Tab Tries: Being Roman

LAURA GRAYLING goes to ancient Rome (i.e. Girton College, Cambridge) for an authentic Roman banquet courtesy of the university Classics’ society.

Classics food formal hall girton Roman Food Romans Sally Grainger The Herodoteans

Last Saturday night was full of new experiences for me. For one thing, it was my first time at Girton (I copped out and took the bus). It was also the closest I’ve ever come to time travel, as I had the chance to attend the Herodoteans’ (the University Classics Society) authentic Roman feast.

The meal was a bit of a one-off, as the menu was carefully put together by an expert in the field of ancient cooking, Sally Grainger, who consults institutions like the Getty Museum on the subject.

“Fear not – I’ve never poisoned anyone” was one of the first things she said when explaining the menu. Not the most reassuring beginning, but the ‘Roman’ honeyed wine we were served dulled my concerns. As canapés (or should I say, ‘ante cenam’), we were given prawns and crudités with black garum dip. I believe this was a fish sauce as the crux of the talk seemed to be how important it is in Roman cooking. A flautist played in the background to add to the ‘Roman’ ambiance, serenading us with pieces like The Entertainer (someone I was standing near commented, “I’m not sure Rome’s ever been so into Scott Joplin.”)

We were then led through Girton’s winding corridors (suitably reminiscent of a Roman catacomb) to Hall, where we were presented with a starter of ‘sala cattabia’ or chicken salad. This sounded safe enough until I discovered that this was far from just a chicken salad. Oh no, this salad had sweetbread in it too. For those of you who aren’t aware, sweetbread isn’t something you find in a cake shop, but is, in fact, pancreas. This was difficult to get over, particularly as my portion seemed disproportionately well endowed with it. Again we had a musical accompaniment which one Classics PhD student described as the ‘Roman pipey thing’ (a recorder).

The main course was more promising, described on the Latin menu as ‘Ofellas Londinienses’, i.e. pork belly – the Romans did love their high quality cuts of meat. It was beautifully seasoned and had a delicious honey glaze. It also had some really tasty accompaniments in the form of ‘Pastinacas Assas’ and ‘Holera Atheniensia’ (parsnip and sweet and sour cabbage).

Dessert was the highlight, though perhaps for less positive reasons. We were served an Athenian flat cheesecake made with lasagne-like layers of pastry, soft goat’s cheese and honey. However, we were then informed that cheesecake means ‘placenta’ in Latin. I had my reservations about a dessert involving goat’s cheese anyway, but when one of the people sitting near me announced that we were eating ‘cheesy placenta’, there was no going back.

All in all, it was a great evening, and though there were no togas and we didn’t eat lying down, it definitely felt like I was sampling something out of the ordinary. I am very happy to say I am not Roman and therefore don’t have to eat cheesy placenta and sweetbread on a regular basis. But it was an inspired idea and, given how hard it was to find college chefs willing to take on the idea of a Roman feast (hence the choice of Girton), it was definitely not to be missed.