Review: Roman Feast

Florence Smith-Nicholls 4 March 2013

“Roman food, and particularly Apician Roman food, has a terrible reputation.” So writes Sally Grainger in her work Cooking Apicius in which she details her own adapted recipes from a second century Roman cookbook for the modern kitchen.

Sally, who designed the menu, proved to the ninety guests at the Herodoteans’ Roman Feast last Saturday that Roman food can be not only satisfying to the academic mind, but to the stomach as well.

Though we didn’t dine on couches in a triclinium, Girton College hall provided a feast for the eyes, a suitably grand setting for the main event. Precluding the feast, spiced honey wine and prawns with black garum (fish sauce) were served in the Fellows’ Rooms, which was humming with excited conversation anticipating the meal ahead. This warm atmosphere reflected the unexpected but satisfying flavours of the food on offer. In her first talk of the evening, Sally discussed the five “tastes” which can be identified, and how she aimed to include “umami,” a taste which is difficult to describe but is essentially a combination of sweet, sour, saltiness and bitterness, in all of the food she creates. As difficult as this sounds, the Roman feast can only be described as a culinary symphony of flavours.

We were served four courses in total, with the Mensae Primae (main course) of roasted belly pork being particularly popular. I found to my delight that the vegetarian option had not just been an after-thought: a ‘mushy’ peas mould with ginger, egg, wine and honey might not make you salivate when you see it on paper, but in actuality was refreshingly unusual in taste- I wish I could have had more!

The standard of the food in general was high not just in quality but originality. Sally Grainger herself was so impressed with the efforts of the Girton College chefs, that she instigated an ovation in which some people even took to their feet.

Suffice to say, the Roman Feast was by far the best formal meal I’ve had in my three years at Cambridge, and it is not likely to be paralleled again. From Sally Grainger’s insightful comments on the menu, to the recorder player who serenaded us while we banqueted, the attention to detail was impressive. A truly Classic event, if ever there was one.

Florence Smith-Nicholls