Moveable Feasts

From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat

Sarah Murray

St. Martin's Press

Chapter 1
 
Professor José Remesal Rodríguez holds a piece of pottery up to the sunlight. He is standing at the top of Monte Testaccio, a small, unassuming hill on the southern fringe of the Aventine, a short ride from Rome’s city center and within sight of some of Europe’s greatest monuments. The Pyramid of Cestius and the Protestant Cemetery are nearby. In the distance, the majestic dome of the Pantheon, Borromini’s extraordinary spiral tower at the Church of St. Ivo, and the pompous Monument to Victor Emmanuel II rise up above the low-slung buildings of the city. It is an impressive display—a visual excursion through Italian history from Roman times via the Renaissance and on to nineteenth-century unification.

But the professor is not paying much attention to the view. He is too busy examining the chunk of clay in his hand. It is pale brown and bears a deep mark that appears to have been stamped into the clay while wet. There is nothing refined about this thick fragment of earthenware. Its form is clumsy; its surface rough. It was clearly not part of any sort of decorative or ceremonial object. It is in fact a piece of a Roman transport amphora—a ceramic pot about the size of a small barrel that almost two thousand years ago carried food to Rome, capital of an empire stretching from the lowlands of Scotland to the deserts of Africa, from Spain to the Persian Gulf.

“It is Baetican, of course,” pronounces the professor. Baetica is today’s Spanish province of Andalusia, the southernmost region of the Iberian Peninsula, home to flamenco and known for a simple, unpretentious cuisine that includes gazpacho, fried fish, and cured ham. Spectacular Andalusian architecture such as the Mezquita in Córdoba, a cathedral that was once a mosque, provides a reminder of the presence of the Moors, the Muslims who ruled from the eighth century to the fifteenth.

Long before that, however, the Romans were in charge. That was when Baetica was part of Hispania—an area now occupied by Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and Gibraltar. Roman soldiers first arrived there in 218 b.c., and as direct imperial rule was established, Hispania became a prized part of the empire. Three emperors—Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius I—would be born there.

As one of Hispania’s imperial provinces, Baetica was an important source of food for the empire. And this dry, mountainous swathe of land was the starting point for the piece of pottery Remesal is holding. The fragment is part of a second-century transport jar that set out to Italy from a vast agricultural estate owned by a wealthy senator at a time when Rome was at the height of its power. Produce from this fertile land would have been loaded into the jar, heaved onto a vessel by bonded laborers, and shipped to Rome. There, it ended up in the homes and palaces of everyone from philosophers and politicians to manual workers and freed slaves. It may be small and dusty, but this fragment of pottery is part of the endless patchwork that is the history of the Roman Empire. The story it has to tell is one of immense wealth built on trade in an essential commodity: olive oil.
 

Gathered around the professor on Monte Testaccio are students and archaeologists who have traveled from the United States, Spain, and Poland to join Remesal in his ambitious archaeological investigation of this modest-looking hill. It is not the best day for it. On an uncharacteristically soggy October morning, most of those present are wrapped in brightly colored plastic raincoats and fleece jackets. Umbrellas are at the ready. Below, the hum of traffic is accompanied by a cacophony of barking dogs, crowing roosters, and pealing church bells as the city slowly wakes. A rainbow arches briefly across the tempestuous sky as the sun attempts to break through the clouds. Softly, the rain starts to fall.

But a spot of bad weather does not trouble the professor. He is far too interested in what lies beneath his feet to worry about what is happening in the sky. A bearded, bespectacled Spaniard who seems at his happiest with a cigarette in one hand and a piece of pottery in the other, Remesal has spent the past couple of decades uncovering the stories hidden beneath Monte Testaccio’s grassy slopes. This is his stomping ground and, in blue jeans and khaki safari jacket, he looks entirely at home clambering over the uneven ground on the broken pieces of Roman amphorae scattered underfoot. “I spend a month here each year and every time we come, we find something different,” he says, speaking in heavily accented French. “I’ve gotten to know this hill pretty well, but there are always surprises.” Remesal talks with a deep, gravelly voice. It sounds as if, over the years, particles of dust from the pots he studies have become lodged in his throat.

