The residents of the Italian peninsula in ancient times learned most of what they knew about food and nutrition from the Greeks who colonized Sicily and the lower part of the "boot." The Greeks were partial to a diet which has recently been revived in this country under the name the "Mediterranean diet" and which consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, legumes and olive oil. The original Mediterranean diet which the Greeks brought to Italy was later enhanced with the development of pasta. Historians disagree about the exact time and place of pasta's invention but there is clear evidence of pasta's existence in the glory days of Rome.
Eating meat did not become a widespread habit until the barbarians from the North invaded and brought about the fall of the Roman Empire. The Germanic tribes of Goths, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Franks and others were great consumers of meat and dairy products and introduced their ways into Italy.
Evidence of the influence of the Greeks and the Germanic tribes is still visible today in Italy's culinary landscape. In Sicily and the southern provinces, the original Mediterranean diet is still very much the standard with its emphasis on fruits and vegetables and pasta. The southerners use olive oil almost exclusively in their cooking and meat is an additive, not the main event. It has always seemed odd to me that Rome conquered the world with armies fed on a nearly vegetarian diet. Our modern image of the warrior, which probably resembles a cowboy more than a Roman legionnaire, is one of a fighting man with ravenous appetites that surely included a hankering for meat. Our image is wrong: Roman soldiers ate the standard diet of the times, based on pasta, fruits, vegetables and olive oil.
Historians prowling through ancient documents have been able to establish what Roman armies ate from inventories of the supplies that the troops carried with them. Naturally, the armies toted pasta, since it was lightweight and would not spoil. They also took olive oil and whatever fruits and vegetables were least likely to spoil. They most certainly augmented their supplies with whatever they found locally as they moved about.
One of my favorite dishes which was likely eaten by the Roman legionnaires is orange and fennel salad, a combination of orange sections and slices of fennel bulbs with olive oil and pepper. Both oranges and fennel are sturdy and therefore relatively easy to transport and both have a reasonably long shelf life. The combination of the sweet orange and the licorice-like fennel is a different and interesting flavor combination and is loaded with vitamins.
There are many versions of orange and fennel salad today. My recipe is below. I recommend using a fruity-flavored olive oil for best results. If fennel is not available in your market, you can substitute either a combination of Belgian endive and radicchio or lightly blanched asparagus. When substituting, use your favorite light vinaigrette as a dressing instead of plain olive oil.
Be sure to tell the history of this dish when you serve it. My guests are always astonished to hear they are eating a salad with ancient and distinguished origins. I can also imagine that little boys would get a kick out of eating something that the Roman soldiers ate. I know big boys like me think it's pretty cool.
ORANGE AND FENNEL SALAD
Peel the oranges with a knife so as to remove all of the white pith. With a sharp knife, cut along the membranes separating segments so as to remove them (segments so removed are known as "supremes").
Wash the fennel and remove green stalks and any bruised or discolored outer leaves. Slice cross-wise as thinly as possible. Use a mandoline or other slicing device if you have one.
Peel the onion and remove both ends. Slice cross-wise as thinly as possible. Again, use a mandoline or other slicing device if you have one. Combine orange supremes, fennel and onion in a bowl and toss with olive oil. Serve with freshly grated pepper as is or atop a bed of lettuce. For 4 to 6 people.