Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Foods the Romans brought to Britain

by Cindy Tomamichel

The Roman Empire spanned a great deal of the known world in ancient times, acting as a conduit for the spread of Roman culture. After the invasion and occupation of AD 43-410, Britain would never be the same. For its people and the environment, the Romans brought new ideas and foods, many of which have become staples of culinary tradition.

There are a variety of information sources by which a picture of the foods of Roman Britain may be reconstructed. There is the actual foodstuff itself, where food such as grains, nuts and bones may be preserved by charring or carbonisation such as during a fire. Preservation by waterlogging occurs within peat bogs and estuaries. Fossilised remnants may also be found in latrines and rubbish heaps, where minerals such as calcium have replaced the structure. Food was also buried in containers in the burial sites of wealthier individuals. Shrine offerings are also another source of food evidence. Food containers may also carry the imprint of their contents.

Other sources include import and export evidence, such as amphorae for wine, oil or garum. Some written sources exist, even for such things as shopping lists, for instance the Vindolanda tablets “... bruised beans, two modii, twenty chickens, a hundred apples, if you can find nice ones, a hundred or two hundred eggs, if they are for sale there at a fair price. ... 8 sextarii of fish-sauce ... a modius of olives ... To ... slave of Verecundus.”

There is some evidence of Roman foods being imported to Britain well before the invasion. However, the invasion created multiple avenues of demand for Roman foods, which expanded the importation significantly. The Roman army was a major consumer, but also the desire to be seen as Roman saw a rise in demand for exotic imports. What in the late Iron Age was a trickle, soon turned to a flood of new foods available during the occupation.

Romans also brought food related ideas. Firstly there was a need to produce food in Britain on the scale required to supply the army. This need, coupled with the Roman habits of building roads and towns soon changed the face of agriculture. From small holdings growing mostly for personal consumption, it changed to larger farms specialising in growing enough of a product for market. The spread of new foods worked a gradual path out from the towns to the surrounding countryside.

In this way many new foods became established. New fruits and nuts included apple, cherry, plum, walnut, mulberries, medlars, and chestnuts. New vegetables were grown such as carrots, beets, garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus. Herbs were both medicinal and for cooking and teas, including poppy, black mustard, rosemary, thyme, garlic, bay, basil, borage and savoury mint. All these established and stayed popular even after the Romans left. Other foods were popular only during the occupation, or just didn’t establish well, such as grapes, figs, pine nuts and olives.

Another way in which plants may arrive is by stealth. The weed seeds are harvested and are within a bag of seed grain, or they are planted and the environment suits them too well and they escape and naturalise. Plants like this include ground elder, white mustard, alexanders, stinging nettles, greater celandine, and fennel.

Grains play a major part in diet and also part of the stability of society. A poor harvest would mean cultural unrest, particularly if the invaders were seen to be consuming large amounts. Grains already in Britain were various types of wheat, barley and oats. With the Romans came both an increased demand and new technology for ploughing and agricultural tools. They also introduced rye, millet and spelt. With the development of a closed field system, cattle could be alternated with crops such as grains, pulses and vegetables, increasing productivity.

Baking ovens are a common feature of Roman fortifications. This is a loaf of bread from a bakery in Pompeii. (source:

Part of many affluent Roman households was a garden, and perhaps this was the start of the English love of gardens which has spread with them all over the world. A typical house layout had a central courtyard garden, and here decorative plants such as box, foxgloves, mulberries, lilies, violets, pansies and roses would have been grown.

Part of a household might have included animal husbandry areas. For those longing for a taste of home, a snail farm or “cochlea”, would have been established, where imported Roman snails were raised and fattened. They were fed on milk and oats or spelt to purge and fatten them, then cooked in wine, with garum or garlic. Roman snails are still to be found in the UK. Hare gardens with semi domesticated rabbits also existed for fur, hides and supplies of meat. They also built enclosures to keep deer, as well as pigeon enclosures and kept chickens and guinea fowl.

Edible Snail - photo credit Fred Dawson via Visual Hunt /CC-BY-ND

Britain was already exporting beef before the invasion, and goats, sheep, chickens, pigs and deer were also being eaten. Pigeons, quail, geese, pheasant and guinea fowl were likely imported with the Romans. Ham in brine and bacon with their good keeping qualities were important for soldiers on the march.

Amongst the many cultural changes the Romans brought was the change in eating habits. While in the more remote rural areas people probably continued eating stews, roast meat and porridges, in the towns more people adopted Roman dining habits. These are familiar to us today as the three meal arrangement, with breakfast being quite small, a moderate lunch and a larger dinner as evening was for entertaining. Fast food was also a Roman invention, with many small bakeries and food places available for those who could not cook at home, serving things like kebabs and burgers. Bath houses were also popular social hubs were snacks could be purchased.

