Thursday, December 5, 2013
Last night I joined a half dozen other diners at a private Portland residence, where we sat around a long table to sample food that could have been prepared by the ancient Romans.
It was the latest pop-up dinner prepared by chef Damian Sansonetti, a newcomer to Portland who plans to open his own place in the city this spring, serving Italian farmhouse cuisine. Sansonetti, 35, worked for years at Daniel Boulud’s restaurants in New York.
He based his “Apicius Dinner” on ingredients and methodology found in a collection of Roman recipes that dates back to around the 5th century A.D.
“The book was originally written down for aristocracy because peasants at the time didn’t leave any kind of catalogue of what they were cooking,” Sansonetti said. “Some of the things in the book were very grand. Some were outlandish. Some were things we don’t really eat or associate with eating today. Some were kind of what you would envision as peasant dishes.”
It turns out the ancient Romans used a lot of techniques we are returning to today – preserving, using the whole animal, pickling, curing.
Sansonetti took what he learned from Apicius and food history books and used modern techniques and as much local food as possible to create a six-course meal.
The first course, paired with a little mead, was called ostrea ut diu durent, or “to keep oysters.”
Sansonetti barrel-cured some Johns River oysters in an old whiskey barrel for several days. The oysters were pickled in some rice wine vinegar, cloves and a little bit of celery seed.
The plate also contained some dry-cured sausage, cucumber, radishes and myrica gale, a plant native to northern New England and southern Canada that has traditionally been used for digestifs, teas or various medicinal purposes.
The Romans shucked oysters and left them in a barrel with salt to rest, Sansonetti said, so they could preserve them. The chef said he found a lot of techniques in Apicius that might not be so appetizing to modern diners, including instructions on “how to make a turned duck taste better.”
The second course was “patina de apua fricta, or “smelts in the pan.” Forgive the bad photo, it’s the only one that didn’t turned out blurry. (The dining area was dark.)
The original recipe for the dish, Sansonetti explained, was “basically kind of a fish in a court bouillon, but they battered the fish, and they fried it and then it braised it. If you fry and then braise smelts, they’re just going to fall apart.”
So Sansonetti did a kind of deconstruction of the dish. The smelts were lightly poached in a seasoned chicken stock with a little acid and olive oil. A swoosh of lettuce puree provided some color, and a couple of pieces of crisp lettuce were nestled between the smelts. Small dollops of white wine gelee dotted the plate.
“Instead of an egg batter,” Sansonetti said, “I turned it into what you would call in French a mimosa, so it’s a hardboiled egg that’s been passed through a tamis with the yolks and the whites separated.”
The third course, betaceos, was a combination of two Roman dishes that Sansonetti made into one. The plate held chunks of delicious roasted red beets that had been marinated in mead, the sweetness of the mead enhancing the underlying sweetness of the beets.
Adding interesting contrast were pieces of black silkie chicken that had been confited and then marinated in a little mead as well. The silkie chicken, used a lot in Asian cuisine, has bright white plumage, but its skin is black, and the meat is darker than other breeds.
“The meat’s kind of like what a rooster would be,” Sansonetti said. “It’s a little bit tougher. It’s a little more full of flavor, though, so it stands great for a slow roast or a braise or a confit like this.”
Sansonetti turned bits of the black skin into crispy little chips scattered around the plate, adding some crunch along with a little celery.
The centerpiece of the fourth course, cerebellis, ovum, panis, or “eggs and bread,” was French-style scrambled eggs. They were scrambled slow and soft, and seasoned with a little garum, a spiced fish sauce. On top lay some local kombu from the Gulf of Maine.
“For the creaminess in there, there are pork brains,” Sansonetti revealed. “Some of you may never have had pork brains, or brains period. If I never would have told you they were in there, you almost would not even know.”
The finishing touch was a couple of pieces of brown bread croutons to give the dish a New England twist.
“There was a spiced bread (in Apicius), usually made with a sorghum and spelt and things of that nature, and a lot of honey, which was very similar to brown bread,” Sansonetti said, “so I thought it was nice to put that with that because the sweetness pairs up really nice with the really rich voluptuousness of the eggs and the brains. Enjoy.”
Before the next course came out, Sansonetti brought out a large pan with what looked like a giant sausage on top. It was beautiful, and smelled wonderful.
“Apparently the Romans and everybody at that time loved stuffing things,” he explained. “So this is actually a pork stomach that is stuffed with pig belly, some pork cheeks and pork shoulder – in essence kind of like a very large sausage. There’s some cabbage in here that’s been charred up a little bit, onions as well. It’s seasoned up nicely with black truffle juice, a little bit of fennel, a little bit of chile, sea salt. In essence, it’s basically a really big sausage that’s been slow roasted and braised.”
Sansonetti returned to the kitchen to serve up the sausage, or saginati porcellus tubur (“stuffed pig”). “There are some pearl onions that are roasted in brown butter and glazed in some local honey. Also some chickpeas that are cooked in mustard seed and mustard, and a little bit of local kale as well.”
The final touch was to shave some black winter truffles on top.
Here’s what the finished dish it looked like on the plate:
Sansonetti noted it looks almost like a peasant dish, but one elevated by the truffles. The Romans did do a lot of cooking with truffles, he siad, but back then they would poach them to make them last longer.
The final course, apo thermum, or “spelt pudding,” was the result of a lot of digging on the chef’s part.
“Back then there wasn’t that much of what we would nowadays call dessert,” he said. “There were a lot of kind of puddings or fruit-type things, or even savory food made with a lot of honey to finish meals off with. But I found something and I kind of made it my own.”
His spelt cake, light and subtly sweet, was one of the hits of the evening.
Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.
Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business before turning to journalism more than a decade ago. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs. A newcomer to Portland, she is an online content producer for the Press Herald.
Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or saxelrod [at] pressherald.com.
On Twitter: @susansaxelrod