Fresh seafood was quite the treat on the ancient dining table, so I was lucky to cook up a fish à la Apicius. Here, a brief history of fish and fishing in Rome, plus a recipe for a dressed sea bass you can whip up yourself.
A photo I snapped of the roasted sea bass on a plate, served with the vinaigrette over a bed of cilantro.
Rome’s foundation story is one of the land and pastures. Romulus and Remus were twin brothers, sons of Mars and Rhea Silvia (a priestess of Vesta), who were abandoned as babies on the bank of the Tiber River. Legend has it that Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf (lupa) until they were discovered by a shepherd named Faustulus.
The idyllic pastoral conception of Rome’s early history was traditionally revered — holidays like Parilia were dedicated to sheep and shepherds, an ode to Rome’s origin story. But the sea and the creatures lurking in its depths were sources of great intrigue (and food and economic opportunity), and fish became a focal element in the late republican and imperial diet.
As the power and purview of Roman civilization expanded — as lands around the Mediterranean Basin were conquered — Rome’s ability to access the sea became easier. However, fish frenzy was a Greek import.
Ancient Greek cuisine, much like that of early Rome, consisted mostly of bread or barley porridge. These grain staples were supplemented with relishes or sides called opson. The most desirable type of opson was fish, so opsophagos (“opson-eater”) was a disparaging name given to men who savored fish too much.
This seafood craze eventually caught on with the Romans. Although it was frowned upon, gluttony was an ultimate display of wealth and clout. Pliny the Elder notes the following about a politician, also a notorious gourmand, in the first century AD:
Asinius Celer, a man of consular rank, and remarkable for his prodigal expenditure on this fish, bought one at Rome, during the reign of Caligula, at the price of eight thousand sestertii.
Celer spent 8,000 sestertii on a single red mullet. In his day, the same amount of money could have purchased ten cows!
Since certain fish were ridiculously expensive, some enterprising Romans created fishponds to breed them on their own. Lucius Licinius Murena, a praetor during the late second century BC, was known as the first man to build one of these pools or piscinae. (Side note: his cognomen or surname, Murena, means “moray” in Latin, and comes from his obsession with fish!).
The piscinae were used for multiple types of fish: freshwater, fed by the aqueducts and cisterns of the city, or saltwater, built by walling off inlets near coastal villas.
Even with aquaculture, the market for marine seafood in Rome was alive and kicking. The ancient Roman condiment game was partly responsible — sauces made from salted fish were consumed by virtually every level of society.
Amphorae of garum and liquamen, especially expensive varieties like garum sociorum, stood on the tables of well-off diners. The salty dregs from garum production were used to make allec, used by poor Romans to flavor their porridges.
Whole fish were understandably more prized. It seems like fresh fish, especially marine ones, were eaten by the wealthy. Salted fish and second-rate fresh fish, with less sophisticated flavors and poorer quality meat, were likely eaten by the poor.
However, the poet Martial describes salted fish — anchovies — as making appearances on several classy dinner menus. And archaeological excavation of the sewer in Herculaneum’s Cardo V district has revealed all sorts of fish remains, even though many of the people living there weren’t elites. There weren’t clear-cut distinctions between what different classes ate, but it is clear that the Romans made good use of the fruits of the sea.
With what we’re able to glean about fish and aquaculture in ancient Roman cuisine, it should come as no surprise that we know a good bit about how cooks prepared their fishes. The cookbook Apicius, a fount of ancient recipes, is rich with fish dishes — it includes a whole book that consists entirely of recipes for sauces to go with fish!
I picked one of the sauces from this section, so the recipe we’re working with isn’t for the fish, but for the dressing. Here it is, taken from the tenth book of Apicius:
Ius in pisce asso: piper, ligusticum, thymum, coriandrum viridem, mel, acetum, liquamen, vinum, oleum, defritum. calefacies et agitabis rutae surculo et obligabis amulo.
Sauce for roasted fish: pepper, lovage, thyme, green coriander, honey, vinegar, liquamen, wine, oil, defrutum. Heat and stir with a sprig of rue and bind together with starch.
The sauce recipes from Apicius’s tenth book sometimes specify the type of fish they are meant to be served with: tuna, conger, mullet, or perch, for example. The rest, though, describe the cooking method used to prepare the fish. This section abounds with sauce recipes for boiled, fried, and poached fish, but we’re not told what species to cook.
