Cold omelette with asparagus and quail

Patina, a Roman first course

Trussed Roman songbirds and eggsThis a recipe from Roman antiquity. It is from the cookbook that inspired the title of this site: De Re Coquinaria. You can read more about this book, also known as Apicius, in the recipe for Roman Mussels, I will not repeat all that here.

Patina - Cookware and Dish
This Roman dish is called Patina. In modern English patina means the film of green oxidation on copper or bronze, or any fine layer on a surface. In Latin patina meant 'dish', either broad and shallow and meant to serve food on, or a multifunctional dish, in which food could also be prepared. That one was round or oval, made of earthenware or bronze, with straight upstanding sides. In modern English a paten is a small dish to hold the Eucharistic bread. The dominutive of patina is patella which is the ancestor of the Spanish paella. Indeed, the pan I used for this patina is the one I use for my paella as well (even though it is not an official paellera).

Roman patina from the Roman museum in Vaison la Romaine in the ProvenceFood that was prepared in the patina was also named patina. They were egg-dishes, comparable to the modern tortilla or omelet. There is a whole chapter devoted to these dishes in De Re Coquinaria (Liber IV "Pandecter" or "many ingredients", chapter II "Patinae piscium holerum pomorum" or "patinae with fish, vegetables and fruit, in the edition of Flower en Rozenbaum pp.92/111).
The basic, everyday patina (patina cotidiana) that opens the chapter is made with poundedn, boiled brains. The second recipe is probably more to the taste of the modern public: it is an omelette with pine nuts, other nuts and honey. There are patina with elderberries, horse-parsley (and brains), rose petals (and brains), with anchovy, with vegetable marrows, a very opulent patina with pine nuts, sea-urchins, vegetables, several kinds of sausages, cheese, oysters and jellyfish (and brains of course!) which is simply called 'patina with milk' (patinam ex lacte), another opulent patina 'à la Apicius' (Patinam Apicianam sic facies, in which stuffing is layered with pancakes) with sow's udder, breasts of turtle-dove, fillets of fish, and "whatever other good things you can think of" ("et queacumque optima fuerint"), there are several patinae with fish, with sorb-apples (and brains), with pears, peaches, stinging nettles, quinces. Of all these I have chosen one of the two patinae with asparagus.

The season for fresh white asparagus is short: from mid-April to the 24th of June (Saint John's) the white stalks that are harvested have grown outdoors. Asparagus is not white by its own choice. If you leave them alone the stalks will peep out above the soil and turn green in the sunlight. Nowadays you can buy green asparagus all year round. In my opinion you can't exchange white asparagus for green and vice versa in whatever recipe you want to prepare, they each have their own flavour. It is not impossible to use green or white asparagus for the same recipe, but the finished dish will be quite different. In the recipe below you can use both white or green asparagus, depending on availability and preference. Just remember: canned asparagus are NOT an option!

Sylvia hortensis (Photo by Ankur)The recipe on this page is titled 'Cold asparagus patina with quails'. Originally other birds were used in this recipe, small songbirds called ficedulae, 'fig-peckers' (Sylvia hortensis). These are very small, about the size of a robin. Faas mentions other possibilties, like the Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin), Dunnock or Hedge Warbler (Prunella modularis) and the Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca). When you imagine these small birds plucked of their feathers they are even smaller. Translated to the fishworld you might say: anchovy-sized. In most parts of Europe we let the cute little songbirds live in peace -at least with regards to cooking. The smallest bird to end up on our dinnerplates is the quail. Not a songbird, but very tasty. That is why I have replaced the ficedulae in my adaptation with quails (to return to the comparison of sizes: sardine instead of anchovy). On the picture above a Roman still life with trussed songbirds and a dish with eggs.

The original recipe
The original recipe, taken from De Re Coquinaria (more about this cookbook), in the beautiful edition of Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger (Prospect Books 2006, pp.178/179). The English translation 

aliter patina de asparagis frigida:
accipies asparagos purgatos, in mortario fricabis; aqua suffundes, perfricabis; per colum colabis, et mittes fecitulas curatas; teres in mortario piperis scrupulos sex, adicies liquamen; fricabis; uini ciatum I, passi ciatum I; mittes in caccabum olei uncias tres; illic ferueant. perungues patinam; in ea oua VI cum enogaro misces; cum suco asparagi inpones cineri calido. [mittes inpensam super scriptam]* tunc ficetulas conpones, coques; piper asparges et inferes.

* According to Grocock/Grainger yhis passage is corrupt and added by a later scribe.
Another cold asparagus patina.
Take cleaned asparagus, pound in the mortar, add water, beat thoroughly and pass through a sieve. Next put in a saucepan fig-peckers which you have prepared for cooking. Pound in the portar  6 scruples of pepper, moisten with liquamen, grind well, add one cyathus of wine and one cyathus passum. Put in a saucepan 3 oz. oil. Bring the mixture to the boil. Grease a patina pan, and mix in it  6 eggs with oenogarum, put it with the sparagus purée in the hot ashes, pour on the mixture described above, and arrange the birds on top. Cook it, [let it cool], sprinkle with pepper, and serve.

Modern adaptation of the recipe
In his book Around the Table of the Romans Faas provides us with the other recipe for patina with asparagus, and he remarks that it is almost the same as this recipe. So: simply put quails in the patina with green asparagus, and you have made this one.
In my opinion these two recipes are not interchangeable. Because according to Faas in the recipe for the aliter patina de asparagis green asparagus are explicitly mentioned, I take it that in the patina frigida de asparagis white asparagus are used. Moreover, in the 'aliter' green herbs are added (lovage, coriandre leaves, satureia), and an onion, and passum is not mentioned (although that could simply have been forgotten).
For 4 persons as first course, for 2 persons as main course; preparation in advance 30 minutes; preparation 35 minutes.

