From De Re Coquinaria I.III.4-5, 1st century
It is well known that the Romans flavored wines using a variety of ingredients, from honey and resin to salt and spices. (For a tasty example, see my previous blog post about Conditum.) But they also used flowers! This relatively unknown practice made for wines that not only smelled beautiful, but also had beautiful sounding names – like the rose-infused Rosatum and the violet-infused Violatium.
Despite being some of the easiest recipes that you’ll find in the De Re Coquinaria, Rosatum and Violatium are unpopular among today’s culinary adventurers. But don’t worry, these wines aren’t ignored because of some eccentric ingredient the Romans went nuts for, such as sterile sow’s womb, peacock tongue, or brains. Instead the reason is more practical: the key ingredient of these recipes is time. You need at least 3 weeks to reach a satisfactory result.
You’d think the process would have become faster over the past 2000 years, thanks so some new technological advancement. But these recipes show us just how little infusing techniques have changed. Apicius describes exactly the same technique that is still used today. Let’s hear it from the master chef himself:
(4)“Make rose wine in this manner: Rose petals, the lower white part removed, sewed into a linen bag and immersed in wine for seven days. Thereupon add a sack of new petals and allow to draw for another seven days. Again remove the old petals and replace them by fresh ones for another week; then strain the wine through the colander. Then strain the wine through the colander. Before serving, add honey sweetening to taste. Take care that only the best petals free from dew be used for soaking.”
(5) “In a similar way as above like the rose wine, violet wine is made of fresh violets and tempered with honey, as directed.”
Note that our chef doesn’t provide any measurements. This might seem unusual and frustrating to us moderns, but this practice was totally common throughout history. The reason is quite straightforward: cookbooks used to be the playground of professional chefs, who were not hampered by instructions that appeared vague or obscure to the untrained eye. It wasn’t until the 19th century that cookbooks began to include measurement systems. At that time, cookbooks were becoming more readily available to the masses, many of whom needed specific guidance. This tension, which remains a fundamental problem for the interpretation of historical recipes, reminds me of an anecdote from my own childhood.
When I first became interested in cooking as an early teenager, I eagerly asked my mother how to make crêpes. I was disappointed by the vagueness of her reply. “Oh, crêpes are super easy!” she said, “Simply mix together these ingredients and add milk until you reach the right texture.” But what’s the right texture?!
Slowly I learned how to feel rather than follow instructions. So long as those instructions were provided by someone whose culture I shared, I could piece together what they meant. But recipes of ancient cooks like Apicius still leave me with a sense of childish helplessness. The years that I’ve spent studying Classics helped bridge the gap somewhat: they gave me a taste of Apicius’ culture, a shared vocabulary with which to better feel what he’s saying, but it’s not enough. I’m still a child of the 20th century. Without a Roman chef guiding me through the process, I will never know exactly how many flowers Apicius wants me to pluck in order to create a perfect Roman Rosatum.
I can, however, give you a personal recommendation: if you intend on diluting the wine like the Romans did, I’d go a little heavier on the rose petals and violets. But if you intend to drink the wine pure, like me – which is the barbarian way – then go lighter. You want your wine to feel balanced.
I suggest the following ingredients:
- 1 bottle of dry white wine
- 15-30g / 0.5-1 oz rose petals, preferably fresh (use about 5-10g per infusion)
- 15-30 g / 0.5-1 oz violets preferably fresh (use 5-10g per infusion)
- Honey according to taste
Be mindful never to make infused wines with flowers from the florist because these are always treated with chemicals. I was lucky enough to have blooming rose bushes and violets in my garden, which are very aromatic. But you can also buy dried organic petals at a specialty store. If you feel tempted to use rose extract to speed up the process, don’t. Your wine will literally taste like soap – I hate to admit it, but I learned that the hard way.
Apicius suggests using a linen bag for the infusion, but you can also use cheesecloth. After adding the petal-filled bag to the wine, store it in a cool, dark place. After three weeks of replacing the old petals with fresh ones, add the honey. Next, taste it to determine whether it should sit some more. My wine tasted quite strongly of flowers, so I decided to let it age for several more weeks. You can even wait longer. After 6 months I tried it again and loved how the flavor had evolved.
The result was delightful! The wine tastes full, sweet and flowery and would work great as a digestif to soften your stomach after a long evening of feasting. Pour yourself and your guests a liqueur glass of Rosatum or Violatium, with some fruits and nuts on the side. The Roman in you will be satisfied.
Next week, we’ll take a break from history and focus on modern food photography. The reason? I got a piece of contemporary news: I accepted a job as in-house photographer for SPRIG, a start-up in San Francisco that makes it easy to eat well! I’ll drink to that!
Wilkons, J.M. & Hill S. (2006). Food In The Ancient World. Malden, USA: Blackwell Publishing.
Wilson, B. (2012). Consider The Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. New York: Basic Books.
 De Re Coquinaria VII.1.251 – Specifically the womb of spayed sows is mentioned.
 In Historiae Augustae (The Life of Elagabalus II, 20.5) the emperor Elagabalus (203/4-222 CE) is described eating peacock and nightingale tongues ‘in imitation of Apicius.’
 The Romans loved brains! De Re Coquinaria mentions brain pastes, puddings, ragouts and sausages.
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