Sunshine and 60 degrees – not what you associate with London in March, right? It’s not what Londoners expect either, judging from the difficulty in finding sunglasses to replace those I’d deliberately left in my car before I left. But 60 and sunny it was, with a few exceptions, when I co-chaperoned a study abroad trip to the Old Blighty over spring break. My English professor friend (and fellow food-obsessive) Lee was teaching a class on 18th Century London and needed someone to come along with him to make sure none of the fifteen students he was taking tried to go native. Since I dabble in the philosophy of the period and was presumed to be sane and reasonably good company, I got to go along. The students we took were a delight, the weather, as noted, unusually cooperative, and the sights sightworthy (apart from the standard stuff, I particularly recommend the National Observatory in Greenwich and Sir John Soane’s house for anyone making the trip). Students had evenings and a couple of days off from class-related Londoning, and since our travel and lodging was covered, Lee and I decided that we could splurge a little, or, as it turned out, a lot. England used to have a reputation for bland and overcooked food (prepared, if you were rich enough, by your own French chef: vide the wrangling over Anatole in Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels). Now it is known as a hotbed of culinary innovation that seeks also to revive the forgotten meaty riches of British food traditions.
Rarely do I dine fine, but star Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s restaurant Next is currently doing a meal based entirely on the ancient Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius, and my classicist uxor would not miss it. So off we went for a night in the big city to meet two Next-veteran friends for a nice Italian dinner. But this was pre-Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus Italian, so nary a tomato or pasta noodle was anywhere to be found. In fact, after a modernist beverage that mimicked an ancient recipe for turning white wine red and red wine white, one of the first flavors to hit our tongues made us think that Next had gotten the wrong empire: garum, a fermented fish sauce, infused fresh bits of greenery and seafood and tasted of modern Southeast Asia, a land far from the reach of any Ceasar. There must be a story as to why this sauce, the ketchup of the ancient world, as my wife put it, faded from use, but in a land of abundant sun and seafood, it makes perfect culinary sense. In the context of the meal, it reminded us that whatever our expectations, the past is a foreign country. What followed was a meal of subtlety and extravagance, the cuisine of an empire. Some dishes were done so as to be as authentic as possible, some (like the red-white drink mentioned) in the inspired-by vein, but all aimed to provide a full sensory experience of the sort Achatz is famous for, and which the Romans themselves – well, the rich ones anyway – were accustomed to.
A sheaf of wheat was a serving vessel next to rose petals on the table that hid another offering; a small round of bread was cooked in a blazing hot, covered brazier right on the table, then portioned into four by drawing tight the strings that tied it as it cooked (see picture); prawn shells were covered in gold and served alongside meat that had been extracted from them and armored with rings of olives; the dishware hinted at the mosaic tiles the Romans loved; music from a plucked single-string instrument hovered in the background.
The menu was in Latin, with some ingredients listed in English, and with numbers for each recipe provided so we could consult the facing-page translation of the cookbook that each table came equipped with. We did this less and less as the meal progressed, in part, no doubt, because that meant movement other than towards the food in front of us. All in all it was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime meal, sophisticated and delicious, executed by skilled cooks and delivered by completely unpretentious and friendly servers. Sadly, as with the Roman empire itself, the meal came to an end. Dessert symbolized this with meringue broken like slabs of ruined marble, resting on a collection of ingredients that dissolved on the tongue, leaving behind only traces of flavor to be unearthed and admired in memory.