Consumption of perfume was widespread in Roman society. However, the use of aromatics was not just restricted to bodily application and other external processes, but they also made their way into Roman dietary habits. One would, however, hardly consider pouring Brut – or the latest offering from Chanel – on to morning porridge. Adding essential oils into one’s evening meal would probably prompt a look of concern from even the most open-minded foodie. What, then, were Roman perfumes and why might they be suited to adding to food? Before we begin to examine different dishes to which the Romans may have added perfume, it is important to discuss the Roman concept of perfume and compare it to our modern reality.
Modern perfume substrates (the vehicle for the scent) are commonly alcohols which evaporate after application on the skin, clothing or when dispensed. Distillation, at least for use in chemistry, was not invented until the Islamic period and later spread to the medieval west. The Romans, however, following Greek precedent used oils as perfume substrates. Any fine, light and delicately scented oil was deemed particularly useful for this purpose.
Based upon the perfume recipes in Pliny’s Natural History and the On Odours by Theophrastus we can see that some particularly well regarded oils were extracted from the ben or behen nut, castor and a form of high quality oil called omphacium, which was pressed from immature green olives and, less certainly, grapes (Amouretti 1986; Brun 2000). It is also clear that perfumes could be made using animal fat substrates. Unfortunately, the archaeological evidence for all of these processes has, to date, eluded us.
Roman compound perfumes (unguenta) were rather greasy compared to modern perfumes and thus have rather more in common with ointments, salves and, using a term more at home in the Victorian period, unguents. An understanding of their nature makes their use in food perhaps less shocking, but what flavour would they be trying to impart?
The scent profile of Roman perfumes was nearly always floral or, at least plant based. Rose (probably the damask), iris, jasmine, cypress, lily and myrtle are all commonly named ingredients in the recipes given Pliny and Theophrastus. Colourants and fixatives could also be added depending on the desired viscosity and colour of the end product. The scent was imparted by heating the oil/fat (hot enfleurage) and any additional ingredients or by leaving it to steep (cold enfleurage). In a similar manner to an infusion of tea into water, the hotter the substance the quicker this diffusion occurs.
In three recipes in Mark Grant’s compilation of Roman recipes, Roman Cookery (Grant 2008), there are examples of flowers being added directly to food. The references to the ancient texts are not given here but Grant’s book is fully referenced and includes suggestions for modern kitchens. One recipe is from Bassus (a 10th C compiler of earlier recipes), which details the production of a rose honey (rhodomeli) which is made by simply adding rose petals to honey. Another is a beef casserole (carnes vaccinae – from the 5th-6th centuries) to which spikenard is added – a privileged perfume ingredient according to Pliny. The dried stigmas of the crocus, saffron, were also added to chickpeas with salt (erebinthoi knakosymmigeis in Greek) in order to prepare a rather subtle yet rich dish. Saffron perfumes (unguenta), moreover, were a particular pet peeve, and a symbol of problematic luxury, in many of Cicero’s speeches. Flowers and flower extracts, then, were clearly added to food, but what about compound perfumes?
The post’s title refers to a literary topos, or commonplace, from Roman literature; the pouring of perfume (Myron/myrum – an unguent or sweet smelling oil) on to lentils. This phrase becomes a proverb not for profligacy – that perfume is wasted on lentils – but for incongruity (Pearson 1963). This proverb is rarely explained and indeed it is humorously used by Cicero to suggest that Lentulus (lenticula/lens being Latin for Lentil – a pun!) was unfit for a certain duty in the same way that perfume and lentils do not suit. It seems then, that certain specific flowers were considered more suitable for culinary use than perfumed concoctions.
Simple floral perfumes were, perhaps, more likely to make their way in to cooking but our evidence is incredibly scant. If flowers were added to food, as is suggested above, the use of simple flower infused oils in delicate dishes does not seem absurd. One is instantly reminded of the way in which we use infused oils and sugars in modern cooking and baking.
Although, a final ‘take-home’ note might be a reminder to heed the words of Strattis (in a parody of Euripides – Pearson 1963: 178): “When cooking lentils, don’t pour perfume on.”
Tom Derrick, University of Leicester
Cicero, Letters to Atticus
Pliny, Natural History.
Theophrastus, On Odours.
Amouretti, M.C. 1986. Le pain e l’huile dans la Grèce antique. Paris: Belles Lettres.
Brun, 2000. The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum. American Journal of Archaeology 110: 419-472.
Grant, M. 2008. Roman Cookery – Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens. Revised ed. London: Serif.
Pearson, L. 1963. Perfume on Lentils. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93: 176-184.