Monday, September 7, 2015

Herculaneum Found and Apicius’ Partridge in Berry Wine Sauce

John Martin’s Destruction of Pompeii, 1822 

It was August 79AD in a resort town called Herculaneum sitting on the left side of the Italian boot’s ankle (about 143 miles south of Rome –– that’s about a week’s journey by horse).

Bacchus with Agathodaemon and Vesuvius from the House of the Centenary, 2nd century BC

The town had been created in the shadow of the ancient volcano Vesuvius; a volcano that had been dormant for 800 years –– so long that the inhabitants of surrounding towns no longer considered it dangerous. Rather, it was thought of as generously benign since it was covered in lush and fertile soil –– a handsome detail in the landscape until the summer of 79. 
The Last Day of Pompeii, Karl Brullov, (1830-33)

The myth has always been that the city was taken unawares by the cataclysm. New evidence suggests this is not the case at least in Herculaneum – there were warnings. Pliny the Younger  (61-113 AD) who witnessed the disaster from across the Bay of Naples, reported that earthquakes had shaken the area with considerable force before the volcano erupted, causing many to flee. Many in Pompeii didn’t heed the warning earthquakes and doubled down on sacrifices to angry gods. The gods did not listen – they never do.

I.C. Dahl, Vesuvius (1826)

Contemporary accounts of the event described a pillar of ash that flew straight up into the sky, rising to 20 miles high. When it hit the tropopausePliny the Younger told the historian Tacitus  that the pillar’s top then spread out creating a stone pine tree shape at which point it lost cohesion and it began to rain debris and dust.

Some people escaped leaving their valuables behind, probably imagining they could return after the storm had passed. Tragically, others stayed too long with their valuables or thought they could pinch a few juicy items on their way out of town – big mistake.

The Moregine Silver Treasure – some of the cups would have been antique in 79AD

A hoard of silver, later known as the Morefine Treasure, was found in Herculaneum in a basket stashed in a public bath, perhaps stolen from vacant mansions by a foolish lingerer. The rich hoard did him no good, his roasted bones were found beside his treasure.

Some trusting inhabitants remained in Herculaneum only to be incinerated in the middle of baking bread or plastering a wall but many did get away with their treasures. There weren’t as many bodies as there were in Pompeii. Aside from the warning earthquake, the other reason for this is what fell on the two cities and when.

Vesuvius from Portici, Joseph Wright of Derby (1774-6)

Pompeii was destroyed by rocks and superheated blasts –– Herculaneum got a warning shot in the form of a dusting of harmless ash before the destructive pyroclastic surges.

Herculaneum, although closer to the volcano, was fortunate in that way –– the super-heated pyroclastic flow actually gently covered the city so that the wood is preserved –– charred of course but still recognizable as tables, doors and screens –– all buried under 60 feet of hardened ash (also why most of the city has yet to be uncovered).

Wooden screen (behind protective glass)

Even delicate screens have survived in the airless world for nearly 2000 years. Unfortunately opening it up has started the disintegration clock ticking again.

Let's not forget color.  Rome loved color, especially those heavenly reds.  Sometimes spare and elegant, other times lush and richly figured.  Art was everywhere even in middle-class houses.

Even marble statues were gently colored making them far more human and less cold than we imagined.

The streets were not drab either.

Artist’s rendering of ancient Roman city, Pompeii De Agostini Picture Library/Scala, Florence

Herculaneum was a prosperous Roman resort town with businesses and private houses on pleasant main streets that had covered sidewalks (without carts or wagons allowed—perhaps to keep animal waste to a minimum?). 

Herculaneum bath, Deposit photo

There was a public water system with aqueducts from the mountains for fountains, drinking and baths that were taken daily at public bathhouses. 

Public fountain encouraging hair washing!

There was even a sewer system so that streets did not flow with human waste as they did in Pompeii (although the Romans did wash their clothes with fermented urine/ammonia that was collected and taxed!).

Water was important in Herculaneum, it was a feature of upper-class dining rooms, often flowing into pools or into dancing fountains that would have been an elegant touch at a Roman dinner party –– baths were often located in rooms adjoining the dining room so you could warm up or cool off after a large meal perhaps?

Closeup of the Neptune and Amphitrite mosaic

The most famous dining room of Herculaneum, the dining room of Neptune and Amphitrite is missing many pieces of sculpture and reliefs that had originally been there because it was one of the first areas to be excavated in the 18th century and was plundered under orders of the King of Naples. You can only imagine how splendid it must have been when it was new.

Dining was done pretty much lying down. Romans did not sit at a table to eat, some people sort of half-sit on one arm, or are prone leaning on one arm or lie on their stomachs, propped up on both arms on giant pillows.  I would imagine it would get terribly uncomfortable in a short time.

