How to Eat Dinner Like the Last Citizens of Pompeii
In A.D. 79, a baker in the Roman town of Pompeii placed some loaves of bread in his oven. While they were baking, Mount Vesuvius erupted, raining down layers of hot ash and stone that would both extinguish life from the town and enshrine its final moments. In excavations some two millenniums later, the loaves finally came out of the oven — carbonized, but with their shape and texture intact. And on a blustery evening last week, a recreation of those loaves graced a banquet at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, where the British chef Heston Blumenthal staged a meal inspired by the cuisine of Pompeii.
The idea for Blumenthal’s dinner emerged from an exhibition at the Ashmolean, titled “Last Supper in Pompeii” and on display until January 12. Before the meal, guests toured the show, a thrilling exposition of the Roman appetite, much of which was immortalized by the eruption. Excavated frescoes depict wealthy denizens reclining before multicourse meals — they tended to eat small-plates-style, just like today’s gourmands. One fish-filled panel celebrates the sea’s bounty, and on display too are salvaged bottles of garum, a fermented fish sauce that the Romans poured on everything. Research has also revealed strange delicacies — such as dormouse, which would have been stuffed with pork and served as a starter — as well as the remnants of Mediterranean diet stalwarts: olives, nuts, figs, dates, lentils. A curator described a jug of 2,000-year-old-olive oil — which still smells like olives — as “the closest thing we have to a portal to the ancient world.”
That idea appealed to Blumenthal, whose culinary philosophy revolves around nostalgia and the potency of history. His three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Berkshire, The Fat Duck, is designed to evoke memories of childhood, and his London location, Dinner by Heston, takes cues from 14th-century tastes. For the Pompeii menu, he and Ashley Palmer-Watts, the executive chef of Dinner by Heston, drew on the carbonized food remains on display at the museum and the recipes gathered in the first-century Roman cookbook known as Apicius, indulging in a bit of time travel as well as innovating upon the ethos of the ancients. “This isn’t slavishly following Roman recipes,” said Blumenthal. “The past is a jumping-off point.”
Come dinnertime, guests gathered around a large horseshoe-shaped table in the Ashmolean’s rooftop restaurant. Alongside the blackened bread, made with Puglian burnt wheat, heritage spelt and activated charcoal (for color), the meal began with a shimmering, lava-esque lump of butter infused with squid ink, prawns and ponzu. “It’s the Bay of Naples in butter,” said Paul Roberts, the curator of the Ashmolean exhibition, recalling a childhood visit to the ancient city. “And it tastes like a gulp of the sea.” Next, in keeping with the Pompeian penchant for seafood, was a briny dish of pickled mussels sitting in a lovage froth and seasoned with mussel cream and garum. Then, a riff on Roman staples — roast duck and turnips — finished with Pompeian red wine (which the town once produced and exported in abundance). Finally, dessert was a rich, goaty libum, a kind of sacrificial cheesecake the Romans would offer to household gods.
The evening’s menu, which will be available at Dinner by Heston from January through March, is the first in a series of what the chef calls “last suppers” — the team is also planning to tackle the Titanic’s final night and Napoleon’s ultimate meal. For Blumenthal, honing in on specific historical moments doesn’t just provide fodder for an unusual menu; it’s also an opportunity for some narrative fantasy, and to create what he calls a “multisensory” experience for diners. As the meal unfolded, Blumenthal discussed his kaleidoscopic array of influences, from quantum physics and mindfulness to the pliable properties of cheese (a Comté made with bacteria from Blumenthal’s nostrils and pubic hair was on display at the Victoria & Albert museum earlier this year). Taste, he ventured, is more slippery than we might think, and inextricably bound up with what we’re seeing, hearing and thinking. At one point, he took my notebook and wrote the word “wine” in big bubble letters. “Have some of your wine,” he proposed. I sipped from my glass. I thought it tasted smooth, soft. Then he wrote “wine” again, this time in sharp, spiky letters, and took a sip of his own. “Bitter, right?”
The Romans, too, were multisensory gastronomists; to them, eating and drinking was inseparable from life itself. “The Latin word for dinner party is convivium,” Roberts noted. “Meaning: living together.” At the same time, the Romans often alluded to death in their art and literature; its inevitability served to heighten the pleasures of this world (even if their notions of the afterlife also involved teeming banquets). In one striking mosaic uncovered at Pompeii and now on display at the Ashmolean, a smiling skeleton carries two jugs of wine, a sly reminder to seize the day.
The Pompeii artifacts — whether an ornate wine goblet, delicately carved bone toothpicks, or a pile of petrified grapes — are imbued with a particular pathos, beautifully preserved as a result of tragedy. Blumenthal’s meal summoned a similarly eerie poignancy as we feasted on these refined, fanciful renderings of dishes rooted in the residue of a lost city. But perhaps celebration is always rimmed with portent — then as much as now. Outside, it was wet and windy, the sky thick with dark clouds. As the storm descended, the diners began to recline, and the wine flowed.