Museum stories
Cook a classical feast: nine recipes from ancient Greece and Rome

Food has been central to social life throughout human history. In the classical world it was part of occasions from religious rites to ostentatious parties. There is plenty of information available on what the ancient Greeks and Romans ate and drank – in written texts and in archaeological finds – which can help us bring their gastronomical creations to life in the 21st century.

Here we have compiled a few recipes from the ancient world, which you can recreate at home to make your own classical feast! These recipes are from The Classical Cookbook, by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, which uses Greek and Latin texts to create dishes from Homeric Greece to the Roman Empire.

Athenian stamnos (storage jar) showing men at a symposion. Greek. 450–440 BC.
Starters, sides and snacks
1) Cabbage the Athenian way (vg)
Bronze grater. Greek. 5th century BC.

‘Cabbage should be sliced with the sharpest possible iron blade, then washed, drained, and chopped with plenty of coriander and rue. Then sprinkle with honey vinegar and add just a little bit of silphium. Incidentally, you can eat this as a meze.’ – Mnesitheus, quoted in Oribasius, Medical Collections 4, 4, 1

This is a popular recipe among Greek and Roman writers. Oribasius (4th century AD), a well-known doctor of the late Roman Empire, borrowed it from a much older book of dietary advice by Mnesitheus, a medical writer from Athens who lived in the 4th century BC.

Doctors were interested in this dish because it was said to cure headaches and was good for stomach upsets. Pliny claimed if taken before a meal it prevented drunkenness, and if taken after drinking it could cure a hangover!

Whatever its medicinal value, Mnesitheus was quite right about cabbage in honey vinegar being delicious as a starter or side dish and it’s simple to make.

Substitute honey for maple syrup to make this recipe vegan.

Serves 6

Ingredients
• 1 small white cabbage
• 2 heaped tsp chopped fresh green coriander in oil
• 2 tsp chopped fresh or dried rue (you can use a bitter a bitter herb or spice such as fenugreek seed as a substitute)
• 2 pinches asafoetida powder (you can use garlic or onion powder as a substitute)
• Salt

Honey vinegar
• 120g honey
• 2 tbsp red wine vinegar

Method
First make the honey vinegar. Boil the honey and skim it, add the vinegar and reduce a little. Store until needed. Finely slice the cabbage, wash and drain it. Toss with the herbs and 3 tablespoons of honey vinegar and sprinkle with the asafoetida powder and a little salt.

2) Very garlicy garlic cheese (vg)
Terracotta figure of a mule carrying a mortarium (grinding bowl). Inside it are a pestle, a cheese-grater, a round cheese, and a bunch of garlic. Greek, around 350 BC.

‘First, lightly digging into the ground with his fingers, he pulls up four heads of garlic with their thick leaves; then he picks slim celery-tops and sturdy rue and the thin stems of trembling coriander… He splashes a grass-grown bulb with water and puts it to the hollow mortar. He seasons with grains of salt, and, after the salt, hard cheese is added; then he mixes in the herbs. With the pestle, his right hand works at the fiery garlic, then he crushes all alike in a mixture… So he sprinkles in some drops of Athena’s olive oil, and adds a little sharp vinegar, and again works his mixture together. Then at length he runs two fingers round the mortar, gathering the whole mixture into a ball, so as to produce the form and name of a finished moretum.’ – Moretum 88–120

This fiery moretum (garlic cheese) is not for the faint hearted! If we take the recipe at face value, it may include fifty cloves of garlic, a pretty potent mixture! But surprisingly good with a fresh warm loaf of bread and a few olives. This is a simple rustic meal, which ordinary farmers would likely have eaten.

The poem Moretum is sometimes attributed to Virgil, author of the Aeneid.
Greeks and Romans used a mortar for grinding and mixing sauces. In this case the farmer would have used a large, coarsely made bowl with a grainy texture that helped to break down the ingredients. If you have a food processor, the effort required to produce the dish is minimal. If, on the other hand, you have to (or want to!) grind by hand you will need a large pestle and mortar.

Serves 6

Ingredients
• 2 heads (20–25 cloves) garlic
• 225g Pecorino Romano cheese
• 1 large handful of coriander leaves
• 2 heaped teaspoons chopped fresh celery leaf
• 1 tsp salt
• 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
• 1 tbsp olive oil

Method
Peel and roughly chop the garlic. Grate the cheese. Roughly chop the herbs. If you are grinding by hand, start with the garlic and salt; break it down to a pulp, then add the cheese and herbs. When you have a smooth mixture add the liquids and mix well. If you are using a food processor, add all the solid ingredients and process until the mixture is smooth in texture, then add the liquids. Gather the mixture together and chill. Serve with a crusty loaf as a snack.

