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Often credited to a Roman author named Apicius, and believed to be published sometime in the late 3rd or 4th century CE, De re Coquinaria is considered one of the oldest cookbooks in the world. The history of the text itself is contentious but it remains one of the most widely studied sources on ancient gastronomy, even if it does focus on the lifestyles of ancient Rome’s rich and famous. (What complicates things even further is that some of the earliest translations of Apicius into English later proved to be quite inaccurate.)

There is an excellent overview of the text and of Roman cuisine itself on the University of Chicago’s Encyclopedia Romana website.

What interests us in this week’s column are one or two recipes from Apicius. The first is a recipe for preserving quinces. This is an entry from Book I of the De re Coquinaria:

“Pick out perfect quinces with stems and leaves. Place them in a vessel, pour over honey and defrutum and you’ll preserve them for a long time."

Later in Book IX there is a recipe for sardines, ‘Sarda it fit’, that goes as follows:

“Cook and bone the sardines; fill with crushed pepper, lovage, thyme, origany, rue, moistened with date wine, honey; place on a dish, garnish with cut hard eggs. Pour over a little wine, vinegar, reduced must, and virgin oil."

I am not particularly fond of preserved fruit. But I could really tuck into that sardine dish. It does sound quite delicious if you ask me.

But what in the world is defrutum and reduced must?

They are both approximately the same thing: reduced wine or ‘must’—unfermented grape juice. The juice or wine was boiled to concentrate the sugars and thicken the syrup. This sweet syrup was then used to preserve fruit or flavour sauces. Reduced to half its volume this syrup was called defrutum. Reduced even further to one-third volume it was called sapa.

Both sauces, and variations thereof, may have been quite tasty. But they probably had devastating effects on the Romans who consumed these in large quantities. This is not because of the sugary sweetness itself—which was bad enough—but because of the vessels in which these sauces were reduced.

One Roman writer, Columella, wrote in the first century: “But the vessels themselves, wherein the must, which is to be boiled, ought rather to be of lead than of brass; for, in the boiling, the brazen vessels throw out a rust, and corrupt the taste of the medicament."

In other words the Romans, or at least the upper classes, cooked one of the core components of their cuisine in lead vessels. What happens in the vessels themselves is fairly basic chemistry. The lead on the surface of the vessels forms an oxide. This oxide then reacts with the acetic acid in the grape juice to form lead acetate, a compound so sweet that it is called sugar of lead. This may have helped to enhance the sweetness of the reduced wine syrup.

Slowly, meal by meal, dish by dish, the Romans were ingesting astonishing quantities of lead. In a paper published in 1982, researcher Josef Eisinger estimated that the strongly reduced sapa may have had a lead content of around one gram per litre of syrup. This sweet sapa was often mixed into wine—especially to salvage bad, sour wine—yielding a beverage that, according to James Grout of the Encyclopedia Romana, had around 21 milligrams of lead per litre.

To put this in perspective the United States Environment Protection Agency has regulations that limit lead content in drinking water to 15 micrograms per litre.

This means that sapa and sweetened wine had, respectively, 67,000 and 1,400 times the amount of lead considered safe today for human consumption.

Just think about that for a second. Now also consider the fact that many Romans also consumed water that was pumped through lead pipes. And indeed some people have talked of a Roman ‘Lead Age’ when the globe-spanning imperial power found manifold uses for the toxic metal in all walks of life.

Indeed we now know that even the Romans began to sense a problem. Saturnine gout, a disease so called because patients became moody and irritable like the Roman god Saturn, is an affliction caused by lead poisoning. This has led (ha!) some writers to suggest that the Roman empire itself fell because of the accumulated psychological and physical effects of lead poisoning. An interesting, albeit fringe, view.

Large amounts of lead continued to plague food in Europe, especially wine, right up to modern times. It is only perhaps in the 20th century that lead levels in wine fell to safe levels.

In India, the problem with lead far pre-dates this latest noodles imbroglio. In 1999, a screening of 15,000 children in seven cities by The George Foundation found that “over 50% of the children below the age of 12 years living in urban environments have unacceptable blood lead levels of 10ug/dl or more. Further, 14% of the children in these cities have seriously elevated levels of lead of 20ug/dl or more".

The Romans didn’t take their lead problem too seriously. We probably should.

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