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I am trying to reproduce a recipe found in the Roman "cookbook" Apicius, Conditum paradoxum: it is a spiced wine that calls for honey as an ingredient, but it uses a lot (30 % of the volume of the wine).

This means – adapting the recipe, that originally is for 14 11 liters of wine – that for a bottle of wine I should add 230 ml of honey (340 g if considering a density of 1,45 kg/l).

I was wondering if the honey produced in ancient times could be perhaps "lighter" than the honey we know; this could, at least a little, allow me to reduce the sweetness.

  • 5
    A Sextarius is .55 liters, the recipe calls for 20 Sextarii of wine, so that's about 11 liters of wine, not 14. – GdD Nov 2 '18 at 11:22
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    Note that an American pint is different to an Imperial pint, although 1 Sextarius = 1.5 pints is wrong for both. – Richard Nov 2 '18 at 11:47
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    Even in modern times "honey" isn't a standard homogenous product, unless you only buy it in supermarkets. What you get is very sensitive to what flowers the bees have been visiting! – alephzero Nov 2 '18 at 14:12
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    The recipe seems to be calling for making a spiced honey-wine syrup, then thinning it back down to liquid with additional wine. It sounds like it is intended as what we would think of as a honey liqueur, cordial, or aperitif. Though also, @alephzero is right about honey as with all other ingredients - outside the very recent industrial-commercial food industry, most natural products are highly inconsistent by nature and cooks of the day would have just had to accept that things would come out differently with each batch (or would need adjustment to the recipe in ways usually not written down). – BrianH Nov 2 '18 at 15:53
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    @alephzero, yes, but it is standardised for example in the residual water content (18% in Italy but generally around this value) – Andrea Shaitan Nov 2 '18 at 16:21
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It's not honey that's changed since ancient times, it's wine! Wine makers in ancient Rome lacked the knowledge and equipment to prevent oxidation and unwanted bacterial colonies, so their product was pretty awful by modern standards, being both sour and bitter with all sorts of off flavors. Honey and spices were added to try and make it palatable.

So you can't re-create the roman recipe without roman style wine, which you won't find in any store because nobody would want to buy it! If you add the same amount of honey to wine of today it will be overwhelmingly sweet, my suggestion would be to add a little bit of honey to it and work your way up. I would also suggest you not follow the recipe to the letter:

  1. Don't let it sit like the recipe suggests, add the spices in and let it steep, then strain and add more wine
  2. Don't filter it through charcoal: the reason they did that was because wine makers added all sorts of awful stuff to preserve the wine, modern wines don't have those issues. If it has particulates try using a coffee filter instead.
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    I'd also suggest picking an extremely dry wine, leaving the sweetening entirely up to the honey. – Erica Nov 2 '18 at 12:04
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    Good point @Erica. Dry, maybe a bit acidic, something you wouldn't ordinarily drink maybe. – GdD Nov 2 '18 at 12:16
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    Do you have any citations for this? I know little about wine production, historical or otherwise, but I would be surprised if the Romans, who a) consumed lots of wine and b) were in many regards quite advanced, and certainly had a knack for culinary finesse (or at least, for culinary luxus), really had only such bad wine. I would think it more likely that the OP's recipe simply should be understood as more a dessert rather than an actual drink. – leftaroundabout Nov 2 '18 at 13:25
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    If you're trying to be historically accurate, you may want to look at products marketed as "natural wine". Over the last year or so I've seen a few articles written by apparent wine-snobs slamming people making them for turning their backs on all the modern processes used to make consistent high quality products vs the erratic and often sketchy quality of pre-modern wine. Based on those comments I suspect that product is probably as close to the Roman product as you can get these days. – Dan Neely Nov 2 '18 at 13:57
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    Do note that their honey would also have been different because the flavour of honey is highly dependent on what plants the bees collect from. Most commercial honey these days is clover honey because clover is cheap to grow and makes a lot of flowers, but you can find other types in some stores, and an even wider variety from your local beekeepers, so don't hesitate to experiment a bit. – Perkins Nov 2 '18 at 20:11
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Possibly the wine is supposed to be diluted with water once you've finished spicing and sweetening it? The text doesn't mention it, but adding a lot of water with your wine was the norm so the author may have assumed that you'd know to do that bit.

  • Yep, pretty sure Caesar in the Gallic Wars wrote that he was astounished that Gallics drank their wine without cutting it with water. – Vulpo Nov 29 '18 at 15:42

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