3) Olive Relish (ve)
Olive harvest in the countryside. Athenian black-figure amphora attributed to the Antimenes Painter. Greek, around 520 BC.

‘How to make green, black or mixed olive relish. Remove stones from green, black or mixed olives, then prepare as follows: chop them and add oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue, mint. Pot them: the oil should cover them. Ready to use.’ – Cato, On Agriculture 119

The recipe from Cato dates to about 200 BC, but olives provided relish and flavouring all through ancient times. The olive tree had been under cultivation in Greece for a thousand years, if not longer, when the Iliad and Odyssey were composed (around the 8th century BC). At classical Greek banquets olives were served in brine, and sometimes, no doubt, they were served as relishes like this.

Cato’s recipe uses cumin, but it can overpower the herbs, so it is listed as optional below. Fennel leaf will not be easy to find unless you grow it yourself, so the chopped root will serve as a substitute. To make life easier buy good quality pitted olives.

Serves 4

Ingredients
• 120g black olives
• 120g green olives
• 4 tbsp red wine vinegar
• 4 tbsp olive oil
• 1 heaped tsp chopped fennel leaf or finely diced fennel root
• 1/2 level tsp ground cumin (optional)
• 2 tsp chopped fresh coriander
• 2 tsp dried or chopped fresh rue (you can use a bitter a bitter herb or spice such as fenugreek seed as a substitute)
• 2 heaped tsp dried or 3 tsp chopped fresh mint

Method
Chop the olives roughly and pour on the vinegar and olive oil. Prepare the herbs, chopping them finely if fresh, and add to the mixture. Place the olive relish in a sealable container and pour a little olive oil over the top. At this stage it can be eaten, as Cato firmly says, but it does improve with a few days’ marinating. Try it with pitta bread, accompanied by a sharp sheep’s cheese such as feta.

Mains
4) Honey glazed prawns
Panel from a mosaic pavement showing baskets of fish and fruit. It may have decorated a dining-room. Roman (Carthage), 1st–2nd century AD.

This recipe is adapted from various ancient sources – a poem attributed to the Greek poet Philoxenus of Cythera talks about shrimps glazed with honey being served at a banquet, but it does not help in recreating the dish! Fish sauce (for its salt) and olive oil would undoubtedly have been among the ingredients, along with the honey. Oregano is suggested as the Greeks used it in seafood dishes.

Serves 2

Ingredients
• 225g large raw peeled prawns
• 1 tbsp olive oil
• 2 tbsp fish sauce
• 1 tbsp clear honey
• 2 tsp chopped fresh oregano
• Black pepper

Method
If using frozen prawns, ensure that they are well defrosted and drained. Place the oil, fish sauce and honey in a saucepan and add the prawns. Sauté them gently in the sauce for 2 or 3 minutes until they are tender. Remove with a perforated spoon and keep warm. Continue to cook the sauce until it has reduced by half. Add the chopped oregano and pour the sauce over the shrimps. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Serve as a first course with a crusty loaf of bread and a simple salad.

5) Roast lamb or kid
Red-figured stamnos (storage jar), showing meat being roasted on a spit over a fire as part of a sacrifice. Greek, 450–430 BC.

‘Marinated kid or lamb: 1 pint milk, 4 oz honey, 1 oz pepper, a little salt, a little asafoetida. For the sauce: 2 fl oz oil, 2 fl oz fish sauce, 2 fl oz honey, 8 crushed dates, half pint good wine, a little starch.’ – Apicius 8, 6, 7

This recipe is from Apicius, a Roman cookery book of different recipes thought to have been compiled in the 1st century AD. This recipe is one of the few in the book that gives quantities, which has led some to believe that this might in fact be an old ancient Greek recipe.
The recipe is particularly good with kid if you can find it but otherwise you can use lamb.

Serves 6

Ingredients
• Shoulder of kid or 1.25 kg leg of lamb
• Olive oil

Marinade
• 570ml milk
• 120g clear honey
• 1 tbsp pepper
• Salt
• 1/2 tsp asafoetida powder or 5 drops asafoetida tincture (you can use garlic or onion powder as a substitute)

Sauce
• 8 crushed fresh or dried dates
• 280ml red wine
• 4 tbsp olive oil
• 2 tbsp clear honey
• 4 tbsp fish sauce
• A little cornflour (corn starch)

Method
For best results, you’ll want to marinate the meat overnight. Combine the marinade ingredients and leave the meat overnight in the marinade, turning it occasionally to ensure full absorption. At the same time, soak the fresh or dried dates in a little red wine. The next day remove the meat from the marinade, pat it dry, and then roast it in an oven pre-heated to 200°C/gas mark 6, well-seasoned and with olive oil. The timing should be 20 minutes to each 1lb (450g) and 20 minutes in addition. When the meat is nearly ready, pound the dates to a pulp and add to the remaining red wine, honey, fish sauce and oil. Bring to the boil in a saucepan and cook out briefly and then thicken with cornflour (corn starch, you can mix with a little water to avoid lumps). When the joint is cooked, remove it from the oven and leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving thick slices and serving with a little of the sauce on the side.

