Ancient Italian Cooking

7 Wonders of Ancient Italian Cooking: From Garum to Almond Milk

What was ancient Italian cooking like?

It was characterized by the use of locally sourced ingredients, such as grains, legumes, and vegetables, with a heavy reliance on olive oil and simple preparation methods. Richly spiced and seasoned with herbs and alliums, the cuisine balanced complex flavors.

In this article, I discuss:

Key Takeaways

  • The Romans never used tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes in their cooking! Their cuisine relied on local grains, legumes, and vegetables, with garum, a fermented fish sauce, as a key seasoning.
  • In the Middle Ages, Italian feasts began with acidic foods to “open” the stomach and ended with spiced desserts to “close” it! This structured meal order ensured optimal digestion and enjoyment of flavors.
  • Pork fat was the go-to cooking fat in medieval Italy, while almond milk was a versatile substitute during fasting periods! These ingredients played crucial roles in both savory and sweet dishes.

The Cooking of the Romans

Roman cuisine
Indulge in the flavors of ancient Rome with a rich and hearty pasta dish where tradition meets taste.

Roman cuisine reflected the empire’s vast reach and the varied ingredients it could procure from different regions.

Wealthier citizens, in particular, had access to an impressive variety of foods, which allowed them to enjoy meals prepared in exotic and elaborate ways.

However, due to the lack of contact with the Americas, Romans were unaware of many ingredients now considered staples in Mediterranean cooking, such as tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes.

Ingredients and Techniques

Roman cooking was characterized by its distinctive slow-cooking methods. This culinary approach reflected a belief that art, including the art of cooking, should not be rushed.

Dishes were often complex, involving layered flavors and meticulous preparation to achieve their full splendor.

The Romans valued the gradual development of flavors, ensuring that each ingredient contributed to the overall taste profile of the dish.

Common Ingredients:

  • Grains and Pulses: Emmer wheat (farro), barley, and lentils were staples, often used to make porridge (puls) or bread.
  • Vegetables: Cabbage, leeks, garlic, and onions were frequently used, with many vegetables cultivated in household gardens.
  • Fruits: Figs, grapes, apples, and pomegranates were common, often dried or preserved for use in various dishes.
  • Meats and Fish: Pork, lamb, and fish were popular, with the wealthier classes enjoying game and exotic meats. Preservation methods included salting, smoking, and drying.
  • Dairy: Cheese and fermented dairy products were part of the diet, though milk was less commonly consumed.

Garum: The Essential Condiment

A notable and ubiquitous aspect of Roman cuisine was the use of garum, a fermented fish sauce that served as a staple seasoning.

Garum was made through enzymatic proteolysis, in which fish were mixed with salt and left to ferment for several months.

The result was a pungent and savory liquid rich in umami, which became an indispensable component of Roman cooking.

Roman Culinary Legacy

The legacy of Roman cuisine is evident in many aspects of modern Mediterranean cooking.

While the ingredients have evolved with the inclusion of New World staples, the fundamental principles of slow cooking, the layering of flavors, and the use of fermented condiments like garum have endured.

Contemporary Italian dishes, emphasizing fresh, high-quality ingredients and complex, well-developed flavors, owe much to these ancient culinary traditions.

Medieval Ingredients and Techniques

Medieval Ingredients
From fragrant spices to hearty grains, medieval ingredients were the heart of every noble feast.

In the Middle Ages, Italian cuisine was highly influenced by one’s social and economic status. The variety and quality of ingredients available to each group marked the disparity between the diets of the wealthy and the peasants.

While the wealthy had access to exotic foods from afar, such as sugar and pineapples, peasants relied heavily on local produce and simple preparations dictated by the seasons and the availability of resources.


Pork Fat: Pork fat was the primary cooking fat used during this period, celebrated in various forms, from fresh and salted pork belly to fatback and lard. Its versatility made it a staple in kitchens across all social strata.

It was used to cook and fry foods and enrich other meats by “larding” them with strips of fat.

During religious fasting periods, when consumption of meat and animal products was restricted, cooks turned to alternative fats like olive, nuts like walnuts, and poppy-seed oils.

Vegetarian Substitutes: Religious fasting periods also necessitated vegetarian substitutes for meat products.