The archaeological dig on Monte Testaccio is like no other. While most archaeologists spend days scrabbling about in the dirt in the hopes of finding something of interest, here they have no such worries. This is because the entire hill is made of archaeological material—there is no dirt here. What lies beneath the thin layer of topsoil is nothing but millions of broken pots. Each year, Remesal and his colleagues come here to carve a large square pit about ten feet deep into this archaic mound and study what they excavate.

Like the rings of a tree, each layer of pottery corresponds to a moment in time. In this year’s pit, they have got down as far as the reign of Marcus Aurelius, around a.d. 175. As the dig progresses, Italian contract workers in white plastic hard hats stand at the bottom of the hole, carefully chipping away at it and filling buckets with pieces of amphorae. Up on the surface, colleagues use a rope to heave load after load of fragments out into the fresh air and over to the center of activity—a collection of large plastic tubs filled with muddy water around which students and academics sit and gossip as they wash two-thousand-year-old layers of dust from the chunks of earthenware in their hands.

It is a busy scene. Dotted about the place are bright orange, yellow, and green plastic crates into which the shards are thrown—one box for each category of fragment. Some boxes contain those with “form” (handles, necks, or bases). Others store pieces on which stamped marks, rough scratches, or painted inscriptions are visible. Then there are boxes for the bulk of the pieces—shards without recognizable shape or markings known as “no form.” At a large table, several archaeologists are working on what must be one of the world’s more difficult jigsaw puzzles as they try, mostly in vain, to re-create entire pots by fitting together some of the larger pieces retrieved from the same excavation level.

At the end of the dig, much of what has been heaved up from below the hill’s surface will be thrown back into the hole. It is a strange phenomenon. A single one of these shards found in a field anywhere else would generate great excitement among historians and archaeologists. Here on Monte Testaccio, however, pieces of Roman amphorae are being heaved up from below the hill’s surface in bucketloads throughout the day. After washing the fragments, the volunteers casually throw them into the plastic boxes as if they were vegetables, scrubbed and ready for cooking. It looks as if they are preparing for a mammoth vegetarian feast.
 
 
Monte Testaccio is one of the world’s more curious ancient relics. It is actually a vast rubbish heap. For more than two centuries, olive oil amphorae were dumped here after their contents had been unloaded and distributed to consumers. As Romans used up more and more oil, the pile of shards grew, creating over two centuries a hill made up entirely of bits of pottery. Bases, handles, rims, necks, and body fragments all ended up here. Roman emperors came and went, battles were lost and won, and nations beaten into submission, but the mountain of pots kept rising. Some of the amphorae were shipped from North Africa, but at least 80 percent of Monte Testaccio’s unlikely treasures originated in Baetica. “We are standing on Spanish territory,” declares Remesal with a grin. And he is right: what lies below our feet is a gargantuan mound made from the clay of southern Spain, a chunk of foreign soil that ended up on Italian shores.

Today, few notice this bizarre monument to ancient Rome’s commercial might. After all, it is hardly located in the most glamorous setting. The modern district of Testaccio is one of the city’s seedier areas, now famous for taverns, gay bars, and nightclubs with names such as Caffé Latino Jazz Club, On the Rox, and Chattanooga—places where Rome’s night owls like to spend their time and money. But even these trendy establishments have a history rooted in the mountain of jars around which they cluster. In the Middle Ages, the hill became the focus for all kinds of religious festivals and secular revelries, and a collection of taverns and restaurants opened around Monte Testaccio’s slopes. From the seventeenth century, wine merchants who dug caves out of its slopes found that the dense ceramic makeup of the hill provided a cool atmosphere that was ideal for storing wine.

Today, disco music thuds out from the caves at the base of the hill and, in packed restaurants, hungry diners enjoy the oxtail stew and the sweetbreads that have long been popular in this district, which was once home to the city’s main slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, at the back of several of the restaurants, the pot fragments quietly watch over the proceedings, clearly visible behind glass walls.

Dining and dancing might be the order of the day now, but in the first and second centuries, all activity around here centered on waste disposal. There are several theories as to how it was organized. Some believe empty pots were hauled up the ever-expanding hill by mules—each animal might have carried about four amphorae—and then broken up at the summit. Others speculate the jars were smashed below before being taken up to their final resting place. From time to time, lime was poured on the broken shards to counter the smell of rancid oil and to prevent the spread of disease. With each cargo vessel that arrived on the banks of the Tiber, the hill grew bigger.

