This summer I had the privilege of working on the Pompeii Food & Drink Project (PFaDP) for its final field season. For those who are not familiar with the project, Dr. Betty-Jo Mayeske and a team of archaeologists and historians have been painstakingly working at Pompeii (Pompei, Italy) for 17 years recording any and all food- and drink-related features and structures for the purposes of compiling an extensive database for academic and public use. The project has been integral to preserving and recording food-related data at the site in the face of many long-term elements that continue to threaten the site’s sustainability and overall life-span.
Projects like PFaDP are never as cut-and-dry as they seem on paper. There are always surprises in store and, more often than not, something usually happens that lights a fire in your mind that affirms your passion and makes you want to delve even deeper into further exploration and research. Every single morning at Pompeii was like this for me. Working alongside Betty-Jo and the team was an absolute pleasure. Every day involved studying food- and drink-related insulae, thermopolia, houses and other features that were once bustling with people and adorned with furniture, objects and frescoes prior to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, …and it wasn’t always an easy task. During regular work hours, while trying our best to avoid tourist traffic and other intrusions, the PFaDP teams would work to meticulously measure, sketch, document and photograph each feature. Pompeii is a busy site from 9 am until 7 pm and, at times, it can be incredibly difficult to observe and record data among the tourist throngs and restoration works that are present in almost every region of the site. There’s a lot of noise and modern ‘interference’ that sometimes gets in the way of observing archaeological data which is why I often took a different approach when I started my work day: I got into the ancient town as early as possible each day so that I could gain some additional insight.
You see, to me, archaeology is complicated: It’s messy, it’s dirty, and it can also be convoluted and transitional. It’s anything but one-dimensional and explanatory. Archaeology is challenging, thought-provoking, and it’s also incredibly sensory. It’s about so much more than just objects and interpretation and Pompeii is a great site to remind any archaeologist of this valuable lesson. One of the most beautiful windows of time that I had while working at Pompeii was at the site in the early mornings, before the gates were open, when the only people walking those two-thousand-year-old streets were myself, a few structural engineers, and a pack of loveable stray dogs. The dogs would find me every morning and together we’d walk in silence through the streets of Pompeii listening, breathing, smelling the air, feeling the warm wind, smelling the wild-fires burning, hearing the tree-branches rustling and our foot-steps crushing the dirt on the cobbles, all under the quiet watchful eye of a looming volcano that is pretending to be asleep.
It was in these quiet moments, without the daily noise and interference, that Pompeii could whisper some of her secrets in peace. The Bakery of Popidius Priscus (VII.2.22) gave up the sounds and smells of a high-volume bakery: the aromas of fresh baked bread, sweat, wood-smoke and donkey-manure; the sounds of rotary quern-stones scraping against each other, workers moving wood, yelling at each other, bartering with customers while amphorae-ladened ox-carts clattered past the location on Via degli Augustali. The Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus (I.8.8) echoed voices fighting to be heard over each other as too many people crowded into the small establishment vying for a hot bowl of bean stew before the shop closed for the day. The Temple of the Genius Augustus (VII.9.2) gave up the sounds of men whispering, quiet unison chanting, cloven hooves clattering on marble towards the altars as the smells of sweat, laurel and freshly spilled bull’s blood filled the air. These structures, features, frescoes and mosaics were proving to be so much more than just visual objects; they were invitations to dig deeper and to use all of our senses to observe and interpret. These types of revelations are truly wonderful.
I find that whenever I join a project like the Pompeii Food & Drink Project, something else unexpected also happens: you meet people who are just like yourself. You meet YOUR people… and they come from far-flung places all over the world. They love the same topics that you do and they, too, want to stay up late and talk about Amphorae, Garum, Panis Quadratus, Elena Ferrante or Mary Beard… And then one day Alfredo comes to pick you up to take you out to meet another person who is cut of the same fabric…
“Dove andiamo stasera?” I ask Alfredo, “Where are we going?”
“We are going to taste Pompeii” he replies, and just like that… we were off to meet someone else who also likes to use all of his senses to explore the archaeology and history of Pompeii. His name is Nello Petrucci.
