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How to eat like an Etruscan did (2,000 years ago)

How to eat like an Etruscan did (2,000 years ago)

What did Italian cuisine taste like in the ages before its most popular ingredients arrived? John Hooper tries out some gastronomic archaeology

What did Italian cuisine taste like in the ages before its most popular ingredients arrived? John Hooper tries out some gastronomic archaeology

John Hooper | November 14th 2019

On a balmy, starlit night more than 40 people are seated at a table that runs the length of the inner courtyard of Castello di Potentino, a medieval castle in southern Tuscany. Through openings in the wall you can glimpse the slopes of Monte Amiata. The mountain was sacred to the Etruscans, whose civilisation flourished in this area from around 900BC until they were absorbed into the Roman Empire almost 900 years later. Tonight the diners are here to eat like Etruscans, enjoying a candlelit banquet of delicacies – the result of nine hours’ work from a team of five cooks, and months of research by a Canadian archaeologist, Farrell Monaco. We are here to taste the past, in the form of heaped dishes that were first created more than 2,000 years ago.

Rich red sauces, gnocchi, pasta and pizza are now enjoyed the world over. Yet the cuisine we label “Italian” today is most often that of southern Italy, where the majority of early Italian emigrants originated. And much of what we think of as traditional Italian food is, in fact, quite recent.

The most ubiquitous ingredient – the tomato – was a relatively late import to the country and it took some time to be adopted. There is some evidence that lasagne dates back to Roman times, but there is no record of long pasta before the Middle Ages. Some Italians claim that Marco Polo brought the idea for spaghetti, fettuccine and other noodle-like pastas from China in the 13th century. It is more likely that it was Arabs who first imported dried pasta, however, after they conquered and occupied Sicily in the ninth century. An account from that time describes the making of a food made from dried strips of dough, known as itriyya.

Modern Italian cooking is a colourful affair, with red, white, yellow and green (or some combination of the four) jostling for attention on the plate; course follows course. Monaco’s feast was served to the diners on the same plate and the dominant colour of the meal was beige, as it would have been in Etruscan times. At the castle, the offerings included chickpeas with cumin, fennel and defrutum, a light fruit syrup; seasoned fish with asparagus; rough-ground pork sausages smoked in hay and goat’s-cheese cakes flavoured with honey and lavender. Overall, the flavours are more redolent of contemporary Middle Eastern cooking than of today’s Italian fare.

Frustratingly little is known about the origins of the Etruscans whose homeland included today’s southern Tuscany, western Umbria and much of Lazio, the region around Rome. Our knowledge of what the Etruscans ate is as much from what we see in what they left behind – pictures of banquets in paintings on the walls of Etruscan burial chambers – as from any other source. Monaco has used some imagination to recreate the meal and assumed that, since the Etruscans were influenced by the Romans in many other ways, they would have adopted some of their food too. So, along with known Etruscan delights, her banquets include grape-must cakes, made to a recipe from “De Agri Cultura”, written by Cato the Elder, a Roman soldier and historian, in around 160BC. These are made from grape seeds and skin left over after the fruit was pressed for wine and mixed with wholewheat flour, along with ricotta, cumin and anise. The resulting cakes, which look like miniature bread rolls, are a delicious combination of sweet and savoury; they are chewy with a crisp crust thanks to crystallisation that takes place during baking.

The most recognisable element of the ancient meal in front of us is the mensa, a flat disk of dough that covers each plate and looks much like a pizza. The mensa was not meant to be eaten by the diner, however. Instead, it was there to absorb the juices from the meal – afterwards it was given to the slaves who had prepared and served the food, or even to the dogs.

Until quite recently, archaeologists mostly thought about the hardware involved in ancient food – the utensils people cooked with and the pots and beakers they ate and drank from – as well as the rituals surrounding a meal. Now there is a growing interest in what people actually consumed. Historical research into ancient diets can tell us about people’s historic tastes, lifestyle, wealth, health, class, gender and culture.

Scientific advances have helped. New techniques have been developed to detect and identify the ingredients used by our forebears. Chemists can separate out and analyse the tiny remaining particles of fat left beneath the surface of ancient pots. This allows them to distinguish between meat and vegetable fats, and even tell what type of animal the meat came from. Fish is harder to identify because it decomposes rapidly, but scientists can now determine what species people were eating from samples weighing only one-billionth of a gram.

Human excrement is another rich source of knowledge. One of the most exciting recent discoveries in food archaeology came in 2011 when ten tonnes of preserved shit was found in a cesspit at Herculaneum, a town south of Naples that was preserved, along with Pompeii, when Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. This showed that the town’s residents ate a diverse diet that included figs, fennel and sea urchin, as well as one of the staples of Italian cuisine today – olives.

The growing academic interest in gastronomic archaeology has been matched by a broader enthusiasm for recreating ancient dishes – which Monaco refers to as “edible archaeology”. The banquet at Castello di Potentino is just one example of this newfound appetite. Many recipes that survived the centuries are being included in popular cookbooks. In 2009 two Italian scholars, Lara Comis and Corrado Re, used a recipe from the third century to make garum, a fermented fish sauce that became an important part of the Roman diet after Rome came into contact with the Greek world, and soon spread across Europe and northern Africa. Drawing on a list of ingredients written out in the third century, the scholars made a version of garum that required them to leave containers of the stuff “for seven days in the sun”, and then stir it daily for another three weeks. Surprisingly, fish intestines that have been left out to rot ended up tasting rather nice. Yet the resulting sauce bears more similarity to the fish sauce of Thai or Vietnamese food than it does to any modern-day Italian dish.

For most of the pasta sauces that we know today, the country had to await the tomato, which originated in Latin America and probably arrived in Europe only with the return of the Spanish conquistadors from Peru in the 16th century. Italians named it the “golden fruit or apple” – pomo d’oro (the modern version is pomodoro) – and for a while its main use was decorative. At the time, some Europeans thought that tomatoes were related to deadly nightshade, and were therefore poisonous. It was not until the late 17th or early 18th centuries that the tomato was slowly incorporated into Italian cuisine. The staples of today are unexpectedly recent interlopers. But, as our modern banquet shows, the ancient masterchefs knew how to make the most of their ingredients.