First, a story (from this Times piece by Ben Macintyre, which I found at Barista):

But there is one Roman delicacy even Jamie Oliver, our own Apicius, could not bring back to life. Laserpithium was a North African herb of indescribable deliciousness, akin to garlic, but far more tasty. The root, and its juice, was much favoured by Roman chefs; so much so that by around AD50, according to Patrick Faas, the culinary historian, it had been eaten to extinction and was thought to have disappeared altogether.

Then, in the time of Nero, a single plant was found deep in the Cyrenaic desert. If this lone seedling had been cultivated, then today we might still be enjoying Laserpithium with everything. Nero had other plans. The last surviving plant was dug up, shipped to Rome, and eaten by the emperor.

I don’t know (though I’m sure one of my readers will) how much truth there is in the story, but I zeroed in on the word “Laserpithium,” an ungainly word (made more ungainly by being pointlessly capitalized) that I had to investigate.

I pulled out my trusty Oxford Latin Dictionary and found this entry (omitting the citations):

lāserpīcium ~i(ī), n. lāserpītium. [app. from lac sirpicium, see LASER]
  1 Asafoetida.
  2 The plant which produces this, silphium.

Aha, good old silphium! Silphium, as the OED says, was

A plant of the Mediterranean region, yielding a gum-resin or juice much valued by the ancients as a condiment or medicine; the juice obtained from this plant, also called LASER1.

The plant has been variously identified as Thapsia garganica or silphion, and Narthex silphium. It was largely cultivated for export at Cyrene on the north coast of Africa.

Now my attention turned to this mysterious “laser,” which both the OLD and the OED wanted me to see. The OED calls it “A gum-resin mentioned by Roman writers; obtained from an umbelliferous plant called lāserpīcium or silphium“; the OLD entry is (again omitting citations):

lāser ~eris, n. lāsar. [app. altered and abbreviated from lac sirpicium (see LAC and SIRPE) owing to wrong analysis (piceus) and influenced by piper, siser, etc.]
  1 A strong-smelling resinous gum produced by the silphium plant, asafoetida.
  2 The plant which produces this, silphium.

So that clears everything up (and provides us with a bit of Latin folk etymology—piceus means ‘pitchy, resinous’), except for the asafetida business. Is lāser/silphium simply asafetida? If so, 1) why is it said to have disappeared? and 2) why is it said to be “of indescribable deliciousness, akin to garlic, but far more tasty”? Have you ever been around asafetida? Believe me, the “fetid” isn’t there by accident.


  1. To your 2):
    it doesn’t surprise you garlic is posed as model of deliciousness, is it? in good measure, he said.
    There is a beatiful Polish expression, my favorite, that translates roughly “what’s too much isn’t healthy” (I’m ashamed of my Polish spelling and won’t attempt it) – where is Michael Farris when you need him?

  2. J.Cassian says

    It’s mentioned in this wonderful poem by Catullus (which I don’t have time to translate; I swiped the text from the Latin Library)
    QVAERIS, quot mihi basiationes
    tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
    quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
    lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
    oraclum Iouis inter aestuosi
    et Batti ueteris sacrum sepulcrum;
    aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,
    furtiuos hominum uident amores:
    tam te basia multa basiare
    uesano satis et super Catullo est,
    quae nec pernumerare curiosi
    possint nec mala fascinare lingua.
    Kenneth Quinn’s note in my edition reads: “lasarpiciferis: …’rich in silphium’; if the plant , the main export of Cyrene was asafoetida (the attribution is doubtful) then perhaps C. devised his learned polysyllable as an ironic corrective to the literary associations of the name Cyrene. Silphium was employed in medicine, apparently for a variety of purposes…There is a magnificent 6th century Laconian cup thought to show King Arkesilas of Cyrene supervising the weighing of silphium…”

  3. two quick comments.
    first, asafoetida is alive and well and available at my local Fiesta supermarket. I tried to get some in Australia when I was in charge of the Classical Society’s yearly Roman feast, but it was highly seasonal there and we were having the feast at the wrong time of year.
    It could be a different species from the one the Romans had. They had different lettuce, for example (with soporific qualities, hence Ovid’s warning in the Ars Amatoria not to have lettuce soup on your date). There are others too, I looked into this as part of that Roman feast thing (got to read Apicius and all sorts of good stuff).
    re 2, the Romans had all sorts of weird things, like garum (fish sauce) in peach flans.

