REAL KITCHEN NIGHTMARE
I was reading about the digging of Pompeii in Italy and the almost untouched unearthed takeaway restaurant kitchen that would have served street food to customer’s right up until that pivotal moment on the 24th of August in 79AD. It was around noon ironically as lunchtime service would have been commencing that time stood still and history was to deal a cruel blow to the residents of this ordinary Roman city and three other neighbouring ones around it.
The nearby dormant and sacred Mount Vesuvius volcano erupted for two days with molten rock and the whole area of 170 acres and 11,000 people was blanketed in a preserving mountain of stone and ash six metres deep. Everyone would have perished instantly with the gases and heat and it then lay undiscovered until the 16th century when it was first excavated revealing its story frozen in a time capsule. Today it is a world heritage site with a couple of million visitors a year taking a trip back in time.
We thought restaurants only began in the Middle Ages but the Romans were already catering for the public as well as merchants and travellers. They were advanced in all things culinary as the rich mostly ate at home with servant slaves cooking for them but the average citizen could not afford to have a fully kitted out kitchen hence there were around eighty restaurants discovered in Pompeii alone providing breakfast, lunch and dinners.
Equipment wise the Romans had invented most of the utensils we use today, the oven had been mastered by them and they even had the first cookery books. The menu at the latest archaeological dig showed on that fateful day you could order pork, duck, snails and goat from the DNA remnants of the dishes preserved on the counter in jars. It would have been quite a hot day too in that part of Italy in august so you can imagine what it must have been like to see that cloud of death descend on the city.
To add to the curious visitor experience the Italians are now recreating the actual dishes in the restaurants there today so that you can try out the recipes that would have been served. The Romans ate plenty of cereals, beans, fruit, nuts, herbs, salads and vegetables. They also liked a variety of eggs, several types of bread including pizza and cheese of course. Then they had a myriad of seafood from the nearby Mediterranean. They made sauces and marinades and used plenty of spices to add flavour.
Stews were popular as well as roasts like lamb and they had cured ham much like the prosciutto we have today along with more exotic dishes like rodent, parrot and swallow. To finish they ate a custard like dish as well as fruits and honey and they had pastry too so the variety of foods was not that far off what we have today in fact. All this washed down with copious amounts of wine and beer. You would not go hungry in the ancient Roman Empire.
What if Vesuvius was to spew its hot lava out again and cover the immediate vicinity with a similar blanket of ash? The population is much greater now; about three million and a fifth of these live and work in the actual danger zone. It still erupts regularly, several times per century, the last one in 1944 so it could happen anytime; indeed it’s probably due a blast.
So if a big eruption does happen, today’s fast food restaurants will be the casualties and the future archaeologists will be analysing hamburgers, fries and milkshakes but it will not take hundreds of years to go through the rubble this time. I would not like to live there with such a high risk on my doorstep and even with a warning it would be a hell of an evacuation exercise to get everyone out alive. Recent natural disasters are a stark reminder that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature.