Eat Like a Roman


A few months ago I was wandering around in the Museo Archeologico di Chiusi, which features Roman and Etruscan art from the surrounding countryside of Tuscany and Umbria, when I stumbled upon a weird ceramic vessel. What made it strange was that it was filled with holes. Why, I wondered, would anyone sit down at a potter's wheel and throw a perfect jar, only to poke holes in it?

It turned out to be glirarium, a jar for breeding dormice (glire, in Italian) for culinary purposes. The dormouse is a European mammal whose name derives from the Latin word doremus, which means "sleepy one," since dormice hibernate for up to six months per year. The jar for breeding them has spiral ridges inside, where the rodents must perch and which prevents them from going to sleep.


Eaten as appetizers, or as desserts, dipped in honey and poppy seeds, dormice were considered a luxury, and at various times during the Roman era, prohibitions (called sumptuary laws) were placed on consuming them. According to the English historian Edward Gibbon, writing in the mid-18th century: "The art of rearing and fattening great numbers of glires was practiced in Roman villas as a profitable article of rural economy. The excessive demand of them for luxurious tables was increased by the foolish prohibitions of the censors; and it is reported that they are still esteemed in modern Rome, and are frequently sent as presents…"

I consulted one of my favorite cookbooks, Around the Roman Table, by Patrick Faas, to see just how one might set about cooking a dormouse, should you happen to catch one scurrying through the woods. Faas provides the following recipe, translated from Apicius:

"Stuff the mice with minced pork, mouse meat from all parts of the mouse ground with pepper, pine kernels, laser, and garum. Sew the mouse up and put on a tile on the stove. Or roast in a portable oven."

Laser is an extinct herb once found in North Africa; by legend, Nero ate the last extant specimen. Garum is a salty fermented fish sauce that the Romans put on nearly everything. But don't try this at home: In many jurisdictions the dormouse is a protected species.

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