Nello found his way into culinary history through much of the same channels that I did: art, films, music, performance, travel, independent research and academic studies. In 2016 he channeled his years of experience in the arts, coupled with his undying love for his hometown of Pompei and its rich history, and he opened Caupona: the most beautiful restaurant that I have ever had the pleasure of dining in. Caupona isn’t just a restaurant, you see, it’s an experience and for a person like me it’s what I have been craving for years. Caupona marries history and food together and offers its customers something that they can add to their archaeological viewing experiences at Pompeii: the flavours and the original ambiance of the ancient city.
Like myself, Nello has spent a great deal of time researching ancient Roman foodways, ingredients, dining customs and food preparation practices in the Bay of Naples prior to the eruption of 79 AD. He has also painstakingly created a dining space and a menu at Caupona that mirrors all of this information that we’ve been provided through the documentary, archaeological records as well as through art.
When you first step inside the courtyard of Caupona, it is literally like walking over a threshold that then transports you over 1,938 years into the past. Modelled more after a Roman villa than a thermopolium or taberna, the peristylium is the first feature that takes you in. There are fig, lemon and olive trees filling the open courtyard and the aroma is intoxicating. Surrounding the courtyard are small covered cubicula used as dining areas for large or small parties. The back of the peristyle leads into a large covered dining tablinum-like area which is closer to the kitchen, which is located at the rear of the establishment. This is also the area in which you will be outfitted. Yes, that is correct. No detail is spared at Caupona; you can dress the part if you’d like to feel what it was like to dine like a Roman in Roman garb as well.
One of the most capturing aspects of Caupona is the wall décor. Petrucci and a few of his friends painted the walls to replicate exactly what you’d see inside Pompeiian thermopolia, or in some cases, on the outside of bakery walls. Graffiti, paintings of amphorae, gossip and propaganda; everything you would expect from a Pompeiian establishment!
The table settings at Caupona are stunning, despite the fact that they accommodate modern dining conventions rather than ancient ones. There are no triclinia at Caupona but Petrucci makes up for this by serving his menu items on imitation terra sigillata ceramic plates and bowls; the mulsum wine is even poured in imitation terra sigillata flagons. It’s easy to forgive the fork in front of you when the rest of the table is so impeccably laid out.
The piece de resistance is, of course, the menu. Petrucci offers a six-course ancient Pompeiian tasting menu that he created based on the recipes of Roman chef, Marcus Gavius Apicius. Now, most of us who have gone down the ‘Apicius rabbit-hole’ are aware of how difficult it is to pinpoint exactly how a certain recipe was prepared but with a bit of creativity, flare and care, most chefs and historians can usually interpret and produce something quite palatable and Petrucci has done just this. Caupona’s dishes are varied but feature flavours and ingredients strictly from the region that were in use 2,000 years ago.
From the documentary and archaeological records, we know that the following foods were present in Pompeian diets: naked grains such as wheat; hulled grains such as farro, barley and millet; pulses such as beans and lentils; fruit such as grapes, figs, pears, dates, apples, berries, pomegranates; vegetables such as olives, leeks, lovage, cabbages, leafy greens, chards and chicories; eggs; goat, sheep and cow cheeses; nuts and pine nuts; red meats such as pork, bull and goat; foul such as duck and geese; seafood such as fish and shellfish; wines and beers; spices such as salt, pepper, asafoetida, cumin; herbs such as coriander, mint, laurel, oregano, thyme; sweeteners such as honey, date and fig syrup; and condiments such as vinegar and garum. Lastly, we cannot overlook the insatiable appetite that ancient Romans had for dormice. Considered a nuisance to us now, this variety of rodent was once a delicacy to our Roman ancestors. Thankfully, Petrucci does not feature dormice on his menu.
The flavours that Caupona’s ancient menu blends together are fresh, bold and satisfying. The presentation of each course is absolutely beautiful to behold and influences from some of the many food still-life frescoes from Pompeii, that can be seen at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, are evident in some of Petrucci’s plating.
