What the Romans did for us in the Kitchen by Chris Carr

Warboys Local History Society was treated to a talk, plus cooking lesson, from Cris Carr, on how the Romans influenced what we ate and how we ate it. Dressed as Briga, a Celtic housewife, her presentation was based on the preparation of Vittelian Beans, a flavoursome, uncooked pea-based meal. As she prepared the dish she outlined how the Romans changed our diet, what new food they introduced to Britain, and the kitchen equipment they used.

The Romans were great horticulturalists and many families had land on the outskirts of the cities, where they grew their crops. As the Roman Empire expanded they created sophisticated trading arrangements to export and import food from throughout Europe and beyond. Julius Caesar initiated trade with Britain, before later returning to conquer it. After the conquest the Romans introduced a variety of food which we recognise today, such as carrots, celery, pepper, parsnips and onions. Although the British tribes ate duck eggs, it was not until after the invasion that chickens were introduced, together with rabbits from Iberia. 

As Chris prepared the Vittelian Beans she showed how Roman cooking equipment and containers were designed for ease of handling in the preparation of food. Earthenware flasks and amphora contained ingredients and liquids such as wine, honey, fish sauce and olive oil, which complemented some of Briton’s traditional foods. In addition, sophisticated knives and tools were introduced for the preparation and eating of food, some of them objects originating from Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall.

Chris commented that if it flew, ran or swam, the Romans would try and eat it. However, culinary influence was not all one-way and over time the Romans enjoyed delicacies from beyond the Mediterranean. Produce from Britain was exported to Rome and resulted in upper-class Roman women becoming very fond of meeting up for cheese and beer, their equivalent of our cheese and wine parties. The Roman influence in our kitchen was sustained, in part, by inter-marriage and the Roman soldiers continuing to import their familiar Mediterranean food and drink, including kitchen pottery and equipment.

Finally we had the opportunity to sample the Vittelian Beans, a very tasty dish that surprised many of the tasters. Cris (or Briga) suggests that if you would like to try the recipe it can be found on her website at – brigaandfriends.co.uk

Roland Thacker

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