latin sal, via Italian, we get “salami.” By means of Spanish, “salsa” (which translates to “sauce,” a word from French that shares the “salt” root). Also from French, words like “saucer” and “sausage” arrived in our language – all harkening back to the time of the Romans.
Beyond the kitchen, the Latin sal has given rise to a curious and seemingly unrelated word: salary. What could the money someone earns from working possibly have to do with salt?
Legend has it that soldiers in Rome were once paid in salt because of its great value, thus the origin of the salary. There isn’t solid evidence for this notion, though, and it seems that soldiers were paid not in salt but in coin. Instead it’s possible that the legionary’s salarium was once an allowance to purchase salt. Without getting too far into the weeds, we can conclude that there was a clear association of salt with value, and a definite link between salt and soldiers.
Salt’s real utility was in improving food. Much as people do today, the Romans used salt to season their dishes. (From the recipes I have made and read, it seems this was usually done with an auxiliary ingredient. Instead of using plain salt, ancient cooks mixed in salted things like fish, garum, or cheese to impart flavor.)
And what’s more, salt draws water from inside microbes and kills them. It’s a great way to preserve food. This virtue made salt handy to folks in classical times, especially legionaries marching across Europe for miles and miles under the heat of the sun. Salt pork, eaten alongside buccellatum on military treks, was one of the only safe preparations of meat for the road before the advent of the icebox.
But the recipe that I have picked out also, unexpectedly, includes a step reminiscent of modern food preservation.
There’s a handful of salad-like dishes in the ancient Roman cookbook Apicius that go by the name sala cattabia. This name appears in several different forms – salacaccabia among them – and it’s thought to come from the Greek ἁλακακκάβια (halakakkábia). The first element means “salt” – hals in Greek. The second element is the name for a type of cooking dish, which arrived to Latin as the word caccabus.
These recipes don’t have all the same components – some are made with brains or rose petals – but they do include salt, or salty ingredients in typical Roman fashion. Here is one version of this ancient salad dish:
Aliter sala cattabia: panem Alexandrinum excavabis, in posca macerabis. adicies in mortarium piper, mel, mentam, alium, coriandrum viridem, caseum bubulum sale conditum, aquam, oleum. insuper nivem et inferes.
Another sala cattabia: hollow out a loaf of Alexandrian bread, soften in posca. Add pepper, honey, mint, garlic, green coriander, salted cow’s cheese, water, and oil to a mortar. Pour over snow and serve.
Before eating this salad, the cook is instructed to cool it over snow! Refrigeration is universal nowadays, but chilled food and drink were great luxuries for ancient diners. Ice and snow had to be harvested from a nearby mountain range – the Apennines being the closest to Rome – then transported down into the city without melting.
The emperor Nero, a figure not exactly known for his moderation, was particularly fond of drinking water chilled with ice – a choice that, to most Romans, would have been incredibly redundant. Nero was such a fan of cold water, the biographer Suetonius writes, that as the emperor was awaiting his death, he poured himself a glass of it and humbly remarked “haec est Neronis decocta” (“this is Nero’s decoction”).
For average citizens, chilled refreshments were out of the question. And even for well-to-do Romans, snow was not cheap. Pliny the Younger, the nephew of naturalist Pliny the Elder, held a number of posts in the imperial administration, most notably a magistracy under the emperor Trajan. He was, in other words, a successful name in Roman society.
On one occasion, Pliny the Younger held a cena and among his dinner guests he invited a man named Septicius Clarus. For whatever reason, Clarus decided not to show up, and he didn’t give his host any notice.
Pliny was incensed that Clarus skipped his dinner. He dashed off an angry letter ordering that his absent guest owed Pliny for the food that went cold. Among the things he would be paying for, Pliny wrote, the most expensive would be the snow that was used to chill one of his courses.
In the same luxurious vein, the ingredients in our sala cattabia recipe aren’t run-of-the-mill. For native Romans, or those citizens living in Italy, cheese was most often made from sheep or goat milk. Cow’s milk cheese, then, seems to be something of a delicacy. And the bread that our recipe calls for is not of any ordinary sort – instead, we’re told to use “Alexandrian bread.” What exactly is that supposed to be?
After some archive sleuthing, I was able to find a short hint. Matthaeus Silvaticus, an Italian writer and botanist active in the 14th century, said the following about this type of bread:
Panis Alexandrinus, vel rubicundus, i. recoctus et rubescens, vel biscoctus.
Alexandrian bread, or reddish, in other words recooked and reddening, or twice-cooked.
This last word in the Latin quote above, biscoctus, is a combination of two elements: bis (“twice”) and coctus (“cooked”). Ultimately, after passing through French, this word became “biscuit” to us. In this case, maybe the Alexandrian bread of Apicius is flat and starchy. But I’m inclined to think otherwise: in medieval Latin, the phase of the language in which Silvaticus was writing, it seems that biscoctus also referred generally to a loaf of bread (possibly ones that were cooked twice, like biscuits or hardtack).
In reference to the twice-cooked nature of the bread, it may be helpful to use a tougher loaf of bread – or even one that is a bit stale – as it will hold up much better after soaking in posca.
With these things in mind, here’s my adaptation of Apicius‘ recipe for sala cattabia:
Cut a loaf of tough or slightly stale bread in half, and pluck out the insides. Pour these crumbs into a bowl of posca, taking care to wet all of the crumbs well. Let this sit for just under half an hour. In a mortar, add the cilantro, mint, garlic, pepper, honey, oil, and water, and pound into a coarse paste. Dice the cheese and mix with the softened breadcrumbs. In a new bowl, pour in a thin layer of snow or shaved ice, then the bread and cheese, and top with the dressing.
Some of the other sala cattabia recipes could be described as salmagundi – a mixed dish of meat, vegetables, and seasoning – while some are closer to panzanella, especially if the bread is stale. This dish, to me at least, is hard to classify – is it a paste? A pudding? Or is it a puree?