6) Squash/marrow Alexandria style
Terracotta model of a basket containing various fruits (a pomegranate, an apple, a fig, an almond and a small marrow). Greek, around 450 BC.

‘Gourd Alexandrian fashion. Drain boiled gourd, season with salt, arrange in a dish. Crush pepper, cumin, coriander seed, fresh mint, asafoetida root. Moisten with vinegar. Add caryota date, pine kernel; crush. Blend with honey, vinegar, fish sauce, concentrated must and oil, and pour the whole over the gourd. When it has boiled, season with pepper and serve.’ – Apicius 4, 2, 14

This dish is the sort of simple dinner that Romans would likely have had in bars and restaurants where you could easily while away an evening. We have substituted the gourds that the Romans grew for marrow or squash.

Substitute the fish sauce for soy sauce to make this recipe vegetarian.

Serves 6

Ingredients
• 1 small young marrow or yellow squash
• Salt
• 4 fresh dates, soaked in a little wine
• 2 tbsp pine kernels, soaked in a little wine
• 2 level tsp ground cumin
• 2 level tsp ground coriander
• 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
• 2 tsp chopped fresh or 2 tsp dried mint
• 1/2 tsp asafoetida powder or 5 drops asafoetida tincture (you can use garlic or onion powder as a substitute)
• 2 tbsp honey
• 1 tbsp defrutum (reduced red grape juice) (you can use 2 tbsp of red wine as a substitute)
• 3 tbsp fish sauce
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• 3 tbsp red wine vinegar

Method
Slice the marrow or squash and boil until al dente (still firm). Arrange the slices in a baking dish and sprinkle with a little salt. You will need a pestle and mortar for the sauce. Remove the stones from the dates and put the flesh in the mortar with the pine kernels. Mash them down to a paste. Transfer to a bowl and add the cumin, coriander, pepper, mint and asafoetida and mix well. Scrape down the mash and add the honey, defrutum, oil, fish sauce and vinegar. Stir into a smooth emulsion and pour over the marrow or squash. Cover with a lid or foil and reheat thoroughly in a pre-heated oven at 180°C/gas mark 4. Serve sprinkled with freshly ground pepper.

Desserts
7) Pancakes with Honey and Sesame Seeds (vg)
Terracotta figure of a woman grinding grain. Greek, 5th century BC.

‘Let us find time to speak of other cakes, the ones made with wheat flour. Teganitai, as we call them, are made simply with oil. The oil is put in a frying-pan resting on a smokeless fire, and when it has heated, the wheat flour, mixed with plenty of water, is poured on. Rapidly, as it fries in the oil, it sets and thickens like fresh cheese setting in the baskets. And at this point the cooks turn it, putting the visible side under, next to the pan, and bringing the sufficiently fried side, which was underneath at first, up on to the top, and when the underneath is set they turn it again another two or maybe three times till they think it is all equally cooked. Some mix it with honey, and others again with sea-salt.’ – Galen, On the Properties of Foods 1, 3

It’s amazing how little food changes from one millennium to the next. When reading the Roman physician Galen’s description of making pancakes, it is hard to remember that he is writing 1,800 years ago! The early Greek poet Hipponax had written of pancakes ‘drugged with sesame seeds’. This was likely a breakfast meal and one that was possibly sold on the streets of ancient Athens from portable braziers. These pancakes are thicker than the crêpe-style pancakes familiar to us (more like a blini, or even thicker) and they are served with honey and toasted sesame seeds.

Substitute honey for maple or date syrup to make these vegan.

Serves 4

Ingredients
• 120g flour
• 225 ml water
• 2 tbsp clear honey
• Oil for frying
• 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds

Method
Mix the flour, water and one tablespoon of honey together into a batter. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a frying-pan and pour a quarter of the mixture in. When it has set, turn it two or three times to give an even colour. Cook three more pancakes in the same way. Serve all four pancakes hot with the remainder of the honey poured over and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

8) Cheesecake (vg)
Bronze baking-pan for cakes and bread-rolls. Roman, 1st century AD.

‘Libum to be made as follows: 2 lb cheese well crushed in a mortar; when it is well crushed, add in 1 lb bread-wheat flour or, if you want it to be lighter, just half a pound, to be mixed well with the cheese. Add one egg and mix all together well. Make a loaf of this, with leaves under it, and cook slowly in a hot fire under a brick.’ – Cato, On Agriculture 7

Libum means ‘cake’ in Latin. There were many types of Roman cakes from sacrificial cake, offered to household spirits, to farmhouse cake, served hot, and delicate honeyed cake that was served at the very end of an elaborate Roman dinner. The poet Ovid, writing of Roman religious festivals, tells us some tantalising details. He talks of a libum infused with clear honey – and he traces the origin of these cakes all the way back to mythology, and to the discovery of honey by the god Bacchus.

This recipe is inspired by Cato’s recipe but uses honey to make it sweet. You can make a savoury version without the honey by using a salted cheese, such as feta.

Serves 2

Ingredients
• 90g plain flour
• 250g ricotta cheese
• 1 egg
• 2 bay leaves
• 2 tbsp clear honey

Method
Grease a baking tray and place two large bay leaves in the centre. Beat the cheese until smooth, add the egg and beat again to incorporate it. Sieve the flour, and add two tablespoons to the cheese mixture one at a time, stirring gently and slowly between each addition until they are incorporated. Gather the remaining flour and sprinkle over the mixture and on to the hands before gathering up the soft dough and very gently forming it into a round ball. Do not knead or in any way attempt to blend all the flour fully into the mixture. Place the ball directly onto the bay leaves. You can cover the cake in an earthenware vessel for authenticity or bake it as it is in a hot oven (200°C/gas mark 7) until golden brown and firm to the touch for 20–25 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately score the cake across the centre and pour the warmed clear honey into the gap. Serve at once before it begins to cool.

9) Delian Sweets (vg)
Black-figured amphora showing four men surrounded by bees. These men are Laios, Keleos, Kerberos, and Aigolios,who according to Greek myth, plundered from the hives the honey on which the god Zeus was nourished as an infant. Greek, around 540 BC.

On Hecate’s Island,’ says Semus in Deliad II, ‘the Delians sacrifice what they call basyniai to Iris, goddess of the dawn. It is wheat dough, boiled, with honey and the so-called kokkora (which are a dried fig and three walnuts).‘ – Athenaeus 645

‘Another sweet: Take durum wheat flour and cook it in hot water so that it forms a very hard paste, then spread it on a plate. When cold cut it up in lozenges, and fry in best oil. Lift out, pour honey over, sprinkle with pepper and serve.’ – Apicius 7, 11, 6

This recipe is from the Greek island of Delos. The recipe from Athenaeus is sketchy and difficult to interpret. Were the dried fig and the walnuts ingredients in basyniai, or were they a separate offering to the goddess? Here we have assumed that they were separate – you can serve the figs alongside your Delian Sweets. The second recipe, quoted from Apicius, is a little clearer as to the method of making he sweets.

Pepper was once very common as a seasoning for sweets. It is surprisingly good with honey. Nutmeg has commonly replaced pepper in desserts and sweet cookery, but nutmeg was practically unknown to the classical Greeks and Romans.

Substitute honey for maple or date syrup to make these vegan.

Makes about 15

Ingredients
• 170ml water
• 60g plain (all-purpose) flour
• Olive oil for deep-frying
• 2 tbsp honey
• Poppy seeds or freshly ground black pepper

Method
Bring the water to the boil and add the sifted flour in one go, beating vigorously to incorporate. Cook out for a few minutes and turn out on to a large plate, or a marble slab if you have one. Allow to cool completely. Heat the olive oil in a deep-fryer or pan. Cut the paste into cubes – it will be firm but still a little sticky. Test the oil for temperature with a little of the mixture – if it rises and colours, the oil is ready. Drop the cubes in the oil, 2 or 3 at a time. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes until golden-brown and lift out on to kitchen paper. While they are still warm, garnish with a little warmed honey over the fritters and sprinkle them with either poppy seeds or freshly ground pepper.

Miniature red-figured vase showing two boys around a table of food and drink. Greek. 425–400 BC.

These recipes and more can be found in The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, published by The British Museum Press. Find out more and buy the book here.

We would love to see your ancient feasts – send us pictures of your creations on Twitter and Instagram using @britishmuseum

Discover more about life in the classical world in our historical city travel guides to 1st century AD Rome and 5th century BC Athens.