Today, by some accounts, the hill is about 165 feet high and it takes about twenty minutes to walk around. True, it is not much to look at compared with the Colosseum, the giant showcase for Roman cruelty, or the Pantheon with its mighty dome, but this man-made mound is one of the world’s most important archaeological sites—a critical corner of ancient Rome, offering a remarkable window on the empire’s economic life.

The nineteenth-century writer Rodolfo Lanciani certainly appreciated the significance of old trash. “The hill itself may be called a monument of the greatness and activity of the harbor of Rome,” he wrote in an 1897 description of Monte Testaccio, a quarter of a century after an Italian priest, Father Luigi Bruzza, and Heinrich Dressel, an Italian-Prussian professor, began to excavate the site. On a frosty morning in January 1872, the pair climbed up the slopes and set about analyzing what they found there. By the time their work was complete, Dressel had scrutinized and set down details of more than three thousand marks stamped onto handles of the amphorae, as well as nearly a thousand inscriptions written on the body of the pots by Roman insurance agents, ship’s captains, or customs officers. The amphorae assessed by Dressel’s project represent a fraction of the hill’s historical data. More than fifty million pots found their final resting place here. Today, while teams excavate more than five hundred cubic feet of material each season, they are barely scraping the surface of this remarkable dump.

Not all Roman amphorae were disposed of as they were here, in a great big pile. Elsewhere, in early examples of recycling, they were used for storage in domestic kitchens and warehouses, and even as urns containing the ashes of the dead. Smashed into pieces, they became part of the fabric of buildings. Packed into the rubble core of walls, they acted as insulation. In roofs and domes, they helped lighten the structure’s weight, and in the walls of theaters, the curved fragments enhanced the acoustics, amplifying the sound of music and voices. In short, these pots were extremely useful. So the fact that a mountain of amphorae accumulated in Rome, broken up, unwanted, and collecting dust, indicates the scale of demand for olive oil in the first and second centuries.

Rome was then the largest city in the ancient world with a population of about a million. It was tremendously crowded, made up mainly of residences, and had no industrial manufacturing or food production of its own to speak of. Romans were consumers, not producers, and most of what they ate had to be brought in from other parts of the empire—in extremely large quantities.

Olive oil was among the most important of the imports. An extraordinarily nutritious food product containing edible fats and high levels of vitamins A and E, olive oil was used by the Romans to fry, bake, and roast their food. It was a key ingredient in bread as well as in salad dressings. By night, olive oil lamps provided lighting in domestic households, temples, baths, and palaces. At sporting events, athletes smeared themselves with oil before competing, and olive oil was the base for most perfumes and cosmetics. Each Roman citizen probably consumed up to thirteen gallons of the liquid a year (by comparison, Italians today use 4.5 gallons a year) and larger homes or taverns stored hundreds of gallons in a dolium, a huge jar that was dug into the ground to provide a cooler storage vessel. So Monte Testaccio’s amphorae fragments are evidence of consumption on a massive scale. Some estimate that its well-traveled pots would collectively have carried an astounding 1.6 billion gallons to their destination (the same amount of liquid that would be generated by flushing a toilet once a second for thirty-two years).

Monte Testaccio has more secrets to reveal. A wide variety of markings on the pottery shards make the hill rather like a giant accounts book detailing the export and import of olive oil. Instead of ledgers recording income, expenditure, and accounts receivable, the stamps, scratches, and painted inscriptions tell of the estates producing the oil, the companies that shipped it, and the customs officials in Spain and Rome who checked the goods on departure and arrival.

The painted inscriptions are the most intriguing of the marks. The beauty of these strange and ephemeral hieroglyphs, with their elaborate flourishes and curls, is made more entrancing by the rarity of their occurrence elsewhere. When such pottery is found at other sites, exposure to light or moisture means any ink inscriptions have long since disappeared. At Monte Testaccio—a giant time capsule in which every shard has been protected and kept dry by a layer of topsoil and grass—details remain that allow us to trace each stage of a pot’s passage from the olive estate to the docks of the Tiber. The month a particular pot left Spain can be pinned down. The exact date it arrived in Italy is also recorded.