I figured, then, that my options were open, except for the fish already singled out in other recipes — tuna, for example. The other fish mentioned in Apicius run the range of flavors and textures: conger, a type of eel, is said to taste like pork, while perch is much lighter and sweeter.
Roman fishermen would have operated entirely in the Mediterranean, so I had to pick a fish native to this area. I decided to go with a delicate fish of great renown even today, one that might’ve been caught in the nets of these ancient piscators.
Known as lavraki in Greek and branzino in Italian, the European or sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) is a modest fish that graces the coastal Mediterranean waters of southern Europe.
Its meat is mild, light, and buttery, a perfect blank canvas for a sauce. I fetched the fine specimen I cooked from the depths of the Ionian Sea. I wish…
But with the fish taken care of, I still had to figure out how to concoct the sauce. I noticed many of these sauces for fish in Apicius consist of similar ingredients. Vinegar, oil, wine, honey, and herbs are all common.
As I was trying to figure out how to prepare the sauce for this roasted bass, I decided to make a vinaigrette — the ingredients are the same. And since we haven’t been left with any measurements or proportions, that’s just what I decided to do.
Here’s my take on a sauce for roasted fish, served over sea bass:
1 medium sea bass, gutted and scaled with fins cut off
¼ tsp of peppercorns
⅛ tsp of celery seed
6-8 sprigs of thyme
5-6 sprigs of cilantro
2 tsp of honey
5 tbsp of red wine vinegar
2 tsp of liquamen
3 tbsp of white wine
¼ cup of olive oil, plus more for the fish
4 tsp of defrutum
1 tbsp of starch (wheat or, in a pinch, corn)
Salt and ground pepper to taste
Set the oven to 450ºF. Lay the fish on a shallow pan, and score several times on each side parallel to the gills. Rub a small amount of olive oil on both sides of the fish, letting it soak in. Drizzle more oil inside the fish, too.
Generously season the fish, inside and out, with salt and pepper, making sure to work it in evenly. Pull the cilantro leaves from the stems and stuff the stems into the fish, along with half of the thyme sprigs.
Transfer the bass to a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment and place in the oven. Leave the fish to cook for 15-20 minutes, until it starts to brown (this depends on the size of the fish, too).
In the meantime, mix the remaining oil, wine, vinegar, honey, liquamen, and defrutum in a small bowl. Add the peppercorns and celery seed to a mortar and grind to a fine powder, then stir this in with the liquid ingredients.
Mince the cilantro leaves, at this point removed from the stems. Pull the thyme leaves from the stalks (run fingers against the leaves) and mince these, too. Add both herbs to the sauce.
Pour the mixture into a saucepan, and stir slowly over low heat. With a spoon or measuring cup, draw off a tablespoon or two of the sauce and add to a small bowl. Slowly mix in about half a teaspoon of the starch to form a smooth slurry, then replace into the pot. Repeat this several times until the starch is gone.
Once the sauce has thickened, take the pan from the heat. Remove the fish from the oven and let cool for 10-15 minutes, then pull out the herbs from inside. Plate the fish, pour the sauce over (this recipe makes a fair amount of sauce — be warned), and enjoy!
Photos of the ingredients; the uncooked fish; the bass on a plate with the vinaigrette; and a piscina at Sperlonga (between Rome and Naples), part of the Villa of Tiberius.
I’ve hoped to cook up a whole fish for a while now. Since this blog is wanting in seafood recipes, this was the perfect chance. The sea bass dish didn’t disappoint! I think the bass was a great specimen — not too small but easy to work with — and it looks super.
It also tasted great. Sea bass meat is certainly buttery, something that was accentuated by the oil it was cooked with. The vinaigrette cut through this little bit of richness, but wasn’t any too strong. With so many ingredients, it was hard to make out individual flavors in the sauce but everything tasted good together. If you can’t tell, I’m super happy with how this dish turned out. Nuff said!
Like the roast pheasant I made this past fall, this dish feels like I’m getting at what ancient feasts would have been like — the sumptuous spirit of fancy food in ancient Rome. Fortunately, though, I didn’t have to blow all my savings on this tasty fish!