Take one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. At its peak it controlled vast swathes of land and many different cultures – including their associated cuisines. But what happens when you add a fantastical element to the mix?
As anyone who read my short stories or novels knows, though they’re set in a fantasy world the background cultural tapestry is based on the culture of ancient Rome. To give this world authenticity and richness I do a lot of research into ancient daily lives.
This, of course, covers food. My protagonist, cheapskate that he is, never passes on the opportunity for a free meal. And when invited to a feast, he very naturally notes what delicacies were served – delivered in his somewhat deadpan tone.
Since this is the season to be silly, with many of us planning our Saturnalia (or other) celebratory dinners (ed: err… delayed posting, sorry), it all leads us to the meat of this article (pun intended). Namely, Fantastic Beasts and How to Cook Them. The world of Egretia, being based on ancient Rome and Greece, hosts some mythological beasts.
Apicius et al already mentions dishes with ingredients that may sound strange to us. Patina is a Roman dish, somewhere between an omelette and custard. Asparagus and quails may sound like reasonable toppings, but how many of us would join the phenomenal general and gourmand Lucullus when he dined on jellyfish patina? Or will join my protagonist when he has his favourite, childhood-memories-inducing, brains-and-pine-nuts sausage?
Drizzled with fish-sauce, of course. I always wanted to explore the production of Roman fish sauce – or garum – and, luckily, in the course of one adventure it so transpired that Felix had to visit just such a factory. Garum, for the uninitiated, is made from salt-fermented fish-guts. As one modern recreator described it, the smell is akin to nasal napalm. Yet the Romans used it as we use ketchup, sprinkled liberally on everything. I sometimes think that writing is just my excuse to study about a period in history I love, from the olfactory-safe haven of my study.
But that is all historically accurate, and doesn’t cover the fantasy side of things. Some authors like GRRM take the same approach, with page after page describing soups and chowders. Some leave it as a footnote (gagh is best served fresh). Not I! I love to explore food, both historical and fantastical.
Given that the Romans also had a very practical outlook on life, we can ask what do you do with a captured gryphon? Why, you pit it against a bestiarius in the circus arena, naturally! The crowds were well pleased. It was a show to remember for years to come.
Of course, once the beast was slain, there was this huge carcass to dispose of. Waste not, want not — so they served it up in a feast. (And if you think I’m exaggerating, we have evidence in primary sources as well as archaeology for giraffes being served that way.)
Enter Felix again, with his epicurean tendencies. For reasons we shall not go into here, he required some of the tail feathers and a sample of internal organs from the gryphon. Being a tad loose in the morals department he ended up conning his way into the governor’s kitchens to gain access to the beast. He got what he wanted, but that cost him assisting the cook in the preparation of that night’s feast.
Which featured, you guessed it, the unique delicacy of gryphon meat:
The cook walked in after the beast, carrying his knives, and a train of slaves followed carrying plates. He proceeded to carve out bits of both the bird and animal parts and lay them on the plates. The first plate went to Aulus Paulinus who, after the briefest moment of apprehension, smiled and tasted the meats. He looked pleased, and raised a toast to his guests. I was certain some hapless slave had been force-fed this meat before it got to us, though, just to make sure that the cook and I had indeed removed all traces of poison. Our turn came, as well, and a slave girl put down the plate with cuts of meat before us. While my little charmed wine had done the trick and the beast was well roasted, I have to say that the lion part was a bit gamy and the bird parts, while nice, tasted remarkably like chicken.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into my feverish mind with its fetish for fantastic feasts. The above excerpt is from Murder In Absentia. While In Numina has more traditional delicacies (such as oysters with cinnamon), I promise fantasy food will always be prominent in the novels’ backdrops.
For those looking for some more resources, there’s Prof Elliots YouTube series on Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them (my personal favourite, naturally, is the episode on home-made garum), as well as Crystal King’s (author of Feast of Sorrows) blog on Roman-era cookery.
If you’re looking for to recreate anything at home, I suggest perhaps not starting with a gryphon. They are notoriously hard to catch, and – as Felix notes – not all that exciting once roasted. (Plus, you don’t want to tackle all those raving Griffindor fans.) You can, however, start by preparing that all-important condiment garum. I’ve made a recipe available here. You owe it to yourself to check it out.
Let me know in the comments what your favourite fantasy food is!