Most fish are so delicate we add only minimal flavoring, probably nothing more than a squeeze of lemon these days. The ancient Greeks and Romans, in no position to use lemon juice because the lemon hadn’t arrived, tended to use vinegar. Sometimes, they even added cheese.
It’s a slick idea. Give it a try.
We know this because a Greek foodie named Archestratus sampled fish all around the eastern Mediterranean, and around 330 B.C. he wrote a poem about his findings. It has not survived complete, and we aren’t even sure about its title — it has been referred to as “Gastronomia” and “The Life of Luxury,” among other names. Most of the surviving fragments appear in a book called “The Deipnosophists,” which was written some five centuries later, ample testimony to its fame.
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Here is one fragment: “Whenever Orion is setting in the heavens and the mother of the wine-bearing grape clusters is casting away her long hair, then it is the time to have a baked sargue sprinkled with cheese — a large one, and piping hot, and cut with sharp vinegar.”
Well, it was a poem; these days even the most bizarro food writer wouldn’t dream of referring to grapevines losing their hair. As for sargue (or sargo), it’s a member of the bream family that is well regarded in the Mediterranean today, but Archestratus recommended his preferred treatment for bland fish, topping it with cheese as well as sprinkling it with vinegar (which I think works better here than lemon juice). I suggest using it on tilapia, a bland fish that is readily available.
Archestratus lived in a Greek colony in Sicily, and in another passage he associates the idea of sprinkling cheese on fish with the Syracusans, who would, of course, have used some kind of Sicilian cheese. What was that cheese like? We don’t know.
However, in the Middle Ages, the Arabs imported Sicilian cheese (jubn siqilli) and added it to vegetable dishes at the same time as spices, suggesting that it was grated, so you could use Sicilian ricotta salata or even Parmesan or Romano. This is the oldest recipe I ever make for fun, rather than research.
Fish a la Archestratus
2 tilapia filets, about 10 ounces
1 tablespoon light olive oil
Salt to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons grated ricotta salata, Parmesan or other grating cheese
Vinegar to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Spread oil in a baking dish.
3. Set the fish in the dish and sprinkle with the salt and cheese. The cheese will melt after 10 minutes, fish will flake at 14 to 15.
4. Serve hot with a sprinkling of vinegar.
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Here’s another simple fish recipe, this one from the 18th century. It appears in Louis Auguste de Bourbon’s “Le Cuisinier Gascon” (1740) as a variation on truite à la hussarde. Hussars were proverbially dashing, impetuous, overbearing, none-too-intelligent cavalrymen who wore flashy uniforms and claimed to be so badass they would be ashamed to not to die by the time they were 30. (A lot of people hoped the same fate for them.)
It’s such a simple dish it scarcely needs a recipe — it’s so simple that a hussar could probably cook it. You just poach the fish and serve it with a sort of 18th-century tartar sauce. If you prefer trout, go ahead and make it with that.
Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style
For the sauce:
½ cup mayonnaise
3 to 4 teaspoons capers along with ½ teaspoon caper brine
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste
For the fish:
10 ounces salmon filet
1 teaspoon lemon juice or 1 tablespoon dry white wine
1. Put the mayonnaise into a sauce bowl. Stir in the capers and caper brine, then the mustard. Add the mustard bit by bit, because too much can make the sauce seem salty.
2. Put the filets in a pan. Add water nearly to cover, then the lemon juice.
3 Heat over medium heat, turning the fish after 5 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes.
4. Drain the fish and serve hot or cold with the hussar sauce.
Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry