Good day, coqui! Get out your lead-lined pots because today we’re going to live dangerously just like the Romans!….. Okay, I’m just kidding! Put the lead-lined pot down. Right now. But seriously, folks…. Anyone who’s ever cooked commercially, experimented in their home kitchens, or conjured up their own home-made recipes knows that the secret to a successful meal often lies in the sauce itself…. but what if that sauce was actually deadly? What if that condiment was so delicious that it was actually slowly killing all of us? In this article we’re going to explore the versatile, tangy and rich Roman condiment and preservative known as Defrutum. It is delicious and rewarding to make but has a history that is somewhat dangerous. Sounds perfect for us, doesn’t it?
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned about Romans in the kitchen thus far, it’s that they do not waste food; they use and consume everything that is edible from offal and stale bread to wheat bran and fish guts. If food could be made from it, the Romans would find a way. Another thing we know about the Romans is that they liked their wine. They were skilled winemakers and even had a use for the grape pulp and skins, known as grape must in the historical written record, so as to not waste this by-product of the wine-making process. One of the uses of grape must in the Roman kitchen was in the preparation of a grape must reduction, known as defrutum, which was used in the preservation of fruit and wine but was also used as a sauce and colourant for various meat dishes.
Defrutum is referenced many times in the historical written record: Celsus (On Medicine, II-30) claims that it can cause constipation; Plautus (Pseudolus, 740) writes about defrutum grouping it as an alcoholic beverage along with spiced and sweetened wines; and Pliny (Historia Naturalis, XIV-80) refers to it as a lower grade, or lesser reduction, of a coveted Roman grape syrup called sapa. I suppose we could assume that sapa to defrutum is what liquamen would be to garum. It is in the writings of Columella (De Re Rustica, XII, 19-21) that we see instructions on how to prepare defrutum and this is where things get really interesting. Columella gives us a very detailed account of how to prepare the grape must once they have been removed from the press during the wine-making process. He also tells us to prepare the boiling mixture in a lead-lined pot…. Hmm. Okay. I don’t know about you but I think I’ll leave that guideline out when I recreate Columella’s recipe for defrutum for this article. You see, I’ve only just finished watching AMC’s ‘The Terror’, a brilliantly produced series about the doomed Franklin Expedition in 1845, and I have no interest in seeing something like that happen in my own home. I don’t want to slowly go crazy, cannibalize my family, nor do I care to see The Tuunbaq in my pantry while I’m inspecting the integrity of my canned goods. Nope, nope, nope. I think I’ll take the safe route with this recipe, but we’ll come back to the subject of lead and defrutum later on in this article. For now, let’s get our lead-free pots out of the pantry and try our hands at making some defrutum. Here’s what you’re going to need:
The Mediterranean Triad – Grapes, Grains and Olives: Death by Defrutum
- 2 kg of sweet seedless wine or table grapes
- 25 grams of fresh fenugreek (methi) leaves or 1 tbsp of ground fenugreek
- One fennel bulb with stalks
- A grape press or a large mixing bowl
- One large pot
Columella (De Re Rustica, XII.19-21), in his writings about wine-making, addresses what to do with the leftover grape pulp and skins when he states that ‘care should also be taken so that the must, when it has been pressed out, may last well or at any rate keep until it is sold. We will then next set forth how this ought to be brought about and by what preservatives the process should be aided. Some people put the must in leaden vessels and by boiling reduce it by a quarter, others by a third. There is no doubt that anyone who boiled it down to one-half would be likely to make a better thick form of must and therefore more profitable for use, so much so that it can actually be used, instead of must boiled down to one-third, to preserve the must produced from old vineyards.’
