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Silphium


in ancient Rome


Mentioned by Theophrastus, Apicius, and Pliny in their works(1), and also called laserpicium and laser by the Romans, Silphium was the first exotic spice to arrive in Rome. It was imported from Cyrene (in Libya), where its importance to the ecomony is underscored by the fact that its image was stamped on all the coins of the region from the sixth century BC. The cultivation of silphium was a measure of the wealth of Cyrene, but by the time of Nero, the plant had become extinct, probably as a result of overgrazing and over cropping. Ferula asa-feotida L., a similar but inferior quality plant that grew in abundance in Persia, Media and Armenia, was imported,(2) and dishonest vendors passed off products as silphium that were actually based on the resin of other plants, sometimes with ground beans mixed in.(3)

In the writings of Apicius he advised his readers:
"To have an uncia of silphium always ready: put the silphium in a sufficiently capacious glass container with around twenty pine nuts; every time you want to use some silphium, grind some of the pine nuts and you will be surprised by the flavor it gives the food; ever time replace the number of pine nuts you have used in the container." (Apicius 14)

Botanists theorize that the laser parthicum that replaced silphium when it disappeared was ferula asafoetida, asafetida. Based on this, and Apicius's references to the use of asafoetida when silphium was not available, a few drops of garlic juice is sometimes used as a substitute in modern adaptations of ancient recipies as asafetida extract apparently provides an unusual, rather bitter and garlicky flavor.(4)


Related Links


footnotes & bibliography

(1) Miller, J. Innes; The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire; Oxford; 1969; p118

(2) Giacosa, Ilaria Gozzini ; A Taste of Ancient Rome; University of Chicago; 1992; p30

(3) Miller; p100

(4) Giacosa; p31