Here in Rome, we learn of the fortunes of the Spanish businessmen who profited from this valuable liquid. When a group of shards bearing the same markings are found at the same level, it becomes possible to start building a picture of certain families and the years in which their olive estates produced good harvests. The Baetican landowners and merchants made wealthy by olive oil had names like MM. Iulii of Astigi, a family at the heart of the trade for more than three generations, or M. Iulius Hermes Frontinianus, whose son M. Iulius Hermesianus followed his father into the business. It is often unclear whether these people were traders or producers, but what is certain is that they profited from olive oil in some way. Shipped across the empire, olive oil turned Baetica into Hispania’s wealthiest province, with architectural, political, and social structures that emulated those of Rome itself. Common coinage was introduced. Bridges and aqueducts were constructed. Latin became the province’s official language.

The landowners and businessmen immortalized by Monte Testaccio’s ceramic fragments lived in fine villas and led lives of luxury, surrounded by dozens of slaves and attendants. They hosted expensive private parties, staged theatrical shows, purchased works of art, and erected funerary monuments to themselves. Some Baetican oil traders made it into the highest echelons of the aristocratic elite, particularly if they used their spare cash to make donations to the collegia, voluntary associations that were part of the social fabric of the Roman Empire.

A Narbonne-based Spanish olive oil merchant, Sextus Fadius Secundus Musa, was one such figure. A prominent dealer whose amphorae have been found on Monte Testaccio, Sextus would have possessed numerous properties near his olive estates, all decorated with elaborate mosaics and sculptures and used as venues for lavish social events. He was clearly a well-known philanthropist, giving generously to the collegia, for the city of Rome’s council rewarded his patronage with the erection of a statue. Money did not always lead to social prominence in the Roman world, but it certainly helped.
 
 
None of this would have been possible without the assistance of an unassuming clay jar. The shape of this simple but cleverly designed container—a cross between an egg and a torpedo—made it remarkably strong and easy to pack into a vessel’s hold. The curve of the pot’s side fitted snugly against the curve of the ship. Its pointed base allowed the jar to fit neatly in between the shoulders of the amphorae in the row below, preventing the cargo from rolling around during transit. The base also served as a third grip, supplementing its two handles, for dockworkers to grasp during the unloading process and when decanting the liquid.

The manufacture of these transport workhorses was complex. First, the main body of the pot was formed, leaving a small hole in the base to allow for quicker drying. Then the neck and rim, created separately, were joined to the main body and the hole at the bottom was closed up. The two side handles were added last. Pot production took place on an industrial scale. Along the banks of the Guadalquivir (Spain’s longest and most important river) are the remains of at least a hundred pottery workshops, some with rows of kilns that would have occupied dozens of workers in the production of shipping amphorae. Since land transport was expensive, it made sense to manufacture these heavy pots near rivers or coasts, and the Baetis, as the Guadalquivir was then known, was a vital artery in the olive trade, running from Córdoba out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Baetica’s mountainous land and the hot, dry climate provided perfect conditions for nurturing the source of its wealth, the olive tree. Pliny the Elder, the first-century philosopher and author of the famous Natural History, remarked on Baetica’s “peculiar brilliance of vegetation.” However, as well as abundant supply, Baetica had that other vital ingredient in wealth creation—a stable market. The olive oil supply chain combined state-controlled production and free-market economics, all driven by demand from Rome. Rations of olive oil from Baetica are thought by some to have been distributed through the annona, an official agency that also distributed grain. Sensibly enough, the imperial authorities reckoned that well-fed people made for happy citizens. But they allowed private merchants to participate in provision of the supply. In addition, the Roman army needed feeding, and Baetica was the chief source of olive oil consumed by the legions stationed in outposts such as Germany and Britain.

Drawn by the empire’s appetite, millions of jars of olive oil made their way from Hispania to Rome, departing from places such as Córdoba and sailing southward via the Balearic Islands. Some went along the North African shore and across to Italy. Amphorae made other journeys, too, finding their way to markets in Italy, France, Britain, and even India.

