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Food and Diet in Roman Britain

The Romans were responsible for importing many new crops and animals into Britain for their own consumption. They brought over pheasants, peacocks, guinea fowl and, according to some authors, fallow deer. Oliver Rackham (in The History of the Countryside) argues that fallow deer were unlikely to have been introduced by the Romans. He says that although the Romans kept fallow deer in parks in Italy the deer bones found in England from this period cannot be conclusively identified as fallow, and the evidence points to the Normans introducing this species. It is possible that the Roman did introduce fallow deer but that they died out in Britain during the Anglo-Saxon period and were later re-introduced by the Normans. The pheasant is another species which is thought to have died out after the Romans only to be re-introduced by the Normans, as it is not mentioned by any Anglo-Saxon writers.

The Romans did contribute to the increased popularity of many herbs and seasonings used in cooking. These included parsley, borage, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, mint, thyme, garlic, leek, onion, shallot, rosemary, sage, savory, sweet marjoram and radish, all of which are still very much a feature of modern cooking.

The Romans also imported dates, almonds, olives and olive oil, wine, pine cones and kernels, fermented fish sauce (liquamen or garum), pepper, ginger and cinnamon, none of which was known in Britain at that time.

Roman dining was an elaborate affair with many weird and wonderful courses, ranging from milk-fattened snails to wild boar stuffed with live birds, which would fly out of the stomach when it was cut open. A Roman banquet would consist of several rich and filling courses. Roman ate whilst reclining on couches as they believed this position aided digestion and improved their ability to converse with one another. Much of the food served would have been eaten with the fingers, and so it was important to always have a napkin to hand.

Shellfish and seafood were a highly prized part of the Roman diet, and oysters were especially important. The Romans found that many of the coastal areas of Britain had excellent supplies of oysters - those from Colchester in Essex even became famous in Rome. At one excavation at Silchester in Hampshire over one million oyster shells were found in one deposit. Sea fish was also popular and from this the Romans made the fish stock known as liquamen or garum, which was made by baking the fishes' entrails (guts) in salt and then boiling them down to produce a sauce. This was stored for two months before use.

Snails were considered a delicacy by the Romans; they would be kept in jars and fed on wheat and milk until they were too fat to get back in their shells. At this point they were fried in oil and served with liquamen mixed with wine. The Romans also kept dormice in jars, and they too would be fattened up before being stuffed with minced meat and cooked. The dormice that the Romans ate were not the small breed that are found nesting in British cornfields today. The Roman dormouse was a much larger breed called the fat or edible dormouse (Latin name glis glis). This breed of dormouse can still be found in England, in one very small area of the Home Counties, not because they have survived since Roman times but because a wealthy collector imported some in the late 19th or early 20th century, and they escaped. They like to live in the attics of houses, and sometimes chew through electric cables with predictable results. They are expanding their range extremely slowly and will probably never get much beyond their existing area, unless someone releases more in another part of the country.

Farming practices in Britain also changes after the arrival of the Romans, as they were the first to enclose areas to be used as game parks for red, roe and fallow deer. Some of the larger villas also had hare gardens attached so that there was a plentiful supply of them for the dinner table. The Romans also ate plenty of wildfowl and built columbaria to keep pigeons in. These were tall, narrow towers with openings for the birds to nest in, very much like the medieval and post-medieval dovecotes which are still a part of the landscape today.

British cattle had been exported to the continent before the Romans arrived here. Beef was a popular meat, even being supplied to the Roman garrison as their meat ration. From bone evidence we can determine that there were several different breeds of cattle being reared in Britain in the Roman period. Cattle were extremely useful as they provided milk, butter, cheese, horn, hides and glue (from boiling the bones), as well as being used for traction (pulling ploughs and carts). Pigs were plentiful in Roman Britain, especially in the south and east. Lard made from pig fat was also part of the Roman soldiers' daily ration, and suckling pig was often eaten at Roman banquets. Hams could be kept for longer if they were salted or pickled in brine. The soldiers on Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall ate a lot of lamb and mutton, and goats were also kept, as much for their milk as their meat.

We know that the Romans in Britain produced their own cheeses as moulds and strainers have been found at many Romano-British sites across the country. We also know that various forms of wheat were cultivated in Britain, and cereal grains were used for making porridge and gruel as well as baking. Flour would have been ground mainly at home using a rotary hand quern, but there is also evidence that commercial bakeries existed, especially in the larger towns. The Romans appear to have produced a number of different varieties of bread.

The Romans were responsible for introducing many varieties of vegetable that we still use today, such as cabbage, onion, leek, shallots, carrots, endive, globe artichokes, cucumber, marrow, asparagus, parsnip, turnip, radish and celery. The most important fruit that they brought to Britain was the grape. Britain became the northernmost province of the Roman empire where grapes could be ripened, although they were mainly restricted to the south. The wine made in Britain was supplemented with wine imported from the empire's other provinces, and wine was the usual drink of Roman soldiers. The Romans also introduced orchard crops such as medlar, mulberry, damson, plum and cherry.

All the various ingredients imported or cultivated by the Romans resulted in a very much more elaborate and seasoned style of cooking than the simple meat and vegetable stews of the Iron Age. Many of the recipes that were a common part of Roman dining would have appeared quite unusual to the Celtic people, and even today in our age of gastronomic experimentation some of the traditional Roman dishes seem quite unappetising - anyone for stuffed dormouse?

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2004]