By Thony Christie
The British Museum has a new exhibition on Pompeii and Cambridge classicist and current media star Mary Beard has been doing the rounds of the English press writing entertaining glosses on it. In her piece for The Sun (yes really that Sun!) she mentioned amongst other things that the Romans ate dormice. Now most English people on being informed of this Roman culinary delight automatically think of the common or hazel dormouse (Mucardinus avellanarius) famously seen being stuffed into a teapot by the Hatter and the March Hare at the formers tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Now this creature is about the same size as the common house mouse (Mus musculus) but has somewhat thicker brown fur and a furry tail. Skinned and boned it would provide, at best, a very delicate hors d’oeuvre or amuse-bouche but never a real meal. There are however many different species of dormouse something that most people are not aware of.
Where I live in Southern Germany for example we have lots of Siebenschläfer, literally translated seven sleeper, (Glis glis) which is supposedly so named because it hibernates for seven months of the year. It looks like a small grey squirrel with a grey and white stripped tummy and a very long, very bushy tail that curls up right over its head like a sunshade. They look very cute and cuddly but you shouldn’t try to stroke one as they are very aggressive and you’ll come away with some very nasty bites.
The edible dormouse is the domesticated Glis glis, which when fattened can weigh up to 300 grams. The Roman cookbook Apicius, now thought to date from the late 4th or early 5th century, famously contains a recipe for stuffed dormouse, which I reproduce below:
Liber VIII: Tetrapus
Glires: glires: isicio porcino, item pulpis ex omni membro glirium, trito cum pipere, nucleis, lasere, liquamine farcies glires, et sutos in tegula positos mittes in furnum aut farsos in clibano coque.
9. Dormice: Dormice: dormice: stuff the dormice with minced pork as well as the flesh from all of the dormouse’s limbs, together with ground pepper, pine nuts, laser and liquamen and place them sewn up on a clay tile in the oven or cook them in a roasting pan.
Liquamen or garum is a fermented fish sauce and almost universal condiment that served roughly the same function in the Roman cuisine as salt in ours. Laser or silphium was a, now extinct, Roman spice or herb thought to be similar to asafoetida.
So next time you want to surprise your loved one with some truly exotic cookery just rustle up a couple of Glis glis and get stuffing.
Thony Christie is an independent historian of science who blogs at the Renaissance Mathematicus mostly about the mathematical sciences and mostly about the Early Modern Period.