A taste of Ancient Rome – A Saturnalia feast

As mentioned in a previous post (see here), I organised a small banquet at home on the occasion of the Saturnalia festival. I absolutely love ancient Roman food and for this banquet I tried a few more ancient recipes. Once again, everything was delicious!

My Saturnalia feast menu

For the appetizer (gustatio) I chose to bake Mustacei, must (grape juice) cakes from Cato The Elder’s De Agricultura. The recipe I used is taken from Mark Grant’s Roman Cookery as well as Sally Grainger’s The Classical Cookbook with some slight modifications. The recipe is slightly adapted using modern ingredients like yeast as the must of the Romans would have fermented. Sally Grainger believes that Cato’s cook experts would have expected the cakes to rise.

Mustacei recipe in Latin (from LacusCurtius):

Cato’s De Agricultura 121: Mustaceos sic facito. Farinae siligineae modium unum musto conspargito. Anesum, cuminum, adipis P. II, casei libram, et de virga lauri deradito, eodem addito, et ubi definxeris, lauri folia subtus addito, cum coques.


Moisten 1 modius of wheat flour with must; add anise, cumin, 2 pounds of lard, 1 pound of cheese, and the bark of a laurel twig. When you have made them into cakes, put bay leaves under them, and bake.

Ingredients: Mustacei (Must rolls), Cato, De Agricultura 121



Pour the grape juice into a pan and warm it to body temperature. Dissolve the yeast in the grape juice and leave to froth a few minutes. Grate the cheese. Put the flour into a missing bowl and stir in the ground cumin and aniseed. Add the grated cheese and lard/vegetable fat and work them into the flour until it has the consistency of bread crumbs. Pour on the grape juice and yeast mixture. Knead for 5 minutes until you have a supple dough and roll into a ball. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel. Now brush a baking tray with olive oil and position the bay leaves on it at 5 cm intervals. Flour a board. Place the ball of dough on the board and use a rolling pin to roll out the dough until it is 1 cm thick. A pastry cutter about 5 cm in diameter can be used to make the individual cakes. Place each cake on a bay leaf and bake them at 180°C for 30-40 minutes.

Mustacei (Must rolls), Cato, De Agricultura 121

Serve warm with a spoonful of date paste (Mark Grant recommends vegetable purée). 

Mustacei (Must rolls), Cato, De Agricultura 121
Mustacei (Must rolls), served with date paste and Mulsum

These sweet cakes should be accompanied with mulsum. Mulsum was a freshly made mixture of wine and honey with and a certain number of plants and spices (pepper, bay leaf, saffron) which was often served with the gustatio or before the meal as an aperitif. You can purchase mulsum online from the roman-shop site here.

Conditum Paradoxum and Mulsum

Because I love chicken, for the main course (primae mensae) I chose to cook pullum (chicken) with Apicius’ hazelnuts sauce Aliter Ius in Avibus (Another Sauce for Fowl) from De Re Coquinaria. As Sally Grainger says, this recipe has a modern Christmassy feel. I decided to accompany this dish with Cucurbitas more Alexandrino (Alexandrine Squash), again from Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria.

Aliter Ius in Avibus recipe in Latin (from LacusCurtius):

Apicius 6,5,2: Piper, petroselinum, ligusticum, mentam siccam, cneci flos, uino suffundis, adicies ponticam uel amygdala tosta, mel modicum, uino et aceto, liquamen temperabis. Oleum in pultarium super ius mittis, calefacies, ius agitabis apio uiridi et nepeta. Incaraxas et perfundis.

Translation: Pepper, lovage, parsley, dry mint, fennel blossoms moistened with wine; add roasted nuts from Pontus or almonds, a little honey, wine, vinegar, and broth to taste. Put oil in a pot, and heat and stir the sauce, adding green celery seed, cat-mint; carve the fowl and cover with the sauce.