The Romans, the great road builders, were less comfortable on water. Even when they gained control of Mare Nostrum (their name for the Mediterranean), the Romans preferred navigation techniques and trade routes that did not take them too far from land. Yet water transport was a crucial part of the economic equation, since hauling goods by land was extremely expensive. Their ships were simple wooden affairs. Rather than using overlapping planks to create the hull, these vessels were constructed using the tongue-and-groove system, where the edge of each plank slots into that of its neighbor. Deck, mast, and internal ribs were then built and the lower part of the hull was sheathed in lead to protect it from wood-boring sea worms.

Conveyed in these vessels, oil from Baetica ended up at the port of Ostia, on the Tyrrhenian Sea off Italy’s west coast, where, after a short layover in a warehouse, it was loaded onto barges that could navigate the Tiber and unloaded at port installations along the river’s banks in southern Rome. As well as receiving olive oil shipments, Ostia was also where huge shiploads of grain arrived from Egypt to be ground into flour, baked into bread, and sent on the barges up the Tiber into Rome.

Echoes of this mighty trading post can be found today at the remains of the Roman port, now known as Ostia Antica, about forty minutes’ drive southwest of Rome. The mill-bakeries with their giant grindstones and ovens survive, and wandering through the paved streets and impressive public buildings of this magnificent archaeological site, it is easy to picture a thriving maritime city of warehouses, shops, lavish apartment blocks, grand theaters, and elegant villas. Here, the Romans enjoyed themselves at luxurious baths as well as at brothels and bars.

If the remains at Ostia conjure up images of the lifestyle of wealthy Romans, what funded such decadence was transportation and international commerce. From within small booths at the Square of the Guilds, a sort of trading floor, vessel owners from different parts of the world haggled over freight rates and merchants negotiated business deals and supply contracts. Among the guilds were the mercatores olearii (oil merchants). On one side of the square, a floor mosaic provides a visual reminder of their trade—a slave aboard a vessel carrying a large amphora on his shoulders.

While oil merchants talked money in the Square of the Guilds, these slaves were out on the docks, their backs glistening with beads of sweat as they unloaded pot after pot of olive oil beneath the fiery Italian sun. And those pots were extremely heavy. An amphora weighed about sixty-six pounds when empty. When full, carrying about six gallons, it weighed more than double that. For the slaves, then, the amphora was a heavy burden. For the men and donkeys lugging broken shards up the slopes of Monte Testaccio, the amphora was a chore. But for the olive merchants of Baetica, it was something quite different—an extraordinarily efficient ceramic vessel at the heart of an international trade that thrived many centuries before the word globalization had been coined.
 
 
These days, olive oil does not arrive at the point of purchase (the POP, in the retailer’s jargon) in a ceramic pot. The olive oil we buy comes in glass—in sleek designer bottles. Lined up on the shelves of shops and supermarkets, these transparent vessels of gold-green liquid have a jewel-like allure, evoking amber or polished jade. The more expensive varieties are even corked and sealed with wax, giving them a grandeur associated with fine wine. Lit from behind, the bottles have a marvelous luminosity. Their seductive quality is all about aesthetics and image. Taste does not enter into the equation, at least not until the bottle is safely home (not even the faintest odor of the contents will be released until the seal is broken).

Then there are the labels. The more traditional among them show beautifully crafted images of rustic farm laborers and women in nineteenth-century dress. Art deco flourishes, impressive-looking crests, and classical ornamentation embellish these images. An entire industry revolves around designing olive oil bottles and coming up with images that will help us conjure up a whiff of the Mediterranean, whether we are wandering around in a shopping mall in Dallas or popping into the local supermarket on a rainy day in Leeds.

When it comes to marketing olive oil, the Italians are the experts. The Bertolli Web site provides a hint of this mastery. Like shavings of fresh Parmesan, romantic images of la dolce vita scatter gently across the computer screen as the presentation downloads. In this particular section of cyberspace, everything evokes a bygone era—an Italy seen through rose-tinted spectacles, where Mama cooks the pasta, old men with faces weathered as an olive tree’s bark tend the groves, and dinner is served on a terrace overlooking a sun-baked Tuscan landscape. The Web site tells us that back in 1865, just seven years before Bruzza and Dressel were to make their first excavations on Monte Testaccio, Francesco Bertolli and his wife established a shop at the front of their house in Lucca, in the Tuscan heart of Italy’s olive-growing region. That building on Piazza San Donato (it is still standing, we are told) is where the business began. By buying Bertolli olive oil, the Web site suggests, we can all savor “life the way Italians do.”

