Culinary history is at the heart of Heston Blumenthal’s two Michelin-starred restaurant Dinner, located at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Come the New Year (from January 7 to March 31), the chef will be time-travelling back to 79AD to create a special menu entitled “Taste History – Last Supper in Pompeii”, inspired by the current exhibition of the same name at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which explores the story of the ancient Roman city’s love affair with food and wine, until January 12.
Blumenthal worked closely with the museum’s Dr Paul Roberts, head of the department of antiquities and curator of the exhibition, to create his three-course set menu (priced at £88 per person), which pays homage to a Pompeian feast. The culinary adventure begins with carbonised bread of Pompeii, made using ancient varieties of spelt flour and Grano Arsso – a burnt-grain wheat flour from Puglia – accompanied by butter, crafted to resemble lava rock and made with squid ink and the juice from the heads of red prawns, seasoned with a mix of kombu, ponzu and soy sauce.
The first course is a fish dish of pickled mussels and octopus in a lovage, garum and mussel emulsion with pickled seafood, served on a smoked olive oil, lovage, onion and lemon pickle with mussel cream and a salad of endive, celery, oyster leaf and fried purslane – demonstrating the complexity of ancient Roman cuisine. This will be followed by Civero (or Cicero) of duck with spelt, heart, gizzard, liver and a “spiced cracker” served with buttered turnips, turnip tops and truffle, along with a duck sauce of Pompeian red wine, fig vinegar and spices. The meal finishes with Libum, a cake offered to household spirits during sacrificial rituals at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that led to the city’s demise, its inhabitants frozen in time in the volcanic flow. The dessert, originally made from wheat flour and cheese, is said to be the first variety of cheesecake ever recorded – a recipe, for example, appeared in Cato’s On Agriculture, a surviving work of Latin prose.
“Our fascination with the doomed people of Pompeii and their everyday lives has never waned,” says Dr Roberts. “What better connection can we make with them as ordinary people than through their food and drink?”