The favorite words of that original foodie, Marcus Gravius Apicius, about A.D. 30 were “in cibum est” (“The food is ready.”). Apicius, whose name has become synonymous with “gourmand” was a food-loving Roman whose advice on how to cook flamingo’s tongue, make pork foie gras, or drown a red mullet in a red wine sauce are still shared by food faddists today.
In the town of Trier in northwestern Germany where Romans settled down several millennia ago, the Zum Domstein Restaurant at the city’s center offers a culinary time machine back to the table talk of Apicius. Although from the outside the restaurant looks like a typical German hofbrau, a full Roman menu from the cookbook of Apicius is on offer in a dining room inspired by the luxury villas of Pompeii. So when in Trier I decided to do as the Romans do and tuck in.
My meal began with a civilized cup of mulsum. Local Moselle white wine was mulled with honey and a mixture of spices including pepper and star anise. It was light and refreshing and as a lover of licorice, the flavor was delicious. It was served very properly in a red clay cup and as the rest of the meal unfolded all of the dishes were presented on authentic reproductions of Roman red clay samian ware.
The gustationes or appetizers suggested the variety of Roman cuisine whose food was influenced by an empire that stretched out over a million square miles. Worthy of the finest Scottish chef, a barley soup simmered with ham, dill, oregano and rosemary had a sumptuous richness and depth of flavor. From Rome’s Germanic lands came lucanicae, a sausage stuffed with pine nuts and herbs served with green beans. The sausage didn’t have the layers of seasoning that the barley soup had but the third dish, representing the Mediterranean, artichokes with chopped hard boiled egg and vinegar dressing, topped with a whimsical sprig of dill and a sprinkling of pink peppercorns was full of flavor with a subtle edge courtesy of the vinegar.
Two dishes were offered as the mensa prima or main course, perna cum caricis or ham with figs, and pullus cucurbitas, chicken with apricots and vegetables. Romans liked things sweet and the ham prepared with figs and myrtle and sprinkled with sliced almonds certainly filled that bill. The meat was well cooked but the figs overwhelmed it.
The chicken was better balanced with the apricots adding flavor without dominating the entire dish. Nuts were widely popular in Rome and the meal was highlighted by pine nuts in the sausage, almonds with the pork, and hazelnuts with the chicken.
If the Romans loved nuts, peppercorns were Roman gold. You could buy a house, pay a ransom, or win a bride with a chest full of pepper. Zum Domstein would have won Apicius’s warm approval with its lavish use of every color of peppercorn available, appearing in dishes from mulsum to dessert.
My final course, patina de piris, was a wonderful combination of pears sautéed in wine under a creamy custard. Swirling around on top was a light honey sauce and a sprinkling of green peppercorns. I was sad to see that the friend I was dining with liked it too, or I would have pinched a second bowl.
According to the rules of Roman etiquette it was an insult to the master of the house to leave anything edible on your plate. We were both polite; we followed the rules.
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.