Recipe Wednesday: More Meatballs: Meatballs From History (Part 1 of 3)

After posting some of my favorite meatball recipes last week, I realized that I had more to share.

As some of you may know, one of my interests is historical cookery: looking at cookbooks and manuscripts from various historical periods and trying to re-create the dishes I find in them.  This can be challenging, since a lot of historical recipes don’t bother with silly things like cooking times, temperatures, or amounts of ingredients.  There’s a fair bit of trial and error involved, but occasionally, you end up with a dish that’s really tasty.

So for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to talk about Meatballs From History.  First up, a recipe from Roman times, from Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria:


Esicia Omentata
(Stuffed Meat Dumplings)

Original recipe (or at least a translation thereof):
Grind chopped meat with the center of fine white bread that has been soaked in wine.  Grind together pepper, garum, and pitted myrtle berries if desired.  Form small patties, putting in pine nuts and pepper.  Wrap in omentum and cook slowly in caroenum.
–Apicius 48


The first thing you probably noticed is that there are a couple of ingredients with which many modern cooks are not familiar.  So let’s take a look at those:

  • Garum:  A sauce made from fish that have been salted and fermented.  Which sounds disgusting, I know.  However, Vietnamese fish sauce is essentially the same thing, and saves you the trouble of fermenting your own.  And it does add a nice note to the flavor of the finished dish.
  • Caroenum:  This is essentially a red wine that has been reduced in half by cooking.  Some sources suggest the addition of honey to make it sweeter.  But this is easy enough for a modern cook to do.
  • Omentum:  Pork caul fat, the lacy, fatty membrane encasing the internal organs of an animal.  Which you can probably get if you’re friends with a butcher, or if you’re willing to hunt it down on-line.  But not something you can go into your local grocery store and just pick up.  At least not in Denver, Colorado (which is where I live).  It looks like the purpose of the caul fat in this recipe is to act as a sort of sausage casing, so you could try substituting those.  Or (as I chose to do), you could just leave it out.

So now that we have that sorted out, let’s look at amounts

  • 4 cups red wine — After reducing it by half, that would leave about two cups.  Which should be enough to poach a pound of meatballs
  • 1 pound ground pork or beef — The original recipe says, “Meat”.  So you could go with beef, pork, or lamb.  I usually use beef, just because that’s readily available where I live.
  • 4 slices of white bread — or a chunk of a shepherd’s or French bread loaf
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 8-10 juniper berries — I couldn’t find myrtle berries, so I used these instead
  • 2 teaspoons Thai fish sauce — substituting for garum
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts

All of that seems pretty reasonable, right?  Next, the process:

Put the four cups of red wine in a saucepan.  Boil over medium-high heat for about half an hour, or until the liquid has reduced by half.

Meanwhile, remove the crusts from the slices of bread and tear the bread into bits.  Place in a large bowl and pour the 1/4 cup of red wine over them.  Knead until the red wine is evenly distributed; the mixture should be pasty.  Add meat and mix well.
Grind together peppercorns and juniper berries.  Mix with fish sauce and pour over meat mixture.  Mix until spices are evenly distributed.

Form walnut-sized meatballs, making a hollow in each with your thumb.  Place 6-8 pine nuts in the hollow and roll meatball firmly to seal.  Poach dumplings in reduced wine for about 6 minutes, turning once while cooking.  Remove meatballs and allow remaining liquid to reduce by half.  Serve hot, with reduced liquid as a sauce.


There is some debate as to what shape these meatballs really ought to be.  The Latin word “isicia” can translate to patties or sausages.  Because of the “patty” translation, some folks have chosen to interpret these as the equivalent of a modern hamburger patty.  However, given the instructions to wrap them in caul fat, I think “sausage” is a more accurate translation.

Because they’re poached in reduced red wine, the meatballs turn out a lovely, burgundy color.  The flavors of the wine and peppercorns blend together nicely, and, well, I’m a sucker for anything with pine nuts in it.

If anyone decides to try these, please let me know how yours turned out!


About sheilamcclune

Aspiring author, sharing the tidbits I've learned along the way.
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