The purpose of this post is twofold – firstly, to alleviate my guilt for not having published anything for over a month (in my defence, I have been away for most of it) & secondly, as a tribute to my time at the JACT Wells Latin School where I spent 2 weeks brushing up on my Latin and having lots of geeky Classics-related fun! The highlight of this time was meeting the marvelous Dr. Mark Grant, Classicist and food historian, whose writing has inspired my interest in food in the ancient world.
As well as giving a lecture, Dr. Grant also gave a Roman cookery class where each group was given a recipe from his book (right) for a dish that would feature in our Roman banquet. My group opted for Roman pesto, a ‘Herb Puree with Pine Kernels’ from Columella. Interestingly, the Romans did grow basil and it often features in ancient medicine, but it was believed to attract scorpions and considered difficult to digest because of its juices and was therefore not used in cooking.
The recipe is taken from page 98 of Roman Cookery, which I thoroughly recommend and encourage you to try out some Roman recipes from!
Mixtura cum Necleis Pineis
Chop into small pieces Gallic cheese, or any other well-known cheese you like. Pound it. Take pine kernels, if you have a lot of them, but if not, hazelnuts toasted after their shells have been removed, or almonds, and mix them in equal quantity with the seasonings detailed. Add a small amount of peppered vinegar and blend. Pour some olive oil over the mixture. If there are no green seasonings, pound dry pennyroyal or thyme or oregano or dry savoury with the cheese, and add peppered vinegar and olive oil. But, if the other herbs have no pungency, each of these herbs can be mixed when dry with cheese.
– Columella, On Agriculture
100g pine kernels or hazelnuts
80ml olive oil
80ml red wine vinegar
handful fresh parsley
handful fresh coriander
2/3 mint leaves
sprig of savory, rue & thyme
salt & pepper
- Put all the ingredients in a food-processor
- Purée until you have a smooth consistency and serve with bread *
- If you are using hazelnuts, roast them first under a hot grill for 5 mins to release their nuttiness, turning them frequently to avoid burning
* Mark Grant’s recipe describes this as a patê and recommends the mix is puréed, however, I preferred to blend it a little less so it more closely resembled pesto and I also reduced the quantity of olive oil and red wine vinegar by half for a thicker, more pesto-like consistency…because recipes are made to be tinkered with!
I am a big fan of pesto and therein, a big fan of garlic, so I did have my doubts about the taste of this and expected it to be much blander than a typical basil pesto. I was completely mistaken, however, as this had such a rich, nutty flavour and a real tanginess from the different herbs. It was served at our Roman banquet with thin strips of fried pasta (lagana, page 60 of Roman Cookery) which made for a delightful combination.
While this dish may represent the ancient origin of pesto, that should not rule out its use today, because it is quite simply too tasty not to make again and I fully intend to reintroduce Roman pesto!