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A Dish of Roman Lentils

A few weeks ago we were besieged by snow and freezing temperatures which inevitably drove me to cook something warming and sustaining. Fortunately, snow retreats as quickly as it arrives (at least it does in the South East of England) and may not be seen again in any vast quantity for several years to come. Other invaders, like the Romans and the Normans, have had a more lasting effect on our way of life.

The Romans involvement in Britain spanned five centuries. With them they brought their culinary habits, in particular their love of spices and fish sauce. The Romans also ate large quantities of lentils. Being rich in phosphorus and iron they fortified the Legions on their campaigns and provided nutritious pottages for the poor. The Roman author Pliny believed eating lentils could promote an even temper (something I’m sure we could all benefit from at times). They were also beloved of the rich. Emperor Heliogabalus revered lentils so much he even mixed precious stones in with them. Whilst spices remained a feature of European food long after the Roman empire had fallen, lentils disappeared from our culinary repertoire. In seventeenth century France they were so despised they were only used as horse fodder.

This recipe is based on one by the renowned Roman gourmet Apicius for lentils with chestnuts adapted by John Edwards:

Lenticulam de Castaneis

[Boil the lentils]. Take a clean saucepan and put carefully washed chestnuts into it. Add water and a little soda, and cook. When cooked, put pepper, cumin, coriander seed, mint, rue, laser root, and pennyroyal into a mortar. Bruise [these seasonings together]. Pour vinegar over the chestnuts. [Add the lentils]. Add olive oil. Bring to the boil. Stir and taste. If anything is lacking, add it now. When you have poured [the lentils and chestnuts] into a mushroom dish, add fresh olive oil.

It is a particularly comforting dish to eat on a cold or damp day especially when combined with venison sausages. You could make a meat free version without using vegetarian sausages instead.

Roman inspired sausages with lentils and chestnuts

Venison Sausages with Lentils & Chestnuts

Ingredients (Serves 4)

½ tsp black peppercorns

½ tsp fennel seed

½ tsp cumin seed

1 tsp coriander seed

2 tbsp Olive Oil

10-12 Venison Sausages

1 large leek, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tbsp honey

1 tsp red wine vinegar

200g Puy lentils

180g pack vacuum sealed chestnuts

500ml chicken or vegetable stock

200ml red wine

1 tbsp chopped parsley

1 tbsp chopped mint

Salt, pepper and lemon juice to season.

  1. In a frying pan over a medium heat, dry fry the spices until fragrant then grind to a fine powder.

  2. Heat 1 tbsp of the oil over a medium to high heat in a large saucepan or lidded frying pan. Brown the sausages then reserve until required.

  3. Add the remaining oil and reduce the heat then sweat the leeks for around 10 minutes until tender. Add the garlic and ground spices then cook for a minute or so more.

  4. Mix the honey with the red wine vinegar the add this to the leeks along with the lentils, chestnuts, stock, wine and sausages. Bring to the boil then simmer for 20-25 minutes or until the lentils are cooked but still retain some bite. Adjust the seasoning according to taste.

  5. Stir in the parsley and mint with a good squeeze of lemon juice just before serving.

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