Ancient Roman methods of food preservation

24 Oct 2013 09.48 am by Renny Wijeyamohan

Ancient cultures have engaged in the art of food cultivation, preservation and cooking for thousands of years. While food cultivation practices like planting, tending and harvesting and cooking methods have not significantly changed over time – food preservation is an area that has been revolutionised by the introduction of new technology. 


So how exactly did our ancestors attempt to increase the lifespan of fruits and vegetables that they ate? The discovery of De Coquinaria (latin for “On Cooking”) a 4th Century AD cookbook by the famed Roman gastronomer Apicius sheds some light on the issue. With chapter titles like “The Meat Mincer”, “The Gourmet” and “The Fisherman”, it’s easy to see that Apicius was a lover of food. And like all lovers of food, he did his best to instruct others on how to extract maximal flavour over the longest period of time. Because even at a Roman banquet with hundreds of guests, chances are there are going to be leftovers…


Due to a lack of cooling technologies, Ancient Roman preservation of fruits and vegetables centred on two methods – what we can loosely describe as “pickling” and “candying”.


Pickling – Roman style

To preserve peaches, Apicius advised Romans to:


“To keep hard-skinned peaches

Select the best and put them in brine. The next day remove them and rinsing them carefully set them in place in a vessel, sprinkle with salt and satury and immerse in vinegar.”


While for olives he recommends:


“To keep green olives

To keep olives, fresh from the tree, in a manner enabling you to make oil from them any time you desire just place them [in brine]. Having been kep thus for some time the olives may be used as if they had just come off the tree fresh if you desire to make green oil of them.”


Storage in brine or an acidic alcohol like vinegar cures fruits and vegetables by “pickling” them. The high salt or acid content removes water from the fruits and vegetables, inhibiting the growth of bacteria and slowing the degradation process. Although in the present day you’d be hard pressed to find peaches stored in brine (the thought itself turns the stomach a little), it is interesting to note that this ancient form of preservation is still commonly used for olives. 


Candying fruit

Another Roman preservation method spruiked by Apicius centres upon coating fresh produce in a thick sugary syrup.  Apicius suggests:


“To keep quinces

Pick out perfect quinces with stems and leaves. Place them in a vessel, pour over honey and defrutum [a kind of wine] and you’ll preserve them for a long time.”


For apples, figs and stone fruit he notes:


“To preserve fresh figs, apples, plums, pears and cherries

Select them all very carefully with the stems on and place them in honey so they do not touch each other.”


The use of a high sugar preservative, in this case honey, also serves to draw moisture out of the food and limit bacterial growth by creating a barrier of osmotic pressure. Apicius’ repeated suggestion to leave the stems on fruit, also apparent in Roman food murals [hyperlink to Allripe article on Roman food murals] has been interpreted as a mechanism to prevent “wounding” of the fruit (this can occur when the stem is plucked from the fruit) and thereby slow the fermentation process. An adaptation of this method is still used today to create the sweet candied fruits that you can find at any sweet or candy store.


ancient roman food  
ancient roman cuisine  
ancient methods of food preservation  

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