He continues by writing that ‘the man in charge of this boiling should have ready prepared strainers made of rushes or broom, but the latter should be in a raw state, that is to say, not beaten with a hammer. He should also have bundles of fennel attached to the ends of sticks which he can let down right to the bottom of the vessels, so that he can stir up any dregs which have settled at the bottom and bring them up to the top; he should then clear away with the strainers any scum which remains on the surface, and he should go on doing this until the must seems cleared of all lees. Then he should add either some quinces, which he will remove when they are thoroughly boiled, or any other suitable scents which he likes, continuing nonetheless to stir the liquid from time to time with the fennel to prevent anything from sinking to the bottom which might perforate the leaden vessel. Next, when the vessel can stand a fiercer fire, that is, when the must, being partly boiled away, is in a state of internal seething, stems of trees and larger pieces of wood should be put underneath, without, however, actually touching the bottom; for unless this contact is avoided, the vessel itself will not infrequently be pierced, or, if this does not happen, the must will certainly be burnt, and having acquired a bitter taste will be rendered useless as a preservative. But, before the must is poured into the boiling-vessels, it will be well that those which are made of lead should be coated inside with good oil and be well rubbed, and that then the must should be put in. This prevents the boiled-down must from being burnt. Furthermore, boiled-down must, though carefully made, is, like wine, apt to go sour. This being so, let us be mindful to preserve our wine with boiled-down must of a year old, the soundness of which has been already tested; for the fruit which has been gathered in is corrupted by bad methods of preservation. The vessels themselves in which the thickened and boiled-down must is boiled should be of lead rather than of brass; for, in the boiling, brazen vessels throw off copper-rust and spoil the flavour of the preservative. The odours boiled with the must which are generally speaking suitable for wine are iris, fenugreek and sweet-rush (calamus); a pound of each of them ought to be put in the boiling-cauldron, which has received ninety amphorae of must, when it has just gone off the boil and has been cleared of scum. Then if the must is naturally thin, when it has been boiled down to a third of its original quantity, the fire must be removed from below it and the furnace immediately cooled with water; even if we have done this, the boiled-down must nevertheless sinks to a level lower than the third of the vessel. But, although this is some disadvantage, it is nevertheless beneficial; for the more the must is boiled down,—provided it be not burnt—the better and the thicker it becomes.’
Columella then concludes by writing that ‘must of the sweetest possible flavour will be boiled down to a third of its original volume and when boiled down, as I have said above, is called defrutum. When it has cooled down, it is transferred to vessels and put in store that use may be made of it after a year’.
Using Columella’s instructions from De Re Rustica, this is how I prepared by defrutum.
- First, let’s consider our measurements. We’re looking at 90 amphorae of grape must and 3 Roman pounds of spice or aromatics, as per Columella. An amphora, as a unit of measure for liquids, was approximately 26 litres of volume and a Roman pound was equivalent to approximately 330 grams. I reduced these volumes to something more manageable and used 2 kilograms of grapes, that equated to approximately 2 litres of must once smashed, and 1 tbsp of ground fenugreek to make my defrutum. If you have fresh fenugreek leaves, use a handful of these as they are likely what was used to flavour this defrutum rather than ground, dried fenugreek/fenugreek seed. You can also include iris or sweet-rush (calamus) if you have access to it.
- Secondly, we’ll also want to consider that the boiling mixture was stirred with fennel stalks acting as a ‘broom’ to keep the must from sticking to the bottom of the pot but the fennel would have flavoured the boiling must somewhat as well.
- To begin, place the 2 kilograms of grapes into a large bowl and pulverise them with your hands. If you happen to have a Roman grape press, you’ll want to use this! You’ll also want to invite the rest of us over so we can use it too. For now, though, your hands will do a good enough job for a low-volume batch.
- Once sufficiently smashed, place the grape must into a large pot and bring it to a boil. Note: I decided to use all of the liquid from the grapes as this is a small batch. If we were doing a batch as large as Columella’s we could stand to use must alone, and residual liquid from the pulp, to reduce down to a lesser amount of syrup. For a batch this small I kept the juice from my grapes in with the must to ensure that I had some residual liquid work with in addition to the mash. Once the mixture has reached a boil reduce to medium/medium-low and let it slowly reduce. Pay attention to the primary surface-line on the inside of the pot as this was your initial level. You’ll want to reduce the must to 1/3 of this level by the end of the process. Note that Pliny will call this ‘Sapa‘ (a reduction to 1/3 of the original amount) but Columella calls this ‘Defrutum‘. Pliny felt that defrutum should only be a 50% reduction.
