Inspired by M’s contagious enthusiasm for all things Roman, I was tempted last night to try out a particularly tasty-sounding recipe from the Roman Cooking book that M had taken into school. I love lentils, I adore lemons, and coriander is one of my favourite herbs. How could a recipe entitled ‘Lentils with Lemon and Coriander’ be anything but delicious? At least it didn’t feature those peacock brains and stuffed dormice that M had talked about.
The cookery book in question is a collection of recipes for everyday Roman food by Mark Grant. According to the blurb, he taught classics for more than twenty years, translated numerous culinary works of the ancient world and worked also as a cook and catering manager. Encouragingly for us twenty-first century cooks, he adapts his translations of Roman recipes to use modern kitchen equipment, less time-consuming methods and readily-available ingredients. There’s none of that ‘These should be put in a jar with water and left in the sun for forty days‘ stuff – simply bring the ingredients to the boil and simmer for forty minutes.
Another refreshing feature of the book is that Grant has based its recipes on more than just the writings of Apicius (who seems to have had a peculiar penchant for tender larks’ tongues and roasted flamingoes). In fact, Grant goes so far as to state in his introduction that ‘none of the recipes in this book come from the pages of Apicius, something that has not been attempted before.’ Instead of sensational recipes for lavish banquets and extravagant feasts, Grant takes the theme of everyday Roman food as his starting point. This means that his recipes offer us a singular opportunity to eat the ordinary food of the Roman Empire and taste the simple dishes of the humble wine bars, fried-fish shops and backstreet restaurants of that time.
The lenticula recipe that caught my eye yesterday comes from a series of letters on food by a sixth-century Byzantine Greek named Anthimus. Whilst Anthimus conceived these letters as advice to the Frankish king on how to eat healthily (he was, after all, a physician), his observations about food are credited now as being both the first French cookery book and the last cookbook to come out of the Roman Empire. That’s quite a reputation to have gained from the odd bit of letter-writing.
After my trip to the small Tesco (okay, I confess – I do still shop there, even after my chicken rant) in Exeter High Street failed to produce any satisfactory lentils or red wine vinegar for the recipe I wanted to try out, I eventually found the missing ingredients I needed at Carluccios. Splashing out? Perhaps. But if you’re going to do a thing properly …
O and I both agreed that we will definitely, most certainly be keeping this recipe among our favourites. Although the mix of lentils, red wine vinegar and lemons isn’t necessarily the most obvious flavour combination, it really does work. It isn’t just quirky for the sake of being exotic or adventurous. It is tasty too – something which is quite rare for an historical cookbook.
Unfortunately though, it isn’t quite so photogenic as those roasted flamingoes might have been. But hey – how pretty can a plate of lentils ever look?
Smile and wave boys, smile and wave.
Lentils with Lemon and Coriander (adapted from a recipe by Mark Grant)
Boil the lentils in a pint of water (or more … ours needed extra) for about 20 to 30 minutes until tender.
Drain and rinse, then add the vinegar, lemon juice, lemon slice, olive oil, water and ground coriander.
Simmer gently for 20 minutes (with the lid on to start, then remove as necessary to reduce).
Chop the fresh coriander leaves finely (or rustically, as I did) and sprinkle them over the top of the lentils just before serving.