It is an appealing thought. That is, until you pick up a bottle of olive oil at the local supermarket, thousands of miles from that Tuscan landscape, and find that while, on many brands, the label proclaims it has been “imported from Italy,” the golden liquid within is often (as revealed in the small print on the back) a blend of oils from Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia. For all the clever associations conveyed by the packaging, the reality is that what we’re buying is not entirely Italian. Much of it has been picked and pressed elsewhere and transported across Europe before being blended, bottled, and labeled in Italy and sent out on its way again.

Much of the oil in the bottles of Italian companies will have started its journey in Spain. In this respect, little has changed since Roman times. Spain, not Italy, is still the world’s most important source of olive oil. Spain is the origin for more than half the olive oil produced by European Union countries (Italy’s share is about 30 percent) and the country’s olive groves represent more than 25 percent of the planet’s olive-growing surface area. The International Olive Oil Council, an organization chartered by the United Nations to regulate the world’s olive oil trading, operates from Madrid, not Rome.

Most of Spain’s oil still comes from Andalusia. Here, olive trees creep over every inch of the terrain, peppering rocky outcrops or marching aggressively in ranks over burned-out hills. Architecturally, much of this region echoes with memories of the Moors. Yet evidence of the Roman era also survives. Magnificent Roman-built bridges still span the rivers at Córdoba, Mérida, and Alcántara and the ruins of Roman towns such as Baelo Claudia, once a fish-salting center, still stand. However, the strongest link between modern Andalusia and Roman Baetica remains the olive. Andalusia is home to more than two hundred million olive trees, about a quarter of which grow in Jaén, a small province that is responsible for an astonishing 22 percent of the world’s olive oil.

As in Roman times, much of this oil travels great distances. Today, about 60 percent of Spain’s massive output heads to Italy. Much of it ends up in processing plants where it is blended with other oils, packed into bottles, and sent out again. This leads to some odd-looking figures in the trade statistics. When it comes to production, Italian output is half that of the Spanish cooperatives and most of the European Union’s olive oil imports head to Italian shores. Yet Italy accounts for 60 percent of Europe’s olive oil exports—almost double that of Spain.

Behind these figures is a massive shunting of oil from one place to another. Arriving in bulk, the oil has a short layover in Italy before it is sent on its way again, dressed up in a smart bottle and adorned with an ornate Italian-style label. Not everyone is happy about this. Spanish producers grumble about export subsidies for Italian companies, as well as the fact that their oil ends up in bottles that look Italian. Manuel Lopez, the export manager at Hojiblanca, Spain’s largest olive oil cooperative, based in Andalusia, concedes that the Italians have done a good job of selling oil to the world. “They have always had very good marketing people,” he says. “And Spain has been sleeping in this respect. We need to get back into the market again.”

Spanish producers are trying to do just that. They know Spain is the preeminent source of olive oil, now they want the rest of the world to know it. The campaign got going in the 1990s, when the Spanish government provided funds to help local olive oil companies market their oil overseas. Since then, Spanish cooperatives have been designing smart labels for their bottles and are trying to sell more of their oil this way, directly to consumers, rather than having it disappear into the giant tankers heading for Italy. Marketing efforts have also helped. In the United States, now one of the world’s biggest markets for olive oil, supermarkets run frequent promotions and tasting events, and distribute leaflets singing the praises of Spanish olive oil. One Spanish company has even enlisted Hollywood. Andalusia-born movie star Antonio Banderas has taken a stake in Hojiblanca and has been promoting the company’s oil.

The trouble is, names such as Hojiblanca are hard enough for some Europeans to pronounce, let alone for people in China, Japan, or Taiwan, all of whom are becoming avid buyers of Mediterranean products such as olive oil and, crucially for the Spanish, do not yet associate the product with the Italians alone. Yet Spain’s olive oil companies have tended to promote the region where their oil is produced, rather than pushing the idea that it is “Made in Spain.” This is something the Spanish government wants to change. It has set aside a chunk of the subsidies it hands out to producers for a marketing program it hopes will lead to the evolution of a generic España brand for Spanish olive oil. The idea is that the world will start to associate olive oil with Spain, as well as Italy.
 

Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Murray. All rights reserved.