Getty Villa, J. Paul Getty Museum

At the Roman Table: Fish Sauce, Sausage-Stuffed Pig, and Good Conversation

Serving table for At the Roman Table at the Getty Villa

On a recent midsummer’s evening, the Getty hosted a program called At the Roman Table: A Culinary Adventure at the Getty Villa. The event drew 160 guests on each of two balmy evenings to Malibu, where we enjoyed a banquet inspired by ancient Roman recipes.

The evening began with an intellectual appetizer: A lecture by food historian Andrew Dalby on luxury dining and exotic ingredients in the age of Caesar. He described what was served at ancient feasts and what was gained through “power dining”: the dinner parties and entertainments Caesar provided for his people created a sense of loyalty and even made him more important politically.

After the lecture, we savored a dinner inspired by the ancient Romans and served in the Villa’s Inner Peristyle. The four-course meal, prepared under the direction of chef Sally Grainger, featured dishes typical of a celebratory feast. You can download the menu here.

Sally Grainger with porcellum hortolanum at the serving table for At the Roman Table at the Getty Villa

Place setting with menu for At the Roman Table at the Getty Villa

Sally introduced the meal, citing fish sauce as a central ingredient in Roman cuisine, and one that enhances flavor in almost all dishes on the Roman table. Fish sauce provides umami—the fifth taste that combines salty, sweet, sour, and bitter in the mouth at the same time.

The pièce de résistance was a whole deboned and stuffed pig called porcellum hortolanum filled with sausage, duck and pheasant breast, two kinds of stuffing, vegetables, dates, nuts, and eggs all sewn together to resemble the pig it once was, and served with—you guessed it!—fish sauce. (The menu was described as “rich in meats,” and it was.)

Cross-section of a stuffed pig served for At the Roman Table at the Getty Villa

The evening ended with a honey-infused cake with soft fruits, and a bit of Greek sweetmeat—a recipe that dates back to 350 B.C. and that delighted young and old alike throughout the Roman period. Everyone enjoyed the evening, as communal tables let us share dishes (everything was served family-style) and stories, just as in ancient times.

Artichokes and pomegranates on a serving table for At the Roman Table at the Getty Villa

Arrangement of tables in the Inner Peristyle for At the Roman Table at the Getty Villa

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One Comment

  1. Danielle
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    It took some convincing to take my husband to the Roman dinner, but he still talks about it.
    He thinks the Romans had a different palate! We both really enjoyed the evening. I enjoyed tasting all the foods, the roasted pig was delicious. Everything was very good. The bread/spelt could not compare to baguette, but this was Rome!
    I think our table companion enjoyed their evening, for some it was their 1st time at the Villa.
    The preparations of the food and the service was a real tour de force. Five stars. Thank you for a memorable evening.

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      What unexpected thing have you learned by working at a museum?

      The more time you take with the art, the better. 

      The first time I saw a work by James Turrell, my eyes totally deceived me. I walked into the room (Acton, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art) and saw a gray rectangle “painting,” but I was baffled and could not figure it out—I got closer and closer until my face was pressed against the wall next to it, trying to figure out what it was. When my friend stuck her arm into the painting and revealed the illusion (a square cut into the wall and lit to look flat), my mind was blown! You got me so good, James.

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