- Add the fenugreek into the must as you are simmering and reducing the mixture.
- Stir with fennel periodically to make sure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pot or burn, as instructed by coquus
- Once you have reduced the mixture to 1/3 of its original volume, let the mixture stand and cool. You can refrigerate and use your defrutum with the must left in the mixture or you can choose to strain it and only keep the syrup. The thickness of the syrup will depend on the grapes that you used but it is still delicious and will work just beautifully as a condiment if it’s on the thinner side as well.
- If you choose to strain the mixture, do so when it’s on the warmer side and let the colander sit for a while so that all of the syrup is collected.
Columella’s instructions on how to prepare defrutum were written with the intention of informing the user of how to preserve additional must, or other fruit, with a reduction of grape must, which is a by-product of the wine-making process. He is, effectively, making a grape syrup and this syrup could in turn sweeten wine or preserve fruit for months and years to come much like we see canned fruit preserved in syrup in the modern era.
The end result for this batch of defrutum was a lovely, sweet, light syrup that was just as appetizing with the must left in it as it was on its own with the must strained out of it. The bold fenugreek and the hints of fennel give the syrup a mild, anise- and curry-like flavour which makes this variety of defrutum better suited as a sauce for meat or a dressing for vegetables. Columella does suggest that this flavour, in addition to iris and sweet-rush, is suitable for preserving wine but I cannot imagine preserving quinces or fruit with it. Preserving fruit or wine was not the only use for defrutum in Roman cookery and we can see this as we explore many of the Apician recipes. In ‘De Re Coquinaria’, we read that fowl, pork, veal, hare and lentils can all be flavoured, dressed and ‘coloured’ with defrutum.
Roman cooks used defrutum in many of their dishes, which is fantastic to consider as it’s incredibly delicious but it is also alarming when you consider that trusted writers like Columella informed Roman cooks and wine-makers to prepare the reduction in lead-lined pots instead of copper pots. It is not understood as to why this was a preference but it is suspected that it was either: an attempt to avoid a bitter taste that the copper gives off when heated with the acidic grape must; or it was in pursuit of an additional ‘sweetening’ process that occurred when the must was heated and reacted with the lead lining creating ‘lead acetate’, or ‘lead sugar’. This strange cooking preference on the part of the Romans has lead to some incredibly intriguing theories and debates in recent decades about the presence of lead in Roman cooking and the overall impact that it may have had on the Roman people (Jerome Nriagu, 1983; John Scarborough, 1984; H.A. Waldron, 1985). Romans were well aware that lead was dangerous and that men who worked in close proximity to it, or water than ran through lead pipes, could be negatively affected by its presence (Vitruvius, On Architecture, XIII.6). In addition to changes in personality, muscle pain, vomiting, weakness, and loss of memory, one of the other symptoms of lead poisoning is a metallic taste in the mouth. Patrick Faas (Around the Roman Table, p. 148) makes an interesting observation in consideration of this symptom when he commented on how strong many of the Roman flavourings were. This observation, regarding the bold flavours of Roman cooking, is one that I have had many times myself when cooking Roman recipes but we must always take into account that we are rarely working with indications of volume or measure so those ‘bold’ flavour choices are ours and ours alone when we determine how much asafoetida or garum to add into the mix, for example, not necessarily something resulting from deficient or malfunctioning taste buds. I suppose we’ll never know how bad lead-poisoning affected the Roman people but it must have had some degree of impact on them. If this were the case, however, you would expect to have seen this topic covered more thoroughly in the written record, particularly if it was the elite and literate classes who were preparing defrutum, consuming it, and writing about it’s preparation. Details of lead poisoning are not as prominent in the Roman written record as you would expect it to be if it was, in fact, responsible for the decline of the Empire. Then again, if it was a prominent illness among slaves or the working Plebeian class, would it have been written about at all?
In the weeks to come, we will explore more recipes using grape must as well as additional recipes using the three key ingredients in Roman cookery: The Mediterranean Triad.
Bene sapiat and good eating to you!
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