Ingredients: Aliter Ius in Avibus



Roast the hazelnuts for 10 minutes in the oven at 180°C. Pound or process them to a fine crumb. Add them to a saucepan with all the other ingredients for the sauce and bring slowly to the boil. Place the chicken in a roasting pan and season with salt and pepper. Cut into the breast and leg and open the incisions before pouring the sauce over the bird. Roast in a pre-heated over at 200°C for about 1 1/2 hours. While cooking, repeatedly baste the bird to ensure that the skin is well covered in the nut mixture.

Aliter Ius in Avibus (Poultry with Hazelnuts Sauce)

Conditum paradoxum, a delicate red wine with an exquisite blend of spices and honey (similar to today’s mulled wine) was served to accompany this dish. I have said it before but Conditum paradoxum is a true delicacy! You can purchase Conditum paradoxum online from the roman-shop site here.

Conditum paradoxum – Ancient red wine from Apicius

The Cucurbitas more Alexandrino (Alexandrine Squash) recipe comes from Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria.

Cucurbitas more Alexandrino recipe in Latin (from LacusCurtius):

Apicius 3,4,3: Elixatas cucurbitas exprimis, sale asparges, in patina compones. Teres piper, cuminum, coriandri semen, mentam viridem, laseris radicem, suffundes acetum. Addicies cariotam, nucleum, teres melle, aceto, liquamine, defrito et oleo temperabis, et cucurbitas perfundes. Cum ferbuerint, piper asparges et inferes.

Translation: Press the water out of the boiled pumpkin, place in a baking dish, sprinkle with salt, ground pepper, cumin, coriander seed, green mint and a little laser root; season with vinegar. Now add date wine and pignolia nuts ground with honey, vinegar and broth, measure out condensed wine and oil, pour this over the pumpkin and finish in this liquor and serve, sprinkle with pepper before serving.

Ingredients: Cucurbitas more Alexandrino (Alexandrine Squash), Apicius, De Re Coquinaria 3,4,3



Cut the gourd, courgette or squash into chunks. Place these into a steamer and cook until done. Squeeze out the excess water. Transfer the remaining pulp to a saucepan. Whilst the squash is cooking, put the dried spices in a pestle and mortar and grind. Next add the mint and garlic, grinding to a smooth paste. Spoon this from the mortar and add to the cooked squash. Next add the dates, almonds and the honey. Finally add the oil and mix with the squash. Place the resulting mixture back on the heat and simmer gently for a few minutes for the flavours to combine. Serve immediately sprinkled with salt and black pepper.

Cucurbitas more Alexandrino (Alexandrine Squash), Apicius, De Re Coquinaria 3,4,3
Aliter Ius in Avibus (Poultry with Hazelnuts Sauce), & Cucurbitas more Alexandrino (Alexandrine Squash)

The different species of gourd available today in Europe are the ones imported from the New Worlds. The squash used by the Romans would have been the bitter gourd native to North Africa. The bitter gourd differs substantially in shape and bitterness.

For the Secondae Mensae (dessert), I chose to try Apicius’ Dulcia Piperata, a peppered honey cake topped with chopped hazelnuts.

Dulcia Piperata recipe in Latin:

Apicius 7,11,4: mittis mel, merum, passum, rutam. Eo mittis nucleos, nuces, alicam elixatam. Concisas nuces Avellanas tostas adicies et inferes.



Mix the flour in a bowl with the baking powder. Add the rosemary and the ground almonds to the bowl. In a measuring jug beat the two eggs, add the wine, grape juice, honey and mix well. Add enough milk to the jug to make the liquid up to 200 ml. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix well. Pour the mixture into a well greased 22cm round tin. Bake at 190ºC for about 30 minutes. When the cake is still warm, spread liquid honey over the top and sprinkle it with chopped hazelnuts.

Dulcia Piperata (Peppered Honey Cake), Apicius, De Re Coquinaria 7,11,4

If you are looking for some ancient eating inspiration why not give one of these recipes a go.

Bonum appetitionem!

Buy the cookbooks mentioned here:

Mark Grant, Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens /
Sally Grainger, The Classical Cookbook /
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