Monday, 25 April 2005

Ancient sweets

It is incorrectly assumed that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not know of the existence of sugar. The first reference to sugar is made by the Greek general Nearchus of Crete. He commmanded Alexander the Great's army in 327 B.C. and while he was in what is now known as the Punjab area, he came across sugar. Additionaly, Strabo, the Roman geographer describes "a reed in India [that] brings forth honey without the help of bees...". He also mentions sugar in solid form, describing it as "stones the colour of frankinsense, sweeter than figs or honey". The Greek naturalist and physician Dioscorides spoke of it as "...a kind of solidified honey, called saccharon [Greeks still call sugar sakharo or zahari] found in reeds in India and Arabia Felix, of a similar consistency to salt...". Indeed, it was thought that sugar was a type of salt and we see that even in Medieval times when it was sometimes referred to as "Indian Salt".

Despite the fact that the ancients were aware of sugar, they in fact preferred honey. Sugar was used occasionaly for medicinal reasons only. Roman sweets were called dulcia and were usually pastries made with honey. We can find detailed descriptions of these sweets in Apicius's cookbook, the only one of its kind from that era. Seneca alleges that Apicius had to commit suicide because he had spent all his money on food and the good life. Maybe it is difficult to see why when we read such recipies as dormouse pie. This pie consisted of meat from dormice which had been fed exclusively with figs, hence their flesh was considered to be a sweet. Amongst several such recipies, Apicius describes one in which a stuffed date is filled with nuts, pine kernels and pepper (a highly prized spice for the Romans), then rolled in salt and eventually fried in honey. Adventurous arcaeologists who have tried this say it is delicious. You can judge for yourselves...

Reference: "Sweets: A History of Temptation" by Tim Richardson, published by Bantam Books.

3 comments:

Light said...

The Romans ate some odd shit...between these treats, and their liking for fish sauce, they must've STUNK.

Alterior said...

At least they went to the baths every day...! :-)
The fish sauce was basically a fish pickle called garrum. I don't think I would like that either...too fishy!

Anonymous said...

romans ate all sotrts of rubbish...fishy