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Nero's "Smoothie" from Apicus' Spiced Wine Recipe

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Picture of Nero's

I'm writing this as an entry in the smoothie contest. Being that my "shtick" is historical(ish) recipes, I did a little research and found that the smoothie was invented in the 1960's. Now, I could go trying to find the original smoothie recipe and make that... but that would be rather boringly modern, so I got a little creative.

That's not to say that I made this thing up entirely. Oh no. There is good historical evidence for most of this recipe. Basically, it's based on two sources: one is the 4th-or-5th century Roman cookbook entitled Apicus, which is where I got the recipe for the spiced/honeyed wine. The second source is a story about Nero sending slaves running in relay down the Appian Way to bring him snow from the mountains to mix with his wine. Basically this recipe is 90% Apicus and 10% possibly-fictional-story-about-Nero. The instructable will probably break down into about the same proportions. So, first of all, here's the Apicus part:

"The composition of [this] excellent spiced wine [is as follows]. Into a copper bowl put 6 sextarii of honey and 2 sextarii of wine; heat on a slow fire, constantly stirring the mixture with a whip. At the boiling point add a dash of cold wine, retire from stove and skim. repeat this twice or three times, let it rest till the next day, and skim again. Then add 4 ozs. of crushed pepper, 3 scruples of mastich, a drachm each of [nard or laurel] leaves and saffron, 5 drachms of roasted date stones crushed and previously soaked in wine to soften them. When this is properly done add 18 sextarii of light wine. To clarify it perfectly, add [crushed] charcoal twice or as often as necessary which will draw [the residue] together [and carefully strain or filter through the charcoal]."

 
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Step 1: The composition of this excellent spiced wine...

Picture of The composition of this excellent spiced wine...
So, have you got 20 sextarii of wine handy?

Don't know a sextarius from a gladius?* Well, ok. I did the conversions. 20 sextarii is a lot of wine too! I scaled the recipe down to use just one (750ml) bottle. The original recipe would've made about 14 liters, by my math. This is the list of ingredients converted to modern measurements and scaled down:
  • 3/4c honey
  • 1 750ml bottle of sweet white wine
  • 2 tsp crushed allspice
  • 1 pinch mastic
  • 1 bay (laurel) leaf
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • 1/2 tsp crushed/roasted date stones
Some notes on the ingredients:
You may have noticed that allspice has replaced pepper, and that mastic is crossed out. The allspice swicheroo comes from the notes to the translation, which explain that when dealing with sweet rather than savory things, Apicus' author probably meant allspice or just spice in general rather than pepper specifically. The mastic is crossed out because while it does belong in the recipe, I couldn't get my hands on any in time to try this, despite going to just about everywhere in the area I could think of to look. I don't know how much it would effect the flavor, but I've left it in the recipe anyhow.

As for the wine, it's a bit of an unusual one. Unlike many modern wine snobs (I use that term with a kind of irreverent affection :P) the Roman upper crust preferred sweet wine. They also had access to white wine, unlike the lower classes, who were stuck with red. Finding a sweet white wine wasn't as easy as I thought, being that I know next to nothing about wine. The nice lady in the shop however explained to me that there are numbers on the tags that denoted sweetness. 1 is dry, 2 is sweeter etc. The wine I used had a sweetness of 3.

* Neither did I when I started. This Wikipedia Article on Roman Units of Measurement proved valuable. Please note that my recipe involved a bit of rounding to make things "fit" into modern units, and that the bay, mastic and saffron are probably overrepresented; such a small amount was used in the original recipe that scaling it down made them almost nonexistent in the true numbers. Also note that math has never been my strong suit. I apologize in advance for any glaring numerical errors.

Step 2: Heat on a slow fire, constantly stirring...

Picture of Heat on a slow fire, constantly stirring...
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Now to start the actual job of making this stuff. Here's the instructions from Apicus:

"Into a copper bowl put 6 sextarii of honey and 2 sextarii of wine; heat on a slow fire, constantly stirring the mixture with a whip. At the boiling point add a dash of cold wine, retire from stove and skim. repeat this twice or three times, let it rest till the next day, and skim again."

The modern version:

Heat 3/4 cup of honey and 1/4 cup of wine in a saucepan over low to medium heat, stirring constantly. Once the mixture boils, add a dash (about a tablespoon) of wine from your bottle, then skim the top with a wooden spoon. Repeat this process 2 or 3 times. Leave it overnight, skim it again.

To be honest, I'm pretty sure all the skimming isn't really necessary. The Ancient Romans' honey probably had little bits of beeswax (and perhaps bees) in it, and their wine probably had some sediment or impurities from the containers it was kept in. Nowadays ours is all filtered and refined and purified, so it's probably ok to skip this step, but I did it anyhow, if only to say that I followed the directions.

Step 3: Date stones crushed and previously soaked in wine...

Picture of date stones crushed and previously soaked in wine...
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Reading ahead a little bit, we'll see that we need "5 drachms of roasted date stones crushed and previously soaked in wine to soften them."

