Tarraco Viva – what did the Romans eat?

Tarraco Viva is about everything Roman, including the food, and  21 of the best restaurants in Tarragona are taking part  with individual taster menus,  whose recipes and ingredients are straight out of pages of  Roman cookbooks.

Cooking  without tomatoes, corn, potatoes, peppers, aubergines, and all the other dietary trappings from the new and modern world can present a challenge,  yet much of the ingredients used in Roman times are still available, and Tarragona, set between hills and sea, is just the perfect place to source out the base notes for some great ancient Roman cooking.

El Llagut is  a superb little restaurant run with love and dedication; is is also seriously passionate about slow food and organic ingredients. There is a list of wines to match the Roman  food  on offer and you can’t go more authentic than an an organic Sicus,  fermented in clay pots said to add extra micro-oxygenation to the wine process, resulting in a  rich and clean flavor.

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The first dish on the table was an “Ostra Marinada en Mulsum i Coriander Fresc” and for this blogger the mother of all oyster, one to die for. Get this: nested in its shell, served on a mound of  coarse salt , is  super fresh salty zesty  fishy oyster in a bath of wine and honey (Mulsum was served at the Roman festival of  Saturnalia) and coriander.

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The bread from the Forn Patisseria Jordi Andreu, made from organic wheat, barley, rye and buckwheat, is packed with clean unrefined flavor and delivers a sweet and savory notes when matched with a glass of wine. The clue to Roman food are the strong, undiluted flavours of a world of plenty.

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Next is a delicious lightweight Moretum, a cheese and herb paste which Roman poets were quite fond of and made of strong, matured, sheep cheese, salt, oil and herbs. Traditionally served with bread we got our with a crisp wedge of coca  and an aromatic herb salad to add a little texture crescendo.This and a little garnish of sweet pea flower.

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Keeping with their sustainable ethos, next it a “Verat Fumat sobre Remolatxa, Olivada i Galeta de Camut”; peix blau is a variety of small Mackerel with a blue shimmer (hence the blau) which is only caught around this area. Plentiful available, the fish is filleted, marinated and smoked over aromatic wood, and served with a soft pickled beetroot salad, a little herb and olive dip, and a  crunchy galleta made of coarse wheat.

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Follow up is “Calamars Farcits d’en Trespo”, a tender squid stuffed with spinach and pureed muscle meat, served with local toasted pine nuts and poached beans and a dip of Garum.  Garum, for the uninitiated, is fermented fish sauce  to which herbs were added to refine the flavor.  The result is surprising and instantly addictive, one of those flavor that has bitter, sweet, sour, salt and… umami. No respecting Roman citizen or soldier would be seen without it and small flasks of Garum was a mandatory accessory. Divine when matched with toasted pine nuts and a morsel of squid.

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Every meal has it’s zenith so here it is blasting with flavors a “Fricaseè d’Ostia am Lombarda Estofada i Poma” : the most juicy and tender, organic beef medallions, served with the richest red wine, red cabbage, honey  sauce you’ll ever taste,  topped by two poached slices of pear. So good it would have made Nero weep. It’s a chocolaty, or marmalady, richest of  meaty melts challenged by the fragrant pears. El Llagut was afraid they had gone too far but they got this to perfection.

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Dessert: Pera al Defritum amd Mejar Blank.  Reus claims to be the cradle of the Mejar Blank  but no, no no. The Romans got there first and history will eventually settle this argument for good (some say Tarragona got there before Reus because of the involvement  clergy, but this is another story beyond the scope of this blog). The Roman Mejar Blank is a rich cream made of honey, almond, a touch of lemon peal and starch and here served cold and drizzled with Defritum, a thick syrup made of reduced grape juice and topped with poached pears.

A light and rewarding Roman gastronomic gran finale!

The very good news: The Roman taster menu has been so well received that  it will be made available from El Llagut even once Tarraco Viva will close it’s door at the end of  this coming Sunday.  So walk in and  just ask for it.

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