Almond milk emerged as a remarkably versatile and non-perishable ingredient. This creamy, ivory-colored milk was used as a thickener, sauce base, or cooking liquid in savory and sweet dishes. Its mild flavor made it suitable for convalescents and gourmands alike.

Sweet and Sour Flavors: Medieval Italians had a distinct taste for balancing sweet and sour flavors.

Vinegar, verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes), or the juice of other unripe fruits and acidic leaves like sorrel often provided sourness.

Lemon, lime, Seville orange, and pomegranate juices were also famous for their subtle tartness.

On the other hand, sweetness comes from dried fruits such as raisins, dates, prunes, sweet wines, and grapes. Sugar, though a luxury item, was used sparingly, particularly in dishes that required a bright, aesthetically pleasing sweetness.

Spices and Aromatics: Spices were an essential part of medieval cooking, not only to enhance flavor but also for their preservative qualities.

Pepper and saffron were a favorite, adding color and aroma to dishes. Local herbs like parsley, marjoram, fennel, hyssop, mint, and basil were commonly used for those who couldn’t afford imported spices.

Garlic and onions, while often associated with peasant cooking, were also valued for their robust flavors and appeared frequently in more refined dishes.


Cooking Methods: The techniques used in medieval Italy for cooking varied, but slow cooking and the gradual development of flavors were common themes.

Meats were often boiled or stewed to maximize tenderness and flavor absorption. Roasting was reserved for special occasions and higher-quality cuts of meat.

Balancing Flavors: Medieval cooks were adept at balancing contrasting flavors. Dishes often combine sweet and sour elements to create a harmonious taste.

This balance was achieved by incorporating acidic ingredients like vinegar or citrus juice with sweet components such as dried fruits or honey.

Preservation: Given the lack of refrigeration, preservation techniques were crucial. Salting, smoking, and drying were standard methods to extend meats and fish’ shelf life.

Vegetables and fruits were also preserved through pickling and drying, ensuring a supply of essential nutrients throughout the year.

Typical Dishes

A typical medieval meal might begin with warm foods or acidic items to “open” the stomach, followed by meats with sauces and roasts, and concluding with dried fruits and spiced desserts to “close the stomach’s mouth.” An example of a lavish feast could include:

  • First Course: Ravioli or lasagna in broth.
  • Second Course: Boiled meat and rich game stews.
  • Third Course: Roast game birds.
  • Final Course: Torte and other savory meat pies, followed by dried fruits and aromatic spiced desserts.

The Order of a Medieval Meal

Medieval Meal
Feasting like royalty: Dive into the flavors of a Medieval Meal!

Medieval meals were meticulously structured to optimize digestion and flavor enjoyment.

The progression of courses was designed to prepare the stomach for digestion, enhance the dining experience, and ensure a balanced intake of various nutrients and tastes.

Opening the Stomach

Meals typically began with warm or acidic foods intended to “open” the stomach and stimulate appetite. These starter dishes included warm soups, broths, or foods flavored with vinegar and citrus juices.

The acidity and warmth helped awaken the digestive system and prepare it for the more substantial courses.

Main Courses

Following the initial course, the meal progressed to more substantial dishes, often featuring meats served with rich, savory sauces. This part of the meal included a variety of preparations such as boiled meats, hearty stews, and roasted game birds.

Each dish was crafted to maximize flavor and satisfaction, often incorporating a balance of sweet and sour elements to keep the palate engaged.

Roasts and Special Dishes

Roasts, considered the highlight of the meal, were served next. These dishes showcased the best cuts of meat, prepared with meticulous attention to detail.

The roasting process enhanced the meat’s natural flavors, creating a centerpiece for the meal that was visually impressive and intensely flavorful.

Closing the Stomach

The meal concluded with a selection of dried fruits and spiced desserts designed to “close the stomach’s mouth.”

These final courses aided digestion and provided a sweet end to the dining experience.

Cinnamon, ginger, and cloves were commonly used in desserts, reflecting the medieval fondness for aromatic and flavorful sweets.

A Typical Medieval Feast

An example of a lavish medieval feast might include the following courses:

  • First Course: Ravioli or lasagna in broth or a tangy salad to stimulate the appetite.
  • Second Course: Boiled meats and rich game stews with savory sauces.
  • Third Course: Roast game birds or other roasted meats, served with accompaniments.
  • Final Course: Torte and other savory meat pies, followed by dried fruits and aromatic spiced desserts.

