Food & dining

A novelist and a chef team up. The result: an Ancient Roman feast.

If you’ve ever dreamed of attending an Ancient Roman feast, now’s your chance. Local author Crystal King and chef Michael Pagliarini (Benedetto and Giulia) are teaming up to take you back in time, to what life was like around opulent tables during the reign of Caesar. The three-course dinner — which takes place June 20 at Benedetto in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge — is billed as an extension of the culinary adventures in King’s new novel, “Feast of Sorrow.” The work of historical fiction is based on the life and luxurious meals of Marcus Gavius Apicius, thought to have written one of the oldest surviving cookbooks.

Pagliarini says he has enjoyed tracing back the roots of Italian food to a time before tomatoes were a staple. “There is an elaborate style to this cooking, a lot of ingredients, a lot of toasted spices, a lot of lavish proteins,” he says. “Because let’s face it, these Romans were eating in excess and showing off and spending their money and trying to improve their own social standing.”

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One of the most important components of Pagliarini’s menu is garum — a fermented fish sauce that was ubiquitous in the cuisine of Ancient Rome. The chef says he has been experimenting with the liquid leached from salt-packed Spanish anchovies, as well as doctoring Vietnamese-style Red Boat brand fish sauce in an attempt to re-create the right flavor. “This sauce was the underpinning, almost like the core driving umami flavor that tied together all these recipes,” he says. “It’s called for in various forms and called upon as a staple of the kitchen. They [Ancient Roman cooks] would have jars full of this fish sauce that came in a variety of quality levels.”

So what kind of food will this garum be flavoring? “I came up with a dish that features Umbrian lentils, steamed mussels, toasted spices, olives, and a sweet apple vinegar,” says the chef, who hopes diners will arrive with a sense of adventure, ready for a different style of service and dining than they are used to. “It’s probably going to be flavor combinations that you’ve never experienced before, combined in a way that will make you reimagine your own spice cabinet at home. “

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Pagliarini says that while the flavors might be challenging at times, he and his team are working to ensure everything is delicious and pleasing to modern palates: “It’s going to be unusual, it’s going to be whimsical. . . . The food will be different certainly, stylistically, than what we do every day.”

CATHERINE SMART

Tickets are $150 and include a copy of the book. Go to www.eventbrite.com/e/a-taste-of-ancient-rome-tickets-33624895969.

Catherine Smart can be reached at cathjsmart@gmail.com.
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