  4. As far as the Romans were concerned, asafoetida was a variety of silfium/laserpicium, albeit an inferior Persian variety. Modern scholars usually distinguish the two.
    The etymology of asa foetida is unclear. It’s bleedin’ obvious what foetida means, but asa is obscure. One theory is that it’s a corruption of laser. Another theory is that it comes from a neo-Persian word for resin, which momentarily escapes me.

  5. Apropos of nothing, I suppose more people have heard of Bishkek/Pishpek now.

  6. Michael Farris says

    “where is Michael Farris when you need him?”
    uhh being useless as usual? The phrase sort of rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember exactly and the couple of people I remembered to ask today were no help either. But …. Google never lets me down (I want to get drunk and throw my arm around google and shout “here’s to the best damned search engine in the worrrlll!”)
    Without too much trouble I found ….
    “Co za dużo to nie zdrowo”

  7. Almost. *Za nadto instead of *Za duzo, or that’s how I remember.
    Thank you very, very much.
    Now if only my boss understood Polish..

  8. Michael Farris says

    “It could be a different species from the one the Romans had.”
    That’s my assumption, it was a related but different species and probably had a different taste, just as Italian basil tastes very different from Thai basil.

  9. Lars Mathiesen says

    LG düwelsdreck > Da dyvelsdræk = resin of F. assa-foetida. Does not have a place in the kitchen here, but formerly as a remedy against biting your nails (externally applied).

  10. It is used in Turkmen cuisine:

    Наряду с обязательным луком и красным перцем, широко используются мята, дикая петрушка, ажгон, бужгук (голлы фисташкового дерева), шафран, асафетиду или ее заменитель – чеснок.

    Ввиду специфического запаха асафетиду используют в минимальных дозах: в блюда ее не кладут, а прочерчивают ею по дну котла одну две черты.
    (Because of its strong smell, as little assa foetida is used as possible—it’s not put in, but rather, a streak or two are drawn across the bottom of the pot.)

    Этого достаточно, чтобы блюдо приобрело чесночно луковый аромат.
    (That’s quite enough to impart a garlicky aroma.)

    Turkmen cuisine

  11. David Marjanović says

    “what’s too much isn’t healthy”

    German: zuviel des Guten ist ungesund.

  12. “Take it for nothing, Governor; I’m damned if I’m going to spell asafoedita and Hickenlooper for a lousy dime.”

  13. David Marjanović says

    Oh, is this real? There’s an old joke about cops who can’t spell Gymnasium and drag the corpse (a human this time) to the post office.

  14. No, also a joke. But a good one!

  15. This essay on silphium suggests that the plant may have been a hybrid, which is why it could not be grown from seed. There is also the suggestion that:

    Scientists now think that, like asafoetida, silphium may have belonged to a group of fennel-like plants, the Ferula. They are actually related to carrots and grow wild as weeds across North Africa and the Mediterranean. Incredibly, two of these plants – giant Tangier fennel and giant fennel – still exist in Libya today. It’s possible that one of these is silphium.

    Yet, if it were found, would it be as in demand as it was in the past?

    So could silphium make a comeback? According to Rowan, even if the herb isn’t extinct, it probably wouldn’t be to modern tastes – in the Western world at least. “There’s a whole bunch of seasonings that the Romans used to use, like lovage, that today most people haven’t even heard of,” says Rowan. Back in the day, lovage was a staple of the Roman dinner table. Today it’s virtually impossible to buy, consigned to niche online shops and obscure corners of garden centres.

    Although I see that WikiP:Lovage lists some uses in European cuisines, so I’m not sure what that’s all about.

    In fact, Roman cuisine wasn’t at all like Italian food. It was all about contrasting sweet with salty and sour foods (they liked to eat fishgut sauce, garum, with melon). Instead Rowan compares it to modern Chinese food. “If it was edible, they were eating it – nothing was off the table,” she says.

    Does anyone eat garum nowadays? Is it eaten with melon?

    Although that reminds me about some friends who went to one of the places where really high-end balsamic vinegar is made, and were served balsamic vinegar poured over ice cream. As I recall, they said it was delicious.

  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    Lovage (løvstikke) is making a small comeback in Denmark, it’s nice on new harvest potatoes. But until a few years ago it was just a name, I had never tasted it.

    Strawberries with balsamico is also good.

    I don’t know how close Worcestershire sauce is to garum, I think they gut the sardines before fermentation. Even surströmming is gutted before fermentation.