This structured approach to meals ensured that diners experienced a harmonious flow of flavors and textures, each course serving a specific purpose in the overall dining experience.

The careful planning and balance of ingredients highlighted the culinary artistry of the time and provided a functional benefit to digestion and overall health.

Farro: The Ancient Grain

Farro: The Ancient Grain
Elevate your meals with farro, the ancient grain that adds a hearty, nutty flavor to any dish
Source: TheNYTimes

Farro (Triticum dicoccum), an ancient grain often confused with spelt (Triticum spelta), has been a dietary staple since the Romans and continued to be important through the Middle Ages.

Renowned for its nutty flavor and chewy texture, farro was a versatile ingredient in various dishes, from simple porridges known as puls to hearty soups and breads.

Historical Significance

Farro’s prominence in Roman times is well-documented. Roman soldiers needed to be issued rations of farro, which they cooked into thick soups with vegetables and, occasionally, small amounts of meat.

This nutritious grain provided the essential nutrients and energy needed for the demanding lives of soldiers.

Additionally, farro was speculated to have been used as a currency in the Roman Empire, highlighting its value and significance.

Culinary Uses

The Romans used farro in numerous ways. The grain was a key ingredient in puls, a kind of porridge that is the ancestor of modern polenta.

This porridge, often paired with chickpeas or other legumes, was a staple for many, especially the poorer citizens who relied on its filling and nutritious properties.

Farro was also ground into flour for bread-making. The poor used less refined farro flour, while the aristocracy enjoyed more refined white loaves.

Farro in the Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages, farro was a fundamental part of the diet. Its cultivation spread across the Mediterranean, with particular prominence in regions such as Umbria, Lazio, and Tuscany.

Medieval cooks appreciated farro for its taste and texture and its ability to grow in poor, high-altitude soils where other crops might fail.

Modern Revival

Today, farro is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, especially in its traditional growing regions.

It is celebrated for its health benefits, including high fiber content, vitamins, and minerals, along with its relatively low gluten content, making it a preferred choice for those with mild gluten sensitivities.

Modern chefs and home cooks alike value farro’s versatility. They use it as a substitute for rice in risottos or as a hearty base for salads and soups.

Culinary Applications

Farro’s adaptability in the kitchen is impressive. When making risotto, farro can be used instead of rice, offering a unique, pleasantly chewy texture.

For best results, farro should be rinsed and soaked in cold water overnight to ensure even cooking, which typically takes about 45 minutes.

It can also be used in Italian bread-making, often combined with wheat flour or eggs to compensate for its low gluten content.

Additionally, farro flour mixed with semolina creates excellent pasta.

Fish and Legumes

During times when meat was either scarce or forbidden, such as during religious fasting periods, Italians turned to legumes and fish as primary sources of nutrition.

Legumes, rich in protein and easily cultivated, became a staple in many people’s diets, while fish provided a versatile and flavorful alternative to meat.


Legumes like beans, lentils, and chickpeas were integral to the medieval Italian diet. They were valued for their nutritional content and ability to be stored for long periods, making them a reliable food source year-round.

Legumes were often used in soups and stews, providing a hearty and filling meal that could be enhanced with various herbs and spices.

Salted Fish

Salted fish such as tuna, anchovies, and sardines were expected due to their longevity and affordability.

These fish were preserved with salt, making them accessible and a staple in many households, especially those far from the coast.

Sicilians were mainly known for their expertise in catching and preserving tuna.

Cooking Methods

The techniques for cooking fish were relatively straightforward compared to meat. Fish was often fried in olive oil, bringing out its natural flavors and satisfying texture.

Smaller fish were typically fried or roasted, while larger fish were poached in aromatic broths. These broths were usually flavored with fresh herbs and a touch of acid, such as lemon or vinegar, to enhance the fish’s natural taste.

Flavorings and Accompaniments

Green herbs played a significant role in flavoring fish dishes. Parsley, mint, basil, and fennel were commonly used, providing a fresh and aromatic quality.

Acidic elements like the juice of lemons or tart oranges were classic accompaniments to fried fish, offering a bright contrast to the richness of the fried fish.

Herb-based green sauces were also famous, adding a tangy and herbal dimension.


The tradition of using legumes and fish in Italian cuisine has continued into modern times. Dishes such as pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans) and fish preparations remain beloved staples in Italian households.

