Apicius 8.6.10 – Parthian Lamb

hedum siue agnum Particum: mites in furnum; teres piper rutam cepam satureiam damascene enucleate laseris modicum uinum liquamen et oleum [uinum]. feruens colluitur in disco, ex aceto sumitur.
Apicius – De re coquinaria

Parthian kid or lamb:
Put it in the oven. Pound pepper, rue, onion, savory, stoned damsons, a little laser, wine, liquamen and oil. Pour lots of the boiling sauce over the meat on a serving dish. Eat it with some vinegar.

This text and translation are taken from Sally Grainger and Christopher Grocock’s Apicius (2006).

Sheep were common sacrificial animals, and were a common centrepiece for feasts. This recipe specifies lamb, which was a particularly expensive, luxurious choice, and only available in spring (Dalby, 2003, 300). The other option for the meat, kid, was also considered a delicacy, and would have been expensive, given goats were particularly prized for their milk. Slaughtering a young animal potentially meant forgoing years of production, hence the extra expense (Dalby, 2003, 160).

Ingredients

1 kg lamb roast 1 tbs costmary or feverfew 2 tbs savory 1/4 tsp asafoetida
125mL red wine 15mL fish sauce 50mL olive oil
100g stoned plums 1/2 tsp pepper 30mL wine vinegar

Method

  1. Put the lamb on a rack in a roasting tray, and rub with olive oil. Roast in a 180°C oven for approximately 40 minutes, or until the lamb reaches your preferred doneness.  Baste occasionally with the fat that is rendered from the lamb.
  2. Chop the onion and the costmary or feverfew finely. Strip the savory leaves from the stalks.
  3. Combine all the other ingredients except the vinegar in a mortar and pestle and pound to a smooth paste, or combine in a blender.
  4. Transfer the sauce to a saucepan, and bring to the boil over a gentle heat, stirring occasionally. Keep warm until the lamb is cooked, then return to the boil.
  5. Transfer the lamb to a serving dish, then pour the boiling sauce over the top.
  6. Just before serving, sprinkle the lamb and sauce with the vinegar.

Notes

  • The Parthian Empire was centred around north eastern Iran, and fought several wars with Rome before being conquered by the Persian Sassanids in 224AD. It was a major source of the spice asafoetida, which was used in place of Silphium. Dalby suggests the asafoetida was the source of the name “Parthian Lamb” (Dalby, 2003, 250).
  • Rue (Ruta graveolens) is a herb with a very bitter taste that was commonly used in Roman cooking. I have never used it in cooking, and never will, as it is mildly toxic and can give very bad blisters to people who are allergic, and can also induce abortions. I use feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) or costmary (Tanacetum balsamita, which also have quite bitter tastes, without being so dangerous. You will probably have to grow these yourself; if you can’t find them, use rocket or raddichio, though you will need more to get the same bitterness.
  • Savory (summer savory, Satureja hortensis, or winter savory, Satureja montana), as its name implies, has a powerful savory flavour. It is easy to grow and worth tracking down, but if you can’t find it, thyme is a reasonable substitute.
  • Liquamen is a fish sauce, probably thinner in texture than the better known garum. (Grainger, 2005).
  • Lasere, or silphium, was a spice that originated in north Africa and became extinct in the first century AD. After this, the Romans used asafoetida as a substitute. Asafoetida, when raw, has a powerful, unpleasant smell, and the flavour can overpower dishes. It can be found in Indian or Middle Eastern groceries, and is worth tracking down as there really is no substitute.

Parthian lamb closeup
This photo features lamb shanks. These are my go-to roasting cut, as they are easily portioned if cooking for just one or two people (an idea I have shamelessly nicked from Nigella Lawson). If using a more typical joint such as leg or shoulder, I recommend getting one already boned to make serving easier.

Further Reading

Click on the links below to order directly from The Book Depository.

Dalby, Andrew. Food in the Ancient World.
Grainger, Sally. “Towards an Authentic Roman Sauce.” 2005 Oxford Food Symposium
Grainger, Sally. Cooking Apicius.
Grocock, Christopher and Grainger, Sally. Apicius.

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