The memory of ancient civilizations is usually held in their art and architecture. The buildings, sculptures, monuments and mosaics all stand testament to the greatness of their people and provide us with clues to how they lived. Remnants of grand baths and amphitheatres in Sabratha and Leptis Magna portray the Romans as a cultural bunch. The remains of the Temple of Apollo and the Acropolis at Cyrene show the importance of religion and the afterlife to the Greeks. Along with these new foreign lifestyles imposed on the indigenous Berbers living along the coast of Libya, came new food and eating habits.
Most of us recognize that Libyan food has been influenced by the Italian culture both in classical times and in the modern era. But the opposite is also true. Relationships are rarely one-sided. The natural symbiosis in any situation, no matter how extreme, means that the giving and receiving is mutual (though probably not equal). It is known that North Africa served as the breadbasket for the ancients supplying various grains and wheat. Olives were intensely cultivated and livestock was a strong commodity. Some theories go so far as to claim couscous as the predecessor to dried pasta (but that would be a discussion for another article). Perhaps the greatest and most valuable influence on Greco-Roman cuisine was the use of the rare and expensive silphium for seasoning. This is how a Libyan spice changed the course of culinary history.
Silphium, also known as laser in Latin or silphion in Greek, was a plant that grew wildly in Cyrenaica, in the Eastern region of Libya. Theophrastus* recorded that the locals claimed that silphium first appeared after a period of long rainfall seven years before the first Greek settlers arrived, circa 624 BC. This plant, believed to be part of the genus Ferula plant family, or “giant fennel”, naturally occurred in a very limited strip, some 200 by 60 square kilometers and it seems to have been extinct since 1 AD. This rare plant was in such great demand that the crux of the Cyrenaican economy rested on its trade with other Ancient civilizations along the Mediterranean through the port of Apollonia. The silver coins of Cyrene were minted with images of silphium probably because of its value and as a form of advertising. According to Pliny * silphium in Rome was “worth its weight in silver denarii”.
It is unclear why silphium was so important. Saffron was also exported from Cyrene but it was never represented on any coins. Many classical scholars list the medical benefits of silphium in treating respiratory and gastro-intestinal ailments, among others. The claim that it was used as a contraceptive, or conversely, as an aphrodisiac is subject to controversy. The growing demand for silphium, which could not be cultivated, probably lead to its early extinction, thus making it the first plant ever to disappear from overuse by humans. Over-grazing may have been a factor as well as it was thought that silphium fattens up sheep and makes them more flavorful.
Silphium was described to have a strong pungent flavor similar to garlic, and was used sparingly in the kitchen. The price of this herb meant that the entire plant was utilized. The leaves and stems were eaten whole, the roots boiled into a juice, and the resinous sap was collected and used as a condiment. Theoprastus writes that “Exporting it to Piraeus (Greece’s largest port) they prepare it as follows: after putting it in jars and mixing flour with it they shake it for a long time – this is where its colour comes from; and thus treated it remains stable. That, then, is how silphium is collected and treated.”
The oldest collection of recipes to survive in full from antiquity is De Re Coquinaria or “The Art of Cooking” and is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius. Apicius, a Roman gourmet living around the end of the silphium era, wrote a large set of recipes, most of which contained silphium in some form. He also gave tips on how to make the most out of a small supply of silphium, bringing light to its rarity and value, such as these two excerpts translated into English from the original Latin.
Making a Little Laser Go a Long Way
Put the laser in a spacious glass vessel; immerse about 20 pine kernels. If you need laser flavor, take some nuts, crush them; they will impart to your dish an admirable flavor. Replace the used nuts with a like number of fresh ones.
Laser is prepared in this manner: laser from Cyrene or from Parthia is dissolved in lukewarm moderately acid broth; or pepper, parsley, dry mint, laser root, honey, vinegar and broth are ground, compounded and dissolved together.
A typical Greco-Roman recipe of the time using silphium is this one for Numidian Chicken attributed to Apicius.
You treat, boil, clean the chicken, sprinkle silphium and pepper and roast. You grind pepper, cumin, coriander seed, root of silphium, rue, date wine, nuts, you pour in vinegar, honey, nuoc mam (fish sauce) and oil, you will blend. When it will have boiled, you bind with starch, you pour over the chicken, sprinkle pepper and serve.
Another important source on the use of sylphium is De Agricultura “On Farming” by Cato*. Here he describes a method of storing pulses using silphium as a preservative.
How you should preserve lentils. Dissolve silphium in vinegar, soak the lentils in the silphium-vinegar, and stand them in the sun. Then rub the lentils with oil, let them dry, and they will keep quite sound.
Silphium export made Cyrene a prosperous city, becoming one of the first exotic spices to be imported by southern European civilizations, contributing in a very large way to developing the palate of the Greeks and Romans. Although silphium no longer exists today many of these ancient recipes are still enjoyed in parts of Egypt and the Middle East using asafoetida extracted from a plant similar to silphium, and also known as a replacement of “lesser quality” in classical times. Garlic powder may also be used as a substitute.
*Theophrastus (371–287 BC) was a Greek philosopher and the successor of Aristotle in the Peripatetic school.
Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 –79 AD), better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher.
Marcus Porcius Cato (234‑149 B.C.) was a Roman statesman, soldier and historian.