By Carolyn Best
Caesar Augustus, first emperor and founder of the Roman Principate, controlled imperial Rome from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. One of the most effective and controversial leaders in human history, the emperor was also a grand connoisseur and as such, he wielded the might of the Roman army to indulge his passion for asparagus. Elite military units were organized under his edict for its procurement. The famed “Asparagus Fleets” sailed the Mediterranean charged with finding the best varietals and bringing them back to Rome.
The citizens of ancient Rome were famed for their love of gastronomy and asparagus, that most elegant member of the vegetable kingdom, reigned at its pinnacle. Asparagus is featured in the first century cookbook On the Art of Cooking as a main ingredient of a “patina” – a kind of omelette made in a shallow dish – and was the coveted vegetable of the empire. In Italy asparagus is harvested in April and May. But the time of year when it was most desired by the emperor and the Roman populace was in January for the Feast of Epicurus.
Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who advocated the pursuit of personal happiness and pleasure along with the minimization of harm to others, was much admired and emulated for his school of thought in the early days of the empire. Epicurus was renowned for the exquisite gourmet meals prepared for his table. His followers commemorated him by serving regular feasts with the most luxurious of foods and the best of wines.
The most significant of these celebrations took place on January 10, the date of the philosopher’s birth. On this day feast goers would expect to see tables laden with the most succulent of meats, sauces and fruits, and always with the finest and tastiest of all vegetables known within the Roman Empire – asparagus. However, the Italian harvest had occurred nine months earlier. Obtaining vast amounts for the Feast of Epicurus was made possible by the famed efficiency and delegation of the empire.
A massive organization of runners and chariots was employed at the time when the asparagus was picked to take boxes of the freshly gathered spears and race them north to the glaciers of the Alps. There they were stowed in snow and ice where they would freeze and stay preserved until the runners returned in January to collect them to sell to the populace as well as to grace the imperial tables.
Still, I think it better that today we are more apt to enjoy the delights of asparagus in the prime of its season.
Asparagus Under Wraps
1 cup milk
Finely chopped chives (or other herb)
Slices of vegetable “ham,” or if you eat meat, prosciutto or speck
Remove the hard end of the asparagus spears and put spears in a saucepan of boiling, salted water for 4 minutes until just tender. Drain and immerse in ice water to quickly cool. Once cool, drain again and blot dry with a towel.
Beat eggs, milk, chives, and salt. Heat a frying pan, add a dash of olive oil, and ladle in enough of the egg mixture to just cover the pan. Cook quickly until surface is dry and turn over. Cook until the underside is golden.
Remove to a plate and continue cooking the thin crepes.
When completed, begin wrapping the asparagus spears in the crepes, followed by a twist of the vegetable ham or prosciutto.
(They can be cooked a day in advance, held in the refrigerator and served cold.)
Carolyn Best is the former proprietor and chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom, and a regular Glebe Report contributor on food.