So, now to get those date stones ready. The only other thing (besides the mastic) that I had trouble finding for this recipe was dates that hadn't already been pitted! Oh, the enforced conveniences of modern life ;)

I finally did find some un-pitted (er... non-pitted? with-the-pits-still-in?) dates at a middle eastern grocery store. I thought it was going to be a pain to get them out of the dates to use them, but it wasn't so bad. They aren't really "attached" to the flesh of the dates, more like "surrounded" by it, so you just have to cut down the side of the date and pull the stone out of its little cavity.

I then gave the date pits a quick roast in a pan on the stove. They didn't really give off much smell, so I decided they were ready when they got a little darker on the outside. I put them in a little bowl with some of the wine and left them to soak. (forgot to take a picture of the soaking date pits, but I don't think it's vital to the process to see that part)

Step 4: When this is properly done...

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The following day...

"Then add 4 ozs. of crushed pepper, 3 scruples of mastich, a drachm each of [nard or laurel] leaves and saffron, 5 drachms of roasted date stones crushed and previously soaked in wine to soften them. When this is properly done add 18 sextarii of light wine."

Alright, give those spices and stones a bash in the mortar and pestle and chuck them in the wine/honey mixture. Date stones did not want to cooperate, and after managing to crack them a couple times, I threw them in almost whole...

Now, about this "properly done" business. Apicus seems to tell us to just throw it all in, add the rest of the wine and then filter the mixture. It doesn't seem right to me to add all of this and then immediately filter it out in the next step, so I added a bit of a step here. I re-heated the honey/wine mixture, now with spices, just to the boiling point before adding the rest of the wine, and I let it sit for about an hour while I went about doing other things.

After it had all had time to soak/steep/sit, then I went on to the filtering step.

Step 5: To clarify it perfectly...

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Ok, I cheated on this step. Here's what the good old cookbook says:

"To clarify it perfectly, add [crushed] charcoal twice or as often as necessary which will draw [the residue] together [and carefully strain or filter through the charcoal]."

Because I didn't have any charcoal, and didn't have the slightest clue where to get "food grade" charcoal from, and because I'd probably eff up and ruin the wine with charcoal dust or something, I decided to use coffee filters instead.

Two passes through coffee filters seemed to be enough, the end result is still a bit cloudy, but I think that could be the sugar from the honey as much as anything. It took about 6-8 filters to get all the wine through, they seemed to plug up pretty quickly, even on the second pass. Really, this was just to get the solids out. Once again, modern wine is way more filtered and processed and purified than Roman wine was.

While I was waiting for the wine to drip it's way through the filters, I washed and de-labelled the bottle so I could pour the finished product back into it. You can see in the final picture, I now have a bottle of Ancient Roman style spiced and honeyed wine! If you were to stop here, what you'd have is still pretty close to accurate. It's very very sweet, in fact too sweet for me, and while part of this is probably the fact that tastes change through the ages, it's probably also due to the fact that the Romans watered their wine (drinking wine "neat" was the mark of a drunkard), and sweet flavours tend to fade more by dilution than sour flavours.

Of course, I'm not going to leave it like that, so on to the "smoothie" part of the recipe...

Step 6: Now send some runners up to the mountains...

Picture of Now send some runners up to the mountains...
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Now for the "snow" for our wine...

Being as it is now May and even where I live in Canada all the genuine snow has melted, I don't have any that I can conveniently mix with my wine. I also don't have anyone that I can compel to run to the mountains to bring some to me, so I'm going to cheat outrageously and get out the blender.

For this step, you need:
  • 1 cup of ice
  • 1 cup of the prepared spiced wine
  • a blender

The rest is probably obvious, but just to be sure, blend it on high for a minute or two until the mixture is smooth. It will make 2 glasses, as shown in the pictures. It does bear a resemblance to snow mixed with wine one once it's mixed, though I'm sure it's not exactly the same.

Somewhat to my surprise, this drink is actually quite tasty. Still rather sweet, so I may try increasing the ice to wine ratio next time. In any case, it's kind of interesting to sample a drink that Nero might have been sipping during one of his elaborate banquets.
Eldin14 years ago
If the translator suggested that the original referred to allspice, then they didn't do any research at all as to what spices the Romans may have actually had available. Allspice is one of the (very few) spices indigenous to the Americas. It was completely unknown in Europe, Africa, and Asia prior to the early 1500's. It's not impossible that the original author meant a different spice altogether, but it's also quite likely that they actually did mean pepper, which was used to spice sweet drinks and deserts in India and northern Africa historically, and is still commonly used in Indian spiced tea which is often drunk sweet. All that being said, I'm sure that the allspice produces an excellent result, but not one that could have been produced in Roman times. I may try a batch with your recipe as written, as well as a batch using pepper instead, just for comparison. And above all, thank you for posting this recipe.
Glomgrey (author)  Eldin14 years ago
Yes, you are correct >.< I found this out after the fact myself, though I think the reason might be slightly different than this even. The translation I had was an old British one, and found out later that "allspice" was a term used in that time and place for a mixture of several spices rather than the Jamaican allspice that we have today. Supposedly the mixture is similar to pumpkin pie spice, but I haven't managed to track down an actual recipe yet... when I do I may edit this instructable considerably...