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Ancient tastes: Book examines how Greeks and Romans inspired modern flavors

In a book from the University of Kent's Dr Kelli Rudolph, the ancient origins of modern tastes are explored for the first time

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University of Kent

Dr Kelli Rudolph, University of Kent

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Credit: Dr Kelli Rudolph

In a book from the University of Kent's Dr Kelli Rudolph, the ancient origins of modern tastes are explored for the first time.

Like today, ancient food fads came with dire warnings about the consequences of new arrivals on the scene. For example, when Sicilian sweets were introduced to Greece, some regarded them as a delicious luxury while others - such as Plato - said they would destroy the morality of the people. From battlefields and imperial courts to sanctuaries and boudoirs, tasting is a dangerous game in antiquity.

In Taste and the Ancient Senses (Routledge), Dr Rudolph and her fellow contributors explore Greek and Roman texts and archaeological remains to discover how tastes also differed from our experience today.

Even in antiquity, food was tasted first with the eyes, so presentation was a crucial element of luxury cuisine: daring presentations included a fish which, because it changes colour as it dies, was killed in front of diners before being taken away to a chef to be cooked.

As people do today, the ancient Greeks and Romans resisted changes in their national palate. The Roman naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder wrote about how silly it was that people would pay to put pepper on their food, since it only tasted of heat. Yet within years it was common for everyone, even in far-flung provinces like Roman Britain, as it is now. Some food crazes in antiquity, like the new 'super-food' apricots, stood the test of time, but others were a flop, as with the attempt by ancient gourmands to introduce donkey foetuses to the Roman table.

Another taste legacy the book explores is the importance placed on the provenance of food. Where food and wine came from and how it was grown and raised was thought to influence its taste - and its price. Ancient gourmands took particular notice of what food animals had eaten; acorn-fed pork was considered tastiest. Remnants of pottery reveal flavours of stews and grains, and bone analysis can even identify favoured cuts of meat.

In addition to exploring the importance of taste in society, the book also looks at taste as a diagnostic tool in medicine and at how religious differences influenced changes in taste through different eras.

Taste and the Ancient Senses is part of a series of books on the senses in antiquity.


Dr Rudolph is a lecturer in Classics and Philosophy in Kent's School of European Culture and Languages.

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