During our dessert course, Petrucci and I locked in to a long conversation about food history and why restaurants like his and passions like ours are important to the general public. History and archaeology ins’t just relegated to museums, academic publications and gated off excavation sites. History belongs to the people, to us, and it should be accessible in many ways. History is about us and it is there for all of us to discover, every day, and in a multitude of ways. Nello and I agreed that visually observing artefacts, text, art and architecture is one method of historical and archaeological interpretation. But there are many other sensory avenues with which to explore archaeology and taste is an important one, especially when you are interpreting food- and drink-related features and data. After all, food and drink says a great deal about people: their tastes reflect who they are, what they value, and what they have available to them. It also reflects who they want to be. And for a few moments, while dining at Caupona, dressed in Roman finery, we got to hear some of these ancient stories told through food. Altogether these dishes and the ambiance at Caupona told a story of a people, of a place, and of a time in history that was as beautiful as it was brutal; a time that was interrupted so abruptly and violently… and it was truly incredible to taste this history, these flavours of Pompeii.
If you’re planning a trip to Pompeii anytime soon, plan on making the experience complete by seeing the site by day and then tasting the flavours of Pompeii by night at Caupona. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time and an empty stomach to work through the menu. The restaurant can be located at: Via Masseria Curato, 80045 Pompei NA, Italy or online at http://caupona.it
Tasting Pompeii: Cassata di Pompeii
(Adapted from Apicius by Farrell Monaco for Tavola Mediterranea)
The following is a recipe that we developed at Tavola Mediterranea that is meant to continue the experience that Nello Petrucci has started at Caupona and to encourage readers, archaeologists, historians and home-chefs alike to engage all of their senses when exploring food history and food archaeology. This little bit of history is as delicious as it is beautiful to behold visually.
Based loosely on Apicius’ Tiropatina recipe, this Cassata (Flan or Cake) was designed to be as aesthetically pleasing as the Cassata di Oplontis from Villa Poppaea but uses a recipe that is simpler and more accessible. It features ingredients that were available to Pompeiians and were in frequent use during the height of the town’s occupation.
The flan requires chilling overnight so it is best to start this recipe the evening before you want to serve it. You’ll also require a ring or bundt mold that is approximately 9” in diameter by 4” in height (23 cm x 10 cm).
• 10 large eggs
• ¾ cup honey
• 1+1/2 cup diced/minced figs
• 2 tbsp diced mint
• 4 cups of cream
• Sprigs of mint and black pepper to garnish
Step 1. Using a mixer or a hand-whisk, beat all of the eggs until the mixture has thickened. Cover and set aside in the fridge.
Step 2. Dice the mint and figs by hand or in a food processor.
Step 3. Add the mint, figs and honey together with the cream in a large pot and bring the mixture to a low boil (med to med-high) whisking the entire time. Do not let it reach a complete boil, just let it start to bubble and thicken a bit. Leave the mixture to cool until it reaches room temperature or cooler.
Step 4. Preheat the oven to 325 F/165 C/Gas Mark 3.
Step 5. Fold the cooled cream, mint, honey and fig mixture in with the beaten eggs.
Step 6. Wipe the inside of your ring/bundt mold with a light coating of olive oil. This will allow the flan to fall out easily once it’s ready for serving!
Step 7. Place the mold inside of another baking dish filled with enough water to reach halfway up the ring mold. Pour the combined flan mixture into the mold and bake for 1.5 hours until the flan mixture has set and does not jiggle too much when you remove it from the oven.
Step 8. Place the baking dish with water and ring mold on the oven to cool to room temperature, then place it in the fridge (as it stands, water and all) to cool and set further overnight.
Step 9. Remove the chilled mold from the fridge and tip it gently over the serving dish or cake-tier that you will use to display and serve it on.
Step 10. Boil a kettle and lightly soak a series of tea-towels with some boiled water and wrap the outside of the mold with the hot towels. Do not let the towels get too wet, you don’t want hot water to drip on to the serving-dish surface. After a few hot towel applications, the flan will gently fall from the inside of the mold and onto the serving dish.
Step 11. Garnish with mint, flowers and serve.
Step 12. *Optional* step for the bold and adventurous among you: Try some fresh-cracked black pepper on top of the flan to taste a Pompeiian flavour combination that is unusual and very pleasant!
Cena bene! Good eating to you!
Did you try this recipe at home? If so, please feel free to leave questions, comments or suggestions below. You can also join the conversation and share photos on the Tavola Mediterranea Facebook page or Instagram page.