Apicius 9.6 Oysters with Dipping Sauce

In ostreis: piper ligusticum oui uitellum acetum liquamen oleum et uinium, si uolueris et mel addes.
Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger, Apicius, 292

For oysters: pepper, lovage, egg yolk, vinegar, liquamen, oil and wine. If you wish, add honey.
Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger, Apicius, 293.

Ingredients

1 dozen oysters, with shells

Sauce:

1 egg yolk 1 tsp fish sauce
approx. ½ cup olive oil 1 tsp white wine
2 tbs lovage leaves, finely chopped (see notes ½ tsp ground pepper
1 tsp wine vinegar

Method

  1. In a bowl with a narrow bottom and steep sides, add the egg yolk, the lovage, the pepper, and half the vinegar, fish sauce and wine. Whisk together.
  2. To make the sauce in the likely Roman fashion, use two thin sticks (such as chopsticks) to whisk the ingredients together. Add the oil, a little at a time, while continuing to whisk. It can help to have a second person adding the oil. Be careful not to add the oil too quickly, or the egg yolk will curdle. You can add the oil more quickly when around half has been added. When the desired amount has been made, add the rest of the vinegar, fish sauce and wine, adjusting the flavour as required.
  3. To make the sauce in a painless, modern fashion, use a stab mixer to whisk the mixture while slowly adding the oil. There is much less risk of curdling if using a stab mixer.
  4. Serve the sauce as a dipping sauce for the raw oysters, or spoon the sauce on the oysters in their shells.

Equipment required

Bowl with narrow bottom and steep sides
Chopsticks/Food processor/Stab Mixer

Notes

  • I used the stab mixer method to prepare this sauce. I have successfully made this sauce in the past with the chopsticks to see if it’s possible without a balloon whisk; however it is very hard on the arms.
  • Oysters were very popular in Rome. They were a key ingredient in Embractum Baianum, a seafood casserole that was a specialty of Baiae, an expensive, luxurious resort in the Bay of Naples. According to Pliny the Elder, it was one of the first seafoods to be farmed.
  • Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is a plant that appears frequently in Roman cooking. It has an extremely strong celery scent. Sally Grainger and Patrick Faas believe the seeds were used more frequently, as it is usually listed amongst the spices in Apicius. I feel either the leaves or the seed can be used, as they both have a similar taste, however the seed is probably more appropriate in a cooked dish. I used the leaves here. If lovage leaf or seed is unavailable, celery leaf or seed is a good substitute. I grew the lovage in my garden.
  • There are a number of similar recipes for sauces to serve with fish in Apicius. Apicius 9.3.2, for instance, is a sauce for stuffed squid which adds pepper, lovage, coriander, celery seed, honey, vinegar, fish sauce and wine to the egg yolks and oil. This recipe specifies to “thicken it.”
  • A lot of modern recipes for mayonnaise warn against using extra virgin olive oil for mayonnaise, as the strong taste can overpower the mayonnaise. As the Romans didn’t have an alternative, presumably they were used to the flavour. However, I have noticed the Roman mayonnaise type sauces have strong flavours added; the oyster sauce uses lovage, while the squid sauce uses lovage, coriander, celery seed and honey, not to mention the usual fish sauce. I wonder if this was to counteract the flavour of the olive oil.
  • I have found using a bowl with a narrow base and steep sides is much better for making mayonnaise type sauces, presumably because there is less room for the egg to spread out, allowing the oil to emulsify properly.

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