Peaches cooekd with honey, cumin and a drop of fish sauce was a typical Roman dish
Peaches cooekd with honey, cumin and a drop of fish sauce was a typical Roman dish

Eating like the Romans

Clemency Pleming

A project is holding a series of events to bring Roman food to the community.

The Food For Thought project, funded by the Communicating Ancient Greece and Rome (CAGR) in Oxford University’s Faculty of Classics which receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, explores the relationship between food, memory and identity.

In June 2014 the project organised a free Roman lunch held at Horatio's Garden, part of the Duke of Cornwall’s Spinal Unit at Salisbury District Hospital. The lunch included authentic Roman food, such as bread made from spelt, a type of wheat which was eaten widely in ancient times.

'It was very successful. More than 75 people came, including patients, their friends and parents,' said Dr Zena Kamash, who leads the project. 'We had posters about food in Roman Britain, and actual food remains for people to see: eggshells, seeds, and fishbones which have been preserved by burning or in waterlogged areas for thousands of years.'

More recently, year 8 and GCSE students at Cheney School attended a workshop held by Food For Thought and the East Oxford Community Classics Centre (EOCCC). The students handled and identified pieces of Roman pottery, including shards of a mortarium, a type of vessel lined with pieces of quartz to create a rough surface for grinding, like a modern mortar and pestle.

'We had a discussion about which foods were imported by the Romans. People are often surprised by the fact that the Romans introduced something as familiar as apples to Britain,' said Dr Kamash.

More workshops are due to take place this autumn, including a session as part of the Festival of Ancient Tales at the EOCCC, on 3rd October.

Finally, the project will work with the Corinium Museum in Cirencester on an exhibition taking place next summer, featuring artefacts loaned from the British Museum and a reconstructed Roman triclinium, or dining room.

'We'll aim to provide some context for the artefacts,' said Dr Kamash. 'We want to shed light on what was expensive or luxurious for the Romans as well as what was commonly eaten.

'We'll also include some information about what they didn't have at all: for instance, although we think of peppers and tomatoes as a major part of the Mediterranean diet, they come from South America originally and were completely unknown to the Romans.'

According to the researchers, it's important for us to understand food culture because the everyday practices of preparing, eating and sharing food are so important to the way communities work.

'A lot of us have very strong food memories from an early age,’ said Dr Kamash, ‘We often ask people working with us on the project what their favourite foods are, and what their earliest memories of food might be.

'It's something people often like to talk about, especially when you have a group of people from a variety of backgrounds, who may cook and eat very different things at home. We hope that by participating in our workshops, people will gain some new ways of thinking about the role of food and cooking in bringing their communities together.'

A Roman menu might involve…
•    Eggs, olives, fruit and bread
•    Roast lamb with coriander
•    Peaches cooked with honey, cumin and a drop of fish sauce
•    Spelt and honey cakes