Cold patina with asparagus and quailsIngredients
500 gram (3 cups) white asparagus
1/4 decilitre (1 cup) white wine
1/4 decilitre (1 cup) Vino Santo (see note for passum)
freshly ground pepper to taste (but please use less than the original recipe, because that is half a tablespoon full)
fish sauce to taste (this is the salt. Use Eastern fish sauce, or home made), 1 tsp. to 1 Tbsp.
1/2 deciliter (1/4 cup) olive oil
4 eggs
2 or 4 quails

Preparation in advance
Soak the asparagus in cold water for an hour before peeling them. Then peel the asparagus, and cut off the wooden ends of the stalks. Cut off the asparagus heads (5cm/3 inches) and keep them apart. Boil the asparagus stalks in salted water for about ten minutes (very thick ones fifteen) (when you add the asparaguspeel you'll end up with an excellent base for asparagus soup). Take the stalks out of the water, boil the heads in the same liquid for five minutes. Green asparagus do not have to be peeled, you can either boil them a few minutes, or fry them in olive oil.
Purée the asparagus stalks. It is very important that you have removed ALL the peel from the stalks, because any leftover peel will remain in the purée as hard, disagreeable strings.
Fry the quails in olive oil for twenty minutes (or poach them, or roast them). Leave them whole or cut them in two.
Temper white wine with Vino Santo and fish sauce (this is called oenogarum). Add pepper and olive oil. According to the original recipe you should bring this to the boil and then mix it with the eggs. This would cause the eggs to curdle. It is best to add the oenogarum in small quantities at the time, stirring the eggs all the while. When this is done, add the asparagus purée.

Preheat an oven to 200dgC (392oF). Grease a round or oval dish with olive oil and pour in the egg-mixture. Divide the saved asparagus heads over the eggs (they will probably sink into the eggs), and the quails. Cover the dish with aluminium foil, and place it in the middle of the oven for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the foil after 10 to 15 minutes.
If you prepare this dish in latrger quantities you'll have to leave the dish in the oven longer (and use a larger dish).

To serve
The patina is served in the dish in which it is prepared. According to the title of the recipe it must be served cold (that is, at room temperature), but when you are hungry and do not want to wait, it is also very tasty when hot.

Patina with green asparagus and herbsExtra recipe - The other Asparagus Patina
As you can see on the picture on the left, this patina looks different: it is green. No wonder, with green asparagus instead of white ones, and green herbs. The taste is also different, cilantro leaves and lovage are quite distinctive. To me, this patina is less subtle and refined than the patina with white asparagus, but it tastes good nevertheless.
The recipe is clear and does not need to be interpretated (just look at the recipe above), I just present the translation with the Latin text from the edition by Grocock and Grainger. They interpretate the 'asparagorum praecisuras' not as (green) asparagus tips as do Flower and Rosenbaum (and Faas), but as the coarse, hard root-ends of the stems (Grocock and Graingers p.180). So the recipe would be a way of using kitchen waste. In my rendering of the recipe I chose for the interpretation of Flower and Rosenbaum, simply because I like the combination of green asparagus with green herbs better, but I think Grocock and Grainger are right.

aliter patina de asparagis:
adicies in moratrio asparagorum praecisuras quae proiciuntur; teres, suffundes uinum, colas, teres piper ligusticum coriandrum uiridem satureiam cepam uinum liquamen et oleum; sucum transferes in patellam perunctam et si uolueris oua dissolues ad ignem ut obliget, piper minutum asparges.
Another patina of asparagus
Put in a mortar the trimmings of asparagus which are thrown away, pound them, pour on wine and strain them. Pound pepper, lovage, green coriander, savory, onion, wine, liquamen and oil. Pour the liquor into a greased dish and if you want stir eggs in over the fire so that it thickens, sprinkle with ground pepper.

All descriptions of ingredients

Fish sauce or liquamen or garum - A clear liquid made of small fermented fish with much salt and sometimes alsoe several kinds of dried herbs. The Romans used liquamen or garum in the same way we use salt. There is however a difference: salt dehydrates food, liquamen adds liquid to a dish. It was produced in factories and sold in amforas. There were many qualities of garum, from cheap to very expensive. Apicius would no doubt only have used the very best quality. Nowadays in the Far East a kind of fish sauce is still in use in much the same way as the Romans used garum. You can use these sauces as a substitute for garum: Vietnamese nuoc-nam, or Thai nam-pla. You can also try to make your own garum, as the Romans made it at home when they were out of stock (recipe).
Oenogarum - Wine tempered with fish-sauce and herbs.
Passum - Sweet white wine used in recipes from Roman antiquity. The wine is sweet because of the partly dried grapes that were used for it. They have a higher sugarcontent then fresh grapes. In Italy passum-type wines are still being produced, for example the Vino Santo.

Patina and caccabus from Roman Cookery by Flower and Rosenbaum.Roman expressions
Caccabus - Small kettle
Cyathus - Half deciliter (50cc, a little over 3 tablespoons)
Patella - Diminutive of patina (see below). The word paëlla is derived from this.
Patina - Round or oval dish with upright sides for in the oven or on the fire
Scrupulum - 1,137 gram, a little less than 1/4 teaspoon
Uncia - Roman ounce, 27,3 gram (the modern ounce equals 28,35 gram)

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