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Black Cuttlefish Ink Pasta for a Black-Hearted Emperor #FoodieReads


I needed a break from my typical food histories and memoirs this weekend and I came across Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn*. So, I downloaded it onto my Kindle, headed to the back patio, soaked in the sun, and blazed through this novel in a few hours.

On the Page

Let me start with this: I love anything that has to do with Rome. So, even though I would characterize this as a historical 'bodice-ripper', and definitely not my usual genre, I stuck it out because it was set in Ancient Rome. 

This novel was not at all what I expected. It was much darker...from the opening line when the reader meets the slavegirl Thea who cuts herself and bleeds into a little blue bowl to clear her mind to the newest savage gladiator that they call The Barbarian whose inner voices demand he kill for sport. The characters are all tormented in one way or another. And as the narrators rotate we hear from the vapid, ambitious Lepida who seduces and blackmails her stepson along with dozens of other men who help her ascend Rome's societal ladder; the emperor's niece who faked her own death to avoid the continued incest and abuse; as well as Lepida's husband, a scholarly cuckolded senator.

Quinn certainly embraced the violent world of Ancient Rome