ROMAN SPICE BOY


The spice barrel at Traveller's Rest contains no aphrodisiacs so far.
"Canius, Cerialis, Flaccus--will you come? My dining couch holds seven--there are six of us--add Lupus. The housekeeper from my farm has brought me laxative mallows and the various resources the garden affords amongst which are lettuce which sits close to the ground and leeks for cutting. Burping mint will not be absent nor the aphrodisiac herb. " Martial




Google artichokes and you get an outpouring of conflicting information. Several sources claim that it originated in Sicily while others, perhaps more accurately, place it in the Maghreb--Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Some say the ancient Romans brought it home from North Africa and others say that it was the Moors who introduced it to Europe when they invaded Spain. Given that Iberia and Sicily were once considered part of the Maghreb--meaning "place of sunset" or "western" in Arabic, the origin of this homely thistle is up for grabs.
Although in the dinner invitation quoted above, Marcus Valerius Martialis, ( Martial), the author of Epigrams and self-described Celt-Iberian, does not specify the aphrodisiac herb he will be serving to his guests I would be willing to bet that it was artichoke, a popular veggie during the Domitian era. Since ancient Romans were deeply concerned with the effect certain herbs had on their physical well being, it is tempting to hypothesize that Martial hopes to minister to needs of guests in need of ancient Rome's horticultural equivalent of Viagra. That shall remain a mystery.
Martial's bio is full of gaps. No one seems to know what he did in his native Calatayud, Spain, prior to perambulations through Rome and Gaul. There seems to be about his status as a a Roman citizen. We do know from his books and those of his contemporaries, that while living in Rome he owned a a little farm at Nomentum. That is where he got the green ingredients for his dinner parties. He mentions lettuce, leeks and rue in another invitation and elsewhere he makes reference to arugula and catmint. The latter is still in use as an aromatic in parts of Iberia,
" Prima tibi dabitur ventri lactuca movendo
utilis, et porris fila resecta suis mox vetus et tenui major cordyla lacerto,
sed quam cum rutae frondibus ova tegant

ed quam cum rutae frondibus ova tegant;


First, there will be given you lettuce useful for relaxing the stomach, and shoots cut from their parent leeks; then tunny salted and bigger than a small lizard-fish, and one too which eggs will garnish in leaves of rue."
Artichoke Cynara cardunculum, is not technically an herb. It is a thistle whose long history dates as a delicacy is goes all the way back to Roman Egypt. In Sixteenth Century France it was served in syrup to those whose libido was not quite what they wished it to be. I wonder what my male guests would think if I were to invite them to a Roman cena--in keeping with Roman tradition it would follow start at 4 P.M., following a visit to the baths. If I get an early start, by next year I should have the beginnings of a Roman micro garden. I already have lettuces, mint, arugula and catmint. All I need is leeks and artichokes.



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