The simplicity and versatility of these ingredients ensure their lasting presence in Italian culinary traditions.

Goat and Kid: From Ancient Times to Modern Kitchens

Goat meat has been a part of Mediterranean diets for thousands of years, deeply rooted in Italian culinary tradition. In Italy, goat and kid (young goat) are celebrated in various regional dishes that showcase their unique flavors and textures.

Historical Significance

Throughout history, goat meat has been a significant source of protein across the Mediterranean region.

Its adaptability to harsh climates and rugged terrains made it a practical choice for ancient peoples.

The culinary history of Italy reflects this, with numerous traditional recipes centered around goat meat.

Regional Dishes

One notable dish is capra stufata alla ligure from the Liguria region. This dish involves marinating goat meat in white wine, vinegar, olive oil, and herbs for two days, then braising it with tomatoes, garlic, and rosemary until tender.

While goat meat remains popular, Italians often prefer the more tender and delicate kid meat.

Kid meat, usually from goats slaughtered between three and five months of age, is lighter in color and flavor than adult goat meat. This preference is evident in festive dishes and regional specialties.

Festive Dishes

Capretto in Tortiera Pugliese is a beloved dish from the Apulia region. It features kid meat layered with tomatoes, potatoes, and onions, then baked with herbs and Pecorino cheese.

Another festive dish is Capretto con Cacio e Uova from Naples, where kid meat is cooked with peas in a rich cheese and egg sauce.

Modern Preferences

Today, goat and kid meat are still enjoyed in various parts of Italy, particularly in rural and traditional communities.

The meat is prized for its unique flavor and nutritional benefits. When purchasing goat or kid meat, looking for firm, fine-grained flesh with well-distributed white fat is essential.

Kid meat is typically lighter in color unless the animal has been grass-fed, which results in darker, more flavorful meat.

Cooking Methods

Goat and kid meat can be prepared in various ways. Tender cuts like roasts, steaks, or chops are best cooked to medium rare (145°F), medium (160°F), or well done (170°F).

Less tender cuts benefit from slow cooking methods like braising or stewing until the meat is tender and flavorful.

Nutritional Benefits

Goat meat is rich in protein, iron, and other essential nutrients while less fat than red meat. This makes it appealing for those seeking a healthy and nutritious protein source.

Spices and Seasonings

Medieval Italian cuisine was characterized by its rich and varied use of spices and seasonings, reflecting the influence of trade and the creativity of local cooks.

Spices like pepper and saffron were prized, while various herbs and alliums added depth and flavor to dishes.

Exotic Spices

  • Pepper: Black pepper was one of the most sought-after spices in medieval Italy. Imported from the East, it was used to add a sharp, pungent flavor to both savory and sweet dishes. Its high value made it a symbol of wealth and status, often used generously in affluent kitchens.
  • Saffron: Another highly valued spice, saffron was cherished for its distinctive golden color and unique aroma. It enhanced various dishes, from rice and pasta to meats and desserts. The labor-intensive process of harvesting saffron stigmas contributed to its high cost, making it a luxury ingredient.

Local Herbs

For those who could not afford exotic spices, local herbs offered flavorful and accessible alternatives. These herbs were commonly grown in kitchen gardens and used fresh or dried.

  • Parsley: Versatile and widely available, parsley was used to add a fresh, slightly peppery flavor to soups, stews, and sauces.
  • Marjoram: Known for its sweet, piney taste, marjoram was a popular herb in medieval Italian cooking, often used in meat dishes and sauces.
  • Fennel: Both the fronds and seeds of fennel were used in cooking. The fronds added a mild, anise-like flavor to salads and soups, while the seeds were used to season sausages and baked goods.
  • Basil: Integral to Italian cuisine, basil added a fragrant, sweet note to a variety of dishes, including sauces and salads.


Garlic and onions, though sometimes associated with peasant food due to their robust flavors and widespread availability, were staples across all social classes.

  • Garlic: Its intense flavor and health benefits made garlic a common ingredient in medieval Italian cooking. It was used to season meats, vegetables, and sauces, contributing to the rich and hearty flavors of the cuisine.
  • Onions: Onions were essential in many recipes, providing a sweet, savory base for soups, stews, and braised dishes. They were valued for their versatility and ability to enhance the flavors of other ingredients.
Adams Brian
Adams Brian

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