However diet varied with social status, location and job. Many remote Britons would have continued eating their normal food, perhaps adding some new vegetables, herbs or grains to the mix. The elite would be the major consumers of the imported foods such as wines from Gaul (France), dried dates and olives.

The soldiers had to buy their own food, and had a routine for doing so. They often had their own bread ovens, herds of cows, pigs and managed their own purchase of grains and vegetables. A soldier’s diet was also often supplemented by food sent from home, or by hunting local animals such as boar and deer.

Imported food consisted of things that would not grow or was not available in sufficient quantities. This included dates, almonds, olives and olive oil, wine, pine cones and kernels, fermented fish sauce (liquamen or garum), pepper, ginger and cinnamon.

After the Romans left Britain in AD 410, many aspects of their culture vanished. However, the hardier or more popular of the introduced plants and animals survived, becoming an integral part of the landscape.

The main reference for Roman food is the cookbook of Apicius, a Roman epicure of around AD 100. The book is full of recipes for main meals, and often has several variations on a dish or ingredient. While many of the ingredients are probably not to today’s tastes, many of the casserole and vegetable dishes sound interesting. Unfortunately none of the bread recipes he probably had are included.

Milk Fed Snails (Cochleas lacte pastas)–Apicius
After being purged and cleaned, the snails can be fried in oil and served with a wine sauce. Or they could be fried, then made into a soup with broth, adding pepper and cumin.

Vegetable and Brain Pudding (Patina frisilis)- Apicius
Take cooked and mashed vegetables and brains and mash to a fine paste. Add eggs, broth, and wine and place in an oiled baking dish. Bake and sprinkle with pepper when done. 

Libum - Serves 2 (A type of cheesecake) 
10 oz ricotta cheese.
1 egg.
2½ oz plain flour.
Runny honey.
Beat the cheese with the egg and add the sieved flour very slowly and gently. Flour your hands and pat mixture into a ball and place it on a bay leaf on a baking tray. Place in moderate oven (180C/400ºF) until set and slightly risen. Place cake on serving plate and score the top with a cross. Pour plenty of warmed runny honey over the cross and serve immediately. This is similar to a Greek cheesecake, which uses cottage cheese instead of ricotta. (Source: Sally Grainger The Classical Cookbook, published by British Museum Press.)

(Note: a variety of academic and website reference sources were used for this article, please contact the author if details are required.)


Cindy Tomamichel is a writer of action adventure romance novels, spanning time travel, sci fi, fantasy, paranormal, and sword and sorcery genres. They all have something in common – swordfights! The heroines don’t wait to be rescued, and the heroes earn that title the hard way. 
Her first book, Druid’s Portal: The First Journey will be out with Soul Mate Publishing in 2017. On Amazon May 17th. An action adventure time travel with a touch of romance set in Roman Britain around Hadrian’s Wall.
A portal closed for 2,000 years.
An ancient religion twisted by modern greed.
A love that crosses the centuries.
Contact Cindy on


  1. Tasty stuff: mashed brains! Lovely. Thank you for that.

  2. I'm good with the milk-fed snails (yum!) but brains? I think I'll stick with the snails. Excellent post.

  3. I got the recipe from Apicius, and the notes on the brain pudding was that we currently have nothing quite like it today. Can't imagine why this recipe didn't stand the test of time!

  4. So, the Romans brought us nettles and ground elder: I knew they were villains!!!

  5. Thanks for this fascinating post! I might try the libum - do we really need the bay leaves? Is it perhaps that the flavour soaks into the cake? Would the dried ones you get at the supermarket be okay, do you think?

    That picture of the loaf from Pompeii looks familiar - maybe it's the one I saw at the Pompeii exhibition in the Melbourne Museum some years ago. I thought at the time it looked oddly like a pizza base, or perhaps focaccia.

    I read somewhere that people in Britain started using butter on their bread because they couldn't get olive oil any more when the Romans left. Wonder if it's true?

    1. Elizabeth David has a few similar recipes for the libum where she uses candied peel and lemon zest, or cinnamon or angelica so you could try those. Fresh bay leaves have a very spicy scent and flavour, so if you use a dry one a tiny pinch of cloves will help approximate the fresh flavour. But a few sprigs of fresh thyme will also go well with the honey, and maybe a sprinkle of pine nuts. Enjoy!

  6. Excellent post, thank you Cindy. I love spelt (which is still cultivated in Roma Nova!), but ground elder not so much. Apicius has some terrific recipes and I recommend people buy a copy of it. If you love honey, you are halfway to being a Roman...

    1. Thank you Alison. I find the recipes are just like you would scrawl down from a friends recipe description, not like glossy modern cookbooks. I like the sense of adventure you get from reading it, a cook with an empire of new ingredients to play with still echoes down the centuries.

  7. Very interesting, thank you!


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