  17. David Marjanović says

    “There’s a whole bunch of seasonings that the Romans used to use, like lovage, that today most people haven’t even heard of,” says Rowan. Back in the day, lovage was a staple of the Roman dinner table. Today it’s virtually impossible to buy, consigned to niche online shops and obscure corners of garden centres.

    Over here it’s in every supermarket, and (again in the supermarket) a common ingredient even in instant soups. People also grow it in their gardens or on their balconies because it’s such a basic soup ingredient. Liebstöckel, Luschstock.

  18. Lars Mathiesen says

    Now chervil I haven’t seen in two or three donkeys’ ages. We had it in broth with hard boiled eggs innit.

  19. Laser = Lars + E. Coincidence?

  20. I’ve seen lovage appear intermittently (maybe under the name “love parsley” or some such) at some high-end groceries here, but it’s not a standard thing. Chervil I actually use, but I only normally see it dried, which makes it very, very bland.

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    There are no coincidences. I do like me some fennel.

    Note to self: Check the next farmers’ market, chervil is supposed to be in season until October. Also I want to pickle some giant cucumber (asier) if I can get it.

  22. When I used to make stew frequently, I would use fennel instead of celery. It has more flavor and doesn’t get so mushy. I also had a fennel-watermelon soup once, which was quite good.

  23. Lars Mathiesen says

    Leaf celery and I don’t agree, I can taste it hours later. I don’t get that with fennel. Celeriac now, that is comfort food. Meat balls in creamed celeriac, like granma made it.

  24. I should perhaps say that I once found what I took to be a celery plant growing in my garden, even though I had not planted celery that year (although I had the previous year). However, it was apparently not celery grown from last year’s seed, but rather one of the wild, poisonous umbellifer varieties (although I never figured out exactly which one). I consumed a tiny quantity of grated root from the plant, and it made me violently ill.

  25. Lars Mathiesen says

    See? It is out to get us.

  26. Fennel certainly has more flavor than celery, but I’m not looking for something that will overwhelm the soup. I tried adding parsnips to soup once, and adding fennel seems like the same sort of mistake. They have their place, but not in soups, as far as I’m concerned.

  27. >rather one of the wild, poisonous umbellifer

    Can’t even call you a delicate butterfly, since caterpillars routinely consume a wide range of umbellifers with no malign effects, swallowtail cats anyway. We raised some last season, on golden alexander and fennel. One daughter watched hers magically transform into a butterfly. The other witnessed the eclosion of a wasp clad in monitory orange and black. Fortunately, she thought the wasp was pretty cool.

  28. PlasticPaddy says

    I was actually wondering how your daughters mistook a wasp grub for a caterpillar. But I think this is what happened:

  29. Lars Mathiesen says

    The sort of soup I’d put it in would be a think potato/leek type, and a multitude of sins can be concealed there. I actually put fennel tops in the last one I did, because reasons (veggie drawer wouldn’t close), and it didn’t dominate. Fennel in a meat broth would need close watching, I’m sure.

  30. While reading the Wikipedia entries on various poisonous apiaceae, I found a mention of Theramenes’ having been killed with hemlock. I followed the link to the Wikipedia page about Theramenes, since I realized that I really didn’t know very much about him, and on that page I learned in turn that there is also a Theramenes genus of walking sticks.

  31. Plastic,

    Exactly. It was a type of wasp that specializes in parasitizing swallowtail caterpillars – Trogus pennator. We actually brought in three caterpillars, including one for a friend. All went to pupa, but only one yielded a butterfly, a black swallowtail, the other two both giving wasps.

  32. jack morava says

    Returning to garum, with trepidation:

    I don’t know much about this, but I believe there is a nontrivial literature around the notion that the historical Jesus might have begun his career as something like what we would call a labor organizer among the anchovy fisheries in Galilee; in particular, that the economics of the garum industry were very unstable in Roman times, leading to political unrest — hence the very prominent fisherman imagery in the gospels. My knowledge of this is very superficial; a little googling suggests work of John Dominic Crossan

    as a representative example but I haven’t read it. I’m sure others will know more.

