The Romans are renowned for having been great gourmets, but their services to horticulture are less widely celebrated. Their talent for farming successfully generated many new fruit and vegetable cultivars, which were developed using selective breeding. While maps of the Roman Empire are often seen as marking territory subject to its laws and, in some cases, occupied by its soldiers, the green-fingered imperialists also introduced a wealth of different fruit, vegetables, and herbs to their provinces north of the Alps. The list is long, and includes such supposedly quintessential English herbs as mint, as well as cherries and peaches. Among the vegetables, though, asparagus is surely their most famous import.
Asparagus plants grow wild in the Mediterranean area, and proved agreeable to the Ancient Greek palate. Dried asparagus was also used as a medicine. The famous Greek physician Hippocrates (c.460 BC-370 BC) recommended a tea made from dried asparagus as a diuretic, and another made from the plant’s roots as a remedy for toothache. Hippocrates also alludes to another of asparagus’ reputed properties: an aphrodisiac. Since no Greek sources refer to asparagus being farmed, wild plants were probably sufficient to sate their appetite for it. The same cannot be said of the Romans.
Cultivation of asparagus
The oldest description of asparagus cultivation can be found in the writings of the Roman polymath, M. Porcius Cato Censor (234-149 BC). This prominent military commander, historian, and politician also found time to turn his hand to gardening, and he published the treatise De agri cultura (‘On Farming’). Other asparagus tips can be found in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (1st century AD) and the agricultural works of Columella and Palladius (1st and 5th century AD, respectively).
The cultivation methods laid out by the Roman authors were geared towards mass-producing asparagus for the commercial market, which seems to have been highly lucrative. The methods they espoused stood the test of time, not changing significantly until well into the 19th century. According to Pliny the Elder, asparagus cultivated near Ravenna was especially bountiful, with three shoots weighing one Roman pound (or 327.45g). At first sight, this might seem like an exaggeration to rival the seemingly airbrushed battle statistics provided for some Roman victories, but modern asparagus shoots can weigh more than 100g. The quality of Ravenna’s asparagus is also invoked by the poet Martial (c.40-104 AD), who elected to preface a more affordable gift with the (perhaps optimistic) declaration: ‘The delicate stalks cultivated on the coast of Ravenna will not be more grateful to the palate than this wild asparagus.’
Three recipes for asparagus survive in Apicius’ cookbook De re coquinaraia – a 4th-century AD compendium for cooks in wealthy houses. Then as now, though, asparagus was probably usually enjoyed after being simply steamed or boiled, something for which a recipe was hardly necessary. One of Apicius’ recipes describes cooking dried asparagus, which had to be blanched – that is, immersed in boiling water – before use. The other two recipes are both for a patina, or soufflé-style dish, that would be baked in a flat earthenware receptacle in hot ashes from the fire. In the first, asparagus (probably boiled) is pounded in a mortar with fish sauce, oil, water, and pepper, before being thickened with eggs and baked. This dish is served sprinkled with pepper. The second patina (described in the box on p.40) involved baking songbirds coated with asparagus purée.
In addition to the written sources, various vestiges of Rome’s love affair with asparagus have survived. Aside from the possible Roman asparagus beds recently reported from Cambridge (see CA 290, and ‘Sherds’ p.46), asparagus crops up on still-life wall paintings found in Pompeii. These frescoes depict various delicacies from the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and were supposed to impress viewers, although whether the artistry bore any resemblance to what visitors found served on their plates is another matter.
Asparagus in the northern provinces
In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny also mentions a variety of asparagus being grown on the plains of the Roman province of Germania Superior (roughly equating to modern Switzerland, western France, and southern Germany), which needed less care than farmed asparagus, but was more tender than Mediterranean wild asparagus.
Further relics of the cultivation – and indeed the consumption of – asparagus in Rome’s northern provinces include two groups of exceptional artefacts. The first are 15 bronze knife-handles modelled on asparagus shoots (one is shown on p.38). These shoots are more mature than those harvested in modern Britain, but asparagus is still consumed this way in Italy. Analysis of the bronze side-shoots on the knife-handle suggests that they were cast in a mould. If so, it is likely that the remarkably life-like handle finish was achieved with the help of an actual asparagus shoot. For this purpose, the asparagus would be completely encased in clay (including some twigs to create a channel for the bronze) and then baked in the oven until the clay was hard and the asparagus and twigs had been reduced to ashes. Liquid metal could then be poured into the clay mould. After cooling, the mould was broken and the bronze shoot extracted.
A third of these handles were discovered in and around Trier, while the rest are all from other Germanic provinces. The quality of the craftsmanship makes it likely that they were produced for wealthy middle-class buyers, who presumably used them as ‘everyday knives’ for all sorts of purposes; it is unlikely that they were used exclusively to prepare or eat asparagus, as harvesting it is best done by simply breaking the stems off, and it is most convenient to eat asparagus with fingers. The unusual form of the handle probably had a certain social cachet, and they must have been a status-symbol of sorts, as well as an advert for their owner’s appreciation of asparagus.
Asparagus prices in Trier
Two price tags from Trier provide the only direct evidence for the price asparagus could command in the northern provinces. These rectangular sheets are inscribed with both a merchant’s name and ‘asparagus’, while a hole for string had been punched through them so that they could be bound to the produce. Both tags give a price of one denarius, which is far too high for a single asparagus bundle. Studying Diocletian’s price edict of AD 301, which factors in the huge inflation of the period and, among many other products, sets a price for cultivated and wild asparagus, suggests that one denarius would buy 10-12 bundles of asparagus. On the strength of this, the tags probably provide a wholesale price for a producer’s shipment. If so, they are a fitting testament to the taste that developed for asparagus in Rome’s northern provinces.
Recipe: Patina de asparagis frigida
For those wishing to get a taste of life under the Caesars, one of Apicius’ recipes is updated here. Chicken provides a substitute for the warblers – songbirds – used in the original. Likewise, Asian fish sauce is an excellent replacement for liquamen, which was used instead of salt in most Roman dishes. Instead of a blender, a slave would pound the ingredients to a smooth paste in a mortar. The fish sauce is readily available in Asian markets, while savory and lovage can be found in healthfood shops.
• 2 bundles green asparagus
• 1 small onion, diced
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 120ml white wine
• 2 tablespoons port or Marsala
• 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
• 4 tablespoons chopped coriander
• ½ teaspoon dried or 1 teaspoon fresh summer or winter savory
• ½ teaspoon dried or 1 teaspoon fresh lovage
• ½ teaspoon ground pepper
• 4 large eggs
• 4 chicken breasts or 8 chicken legs
Remove the woody ends of the asparagus, and cut the remainder into pieces. Cook for 5-8 minutes in salted water, until the thicker pieces are soft, then drain and cool. Fry the onion in the oil until translucent, and cool. Blend the asparagus, onion, wine, port or marsala, fish sauce, herbs, and spices to a smooth paste or purée. Cook the chicken breasts or legs in lightly salted, simmering water until almost done, and put into an oiled baking dish. Pour the purée over the meat. Bake in a preheated oven at 200°C for 20-25 minutes, checking regularly as you approach the end of the baking time. Ensure it is cooked through, and serve hot or cold sprinkled with pepper.