The dining room was known as a trinclinium, usually with 3 couches around a table. Larger houses had multiple dining rooms for large or intimate dinners that usually had a bath nearby.  The smaller dining room was called triclinium minus.  What they ate is will surprise you.  Because Herculaneum was protected for nearly 2000 years, some of their food was preserved, most famously their bread.

Still Life of bread and figs from Pompeii
Carbonized loaf from Herculaneum 

Herculanum had many bakeries (there were 30 bakeries in Pompeii). Dozens of carbonized loaves still exist (80 loaves still in a single baker’s oven). The bread was cut into 8 slices (the ring around the loaf may have been a string baked with the bread to make it easier to carry the loaf). The bread was made from mostly Enmer wheat but could have been spelt or millet or a combination (all of these grains have been found at the bakeries). Wheat bread seems to have been the likely choice for bread as the area was famous for its wheat.

There were classes of bread. The rich ate ’white’ bread without much bran that was ground twice and well sifted, the poorer classes ate pane puero and pane cibarium that was full of bran but hard on the teeth. Inhabitants had bad teeth not just from crunching the bran but also from bits of the millstone that had broken off into the flour. It was not sifted as well as the rich folks bread flour would have been. The same was true in England up through the 19th century. Only now is whole wheat really better for you and not dangerous to eat!

Bread stall in Pompeii

Bakeries didn't just bake the bread, they also ground the grain in some of the bakeries.

A wooden beam would go through the holes in the mill and animals or slaves would walk it around to grind the grain that was poured in the top

Clues to the composition of the local diet have been discovered though seeds and bones that remained inside or beside human remains but the discovery and subsequent investigation of the cities' sewage tunnels have led to a flood of new findings thanks to groundbreaking new techniques and old fashioned painstaking sifting and cataloguing. The diet of Herculaneum was varied and sophisticated with foods from all over the Empire passing through the citizen's digestive tracts.

Still Life of peaches from Pompeii

110 items have been discovered so far by sifting through the sewer's treasures at Herculanum. Egg shells, chicken and mutton bones, fish scales and bones from 46 different species of fish (like sea bream, anchovies, sardines, eels, sea bass, shark, sea urchin, scallops and ray), grapes, apples, pears, peaches, figs, cherries, pomegranates, walnuts, almonds and olives but no citrus. They also found coriander and fennel seeds even in poorer homes as well as black peppercorns that would have been for rich people. Since only 70 of more than 700 bags of sewer treasure have been sifted through, doubtless much more will be learned as more of the bags are opened.

Using a new technique of collagen testing on bones of the citizens, it has been discovered that the people, rich and poor, were nearly complete vegetarians or vegetarian/fish eaters – it seems very little meat was eaten (at least by the people who got stuck in Herculaneum – perhaps the meat eaters escaped?

Painting from Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, (Naples), showing a banquet

So, what might a sophisticated Roman in a resort town filled with a lavish array of produce, fish and avian delights want to share at their dinners? I went to Apicius (I’ve written about it HERE) to get a dish that would invoke the spirit of Herculaneum even though the recipes were written long after its destruction (it is believed Apicius was written over generations beginning around the 4th century AD). Something about partridge and berries sounded awfully good (especially when the partridge is D'Artagnan's Wild Scottish Red Partridge). I wish I could get myrtle berries but read that they taste of juniper and rosemary with a bit of pine so I thought I would add a bit of that to the mix. The sauce is just beautiful -- seriously beautiful. The gentle hint of Aftelier's pine essence gives a lyrical quality to the berries that I found magical.

[218] (in perdice is Latin for partridge)


Partridge with Berry Sauce from Apicius, serves 2

1 D'Artagnan Wild Scottish Partridge, cut into 3 pieces, bones removed from breast (reserve the back for stock)
1 T olive oil
1 T hazelnut oil
1/4 c stock (best if you can make game bird stock but chicken will do well)
2 T white wine vinegar
2 T White Wine
1 T heather honey
2 T raisins
1/4 t pepper
1/8 t celery seed
1 drop Aftelier juniper essence, or 3 crushed juniper berries
1 sprig rosemary
1/2 pint blueberries
Mint (a small sprig chopped with the top reserved for garnish)
Lovage or celery leaves (lovage tastes like celery on steroids- chop a tiny bit and use some for garnish)

Brine the partridge for an hour or so.  Remove from the brine and dry and then sauté in the oils, gently cook till medium (about the time the bird is softly browned).  Remove and tent, reserving the cooking juices.

Heat the stock, wine, vinegar, heather and honey with raisins and spices and the pine for a few minutes. Add the blueberries and cook gently for 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to come to room temperature. Pour the reserved juices into the mix.  If you are lucky enough to have myrtle berries, skip the rosemary, pine and juniper since the berries have those flavors naturally.  I have never worked with them so if they are not juicy enough, add additional liquids.


1 c water
1 bay leaf
2 smashed juniper berries
1 T salt
1 T sugar

Heat the ingredients for a few minutes in the water and then allow to cool.  

I will be off for the next month on making vintage murders.  Back in October!