Saturday, 18 May 2013

Apicius and the Conditum Paradoxum

This is a recipe I normally fiddle with excessively. I just call it conditum paradoxum or psychic love wine and throw in whatever strikes my fancy. But this time a Roman Banquet demands that I follow the directions as scrupulously as possible, and yes it does measure in scruples! Nothing about it makes sense, honestly. Too much honey, an odd concatenation of flavors. Look in the pot, there's pepper, saffron, bay leaves and the flecks on top are mastic. So far so good. Golden hued. But then the directions get a little unclear. Do we throw in a lump of charcoal or filter through it?
 The charcoal does indeed remove the flecks of mastic magically. As well as the dates and toasted date pits. But it also makes that lovely golden color a strangely blackish yellow that looks like dirty dish water after cleaning a roasting pan of chicken. Is this what the author intended? More importantly can this be served to modern people, used to drinking limpid pellucid white wine? Maybe there's a reason Romans drank from black glazed pottery cups?

Then the taste. It IS very sweet. But the hints of pepper, smokiness of charcoal and resiny undertones actually work quite nicely. Maybe it will settle in a few hours. You definitely would not want to swill this stuff, but it makes a rather fetching dessert wine. Here's my literal translation:

Put 15 pounds of honey into a bronze vessel along with 4 cups of wine, so in cooking the honey and wine mix. On a small fire of dry twigs heat the vessel, stirring with a stick while it cooks. If it starts to boil, sprinkle in some wine, or remove from the fire so it settles. When it cools, heat again a second or third time, then it is finally removed from the fireplace. Skim it the day after, then add 4 ounces of crushed pepper, 3 scruples of mastic, a dram each of bay leaf and saffron, 5 toasted date pits, and the dates themselves softened in wine, the same kind used before, then ground up smooth. When all this is prepared, add in 14 bottles of fine wine, strain through charcoal.

(Two sextarii in the original text is about a liter or a little over 4 cups, a fourth more than in a standard US bottle. 36 cups is about 10.5 liters or 14 standard wine bottles. Since few people are likely to make this on such a massive scale, use roughly one jar of honey to start per bottle of wine added in the end. The mastic can be purchased in a Greek grocery store, it is a resin of the lentisk tree and should be ground up before using. The text says merely leaves, which may be bay leaves, which work very nicely. It is also not clear if the wine is filtered at the end or if charcoal is merely placed in, though the former seems more likely.)

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