Sunday, January 20, 2008

Seasoned Mushrooms a la Apicius

As I said before, I held a little housewarming for some friends. And lucky me, I forgot to tell everyone there would be food, so everyone had already eaten by the time they got there. And so I spent God knows how much money on food so that I would be stuck eating most of it. At least the beer and wine didn't go to waste.

One thing I like to make for parties is a recipe that wowed my friends in Riverside. Sadly, I cannot claim the credit for it. The real credit goes to an Italian guy who lived about 1,500 years ago. Caelius Apicius may have named himself after famous 1st century AD gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius* on purpose - those silly Romans! - and wrote down what many Classical scholars consider to be the world's earliest (or earliest-known) cookbook, De re coquinaria. I have found a few modern conversions and adaptations (mentioned below), and I have wanted to try so manyof them. It's especially weird to see a whole cookbook of Italian cooking with nary a tomato or pasta to be seen; at the time, those were still isolated respectively to Mexico and China.

One of my favorites is this one, seasoned mushroom stems, which uses olive oil, honey and garum - which exists only today in the very similar fish sauces of Southeast Asia - along with lovage as a seasoning for mushroom stems. The original recipe is as follows:

Boletos aliter: Tirsos eorum concisos in patellam novam perfundis, addito pipere, ligustico, modico melle; liquamine temperabis; oleum modice. (Apicius 315)
A translation from the original Latin by author Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa is in the book A Taste of Ancient Rome, translated from the Italian into English by Anna Herklotz (see for yourself on Google Books; scroll down to page 65). It goes as follows:
Another recipe for mushrooms: Put the chopped stems in a clean pan, add pepper, lovage, and a bit of honey; mix with garum; [add] a bit of oil. (Author's addition; Gozzini Giacosa, p. 65)
My own version of this, which I adapted from the wonderful Classical Cookbook and by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, is as follows: for each pound of mushrooms (I use portabellas, but criminis are fine too) use one cup each of honey, olive oil and fish sauce, plus a few sprigs of lovage (or if you can't find that, fresh celery leaves). Boil everything but the mushrooms and then throw in the mushrooms, and reduce the liquid by half.

After years of making it off the top of my head, I found that I was way off the actual recipe as converted into modern measurements by the authors. Again, Apicius gave no exact measurements so anything a modern chef or author could come up with would be an approximation. But Giacosa recommends for each pound of mushrooms: 2 T of olive oil to 1 T of fish sauce (garum) to 1/4 tsp of honey - that's more like a 2 to 1 to 1/12 correspondence. Add to that a handful of lovage for each pound of mushrooms. Also the recipe calls for mushroom stems, not entire mushrooms. I still like mine - they are wonderfully tangy, salty and a little sweet all at the same time. But I'll have to try the somewhat closer one at some point. It saves on olive oil, honey and fish sauce.

This is all you need to make this - 1/2 lb of mushrooms is quite easy enough. Again, use the leaves from the celery - just the leaves.


Gozzini Giacosa, Ilaria. A Taste of Ancient Rome, translation and adaptation of De re coquinaria by Caelius Apicius, translated from the Italian by Anna Herklotz (1992: University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL)

* pronounced "MAR-kus GAH-wee-us uh-PICK-ee-us"