  33. jack morava says

    PS cf eg: Building on the earlier studies of ancient fishing by Rostovtzeff and Wuellner, this article examines fishing as a sub-system within the political-economy and domestic-economy of first-century Galilee. I employ a model of embedded economics to articulate the relationships between the various players in the sub-system: the Roman emperors; Herod Antipas; the tax administrators; the brokers, tax collectors, and toll collectors; the fishing families; the hired laborers; the suppliers of raw goods and other products; fish processors; and shippers and carters. This model is developed in order to provide a more focussed frame of reference for the interpretation of the Jesus tradition (metaphors and narratives) and the location of Jesus’ activity and network recruitment in Galilean fishing villages.

  34. John Dominic Crossan should always be cited with trepidation.

  35. jack morava says

    I know nothing about him – that was a shot in the dark, courtesy of google. But I am also always happy with a good sci-fi or fantasy story.

  36. David Marjanović says

    Now chervil I haven’t seen in two or three donkeys’ ages.

    Kerbel? A common ingredient in herb mixtures and (again) instant soups, but I’m not sure if I’ve seen it alone.

    and adding fennel seems like the same sort of mistake.

    I actually like fennel soup: fennel salted, boiled and blended.

  37. Chervil is an herb I see regularly sitting around in older relatives’ kitchens’ spice racks but I have no recollection of ever seeing it explicitly used in a dish or even in just a recipe.

    Lovage is familiar from my mother’s garden plot and is indeed good in soups, but does seem to be a comeback as of maybe 20 years ago and also still kind of hard to find in stores.

  38. Lovage is familiar from my mother’s garden plot and is indeed good in soups, but does seem to be a comeback as of maybe 20 years ago and also still kind of hard to find in stores.

    It’s the loquat (q.v.) of herbs.

  39. Lars Mathiesen says

    I checked in the supermarket this afternoon and they have lovage in little pots beside the basil and thyme, so it’s certainly arrived, or come back. But that’s new this year, I’m pretty sure. Chervil was “ask the boss on Monday.”

    Chervil soup made on carrot and stock cube (and chervil, of course) was an occasional dinner dish back in the day — hard boiled eggs for protein and probably black rye bread for starch. The cookbook wants a roux in there, but that’s not how my mom learned it. I remember it as a good thing and if I find chervil I will certainly try it again (though probably with real broth, pork neck seems to be indicated).

  40. Lars Mathiesen says

    Yay, the commented-ons are back! Thanks for the great work, JC!

    And I did find chervil at the ethnic grocers, made by one of the same commercial growers that produce the greens in the main supermarkets… I don’t know which cuisine it is that drives demand, it’s certainly not the Danish.

    So soup on salt pork neck and carrots, chervil and boiled potatoes added and the sliced pork on the side. Feeling very traditional.

  41. Elsethread , Xerîb posted about someone who thinks he may have rediscovered silphion in Turkey, and I posted a link to a National Geographic article about the claimant and his claims.

  42. From Ronald Syme, “Diet on Capri”:

    ‘Siser’ is reported from Varro onwards, three times in poetry (Horace, the Moretum, Columella, Book X) with three more in Columella, eight in Pliny. Therefore of some significance for classical scholars. None the less, little care or curiosity has obtained.

    A familiar passage in Horace proves instructive. ‘Siser’ occurs in the first course of the banquet of Nasidienus, along with radishes, horseradishes, and others, ‘qualia lassum pervellunt stomachum’ (Sat. ii 8, 8 ff.). The German commentary has ‘Rapunzel’, with no doubts expressed. That is to say, French ‘raiponce’, English ‘rampion’. It may be for this reason that OLD was content with ‘perhaps rampion’, offering no alternative (fasc. vii, 1980).

    Rampion, a name not often on the lips of men, must be banished forthwith and for ever. It is soft and sweet and miserable, merely ‘Campanula rapunculus’. By contrast, Umbelliferae, that potent and odorous family with flavours owed to essential oils, which goes all the way from parsley by parsnips to fennel and hemlock.

    English translators and commentators on Columella and Pliny likewise conform to the notorious ‘déformation professionelle’ of classical philology (that is, ‘psittacosis’). They bring up another unfamiliar word to vex the innocent reader, namely ‘skirret’, vouchsafing no kind of elucidation.

    Yet they were on the right track. The skirret is the water parsnip, sevium sisarium, ‘formerly much cultivated in Europe for its esculent tubers’. Further, it may perhaps be held identical with Pliny’s ‘siser erraticum’ commended on medical grounds (xx 34 f.).

    But enough. In the year 1958 a masterly demonstration established the parsnip himself. To be ignored only at dire peril.

    See the link for exact reference and footnotes.

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