Present day Romans love to eat fish, and in most top Roman restaurants they are the protagonist of every course. It is tempting to think that this dates back to the glorious past, but everything was destroyed when Rome fell to the barbarians and there is no direct culinary link. The Catholic Church imposed fasting days when fish replaced meat but these days too have vanished and now people are free to eat what they like. From what the restaurants say it seems to be fish.
The first Romans ate very simply with a frugal diet of vegetables and pulses. As life became safer they started farming and soon their diet expanded to include grain, eggs and chicken. The shepherds provided the first real meat and pork was valued for its versatility.
Fish appeared much later on the table, and in the beginning the river Tiber was the main source of fresh fish. When Carthage became a serious threat Rome needed a fleet and soon the galleys were being used for trade with the whole Mediterranean. Fish were shipped back alive in sea- water for the table and for stocking the rivers, lakes and ponds from as far afield as the Danube and the Black Sea. Rome’s love affair with fish had begun
Towards the end of the Republic the traditional austere values had been forgotten and the rich were enjoying a life of unbridled hedonism. In their villas they built enormous fish ponds or tanks to ensure a constant supply of fresh fish and these fish were often regarded as pets to be fed by hand. Cicero rails against the senators wasting time with their fish ponds when they should have been curbing Julius Caesar’s power, while Julius Caesar himself ordered 6000 moray eels from a commercial breeder for a victory banquet. In the past patricians were often given the name of a country where they had won military honours like Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal. Now we find men taking the name of their preferred fish like the Consul Sergius Orata, (gilt-head bream), or Licinius Morena (moray eel). Under the emperors the passion for fish escalated. The fourth and fifth floors of Trajan’s market housed tanks for fresh and sea water fish and the epicure, Lucullus, had a fortune in captive fish. The Romans were also gluttons for shellfish . The first oyster farm was created on the coast at Baia and these quickly multiplied.
When the barbarians cut the aqueducts they took Rome and this great culinary culture was gradually lost. Hordes from the north swarmed down through Italy and pestilence and constant battles changed the face of Italy. Civilized life was lost and the Dark Ages brought a struggle for mere survival.
Today fish is again easily available, thanks to Italy’s long coastline, and although Tuesdays and Fridays are no longer Catholic fasting days this is when the shops and restaurants have the best displays and a greater selection.
My favourite fish restaurant in modern Rome is Tempio di Iside Via Verri off Via Labicana. Telephone 06 7004741
An unusual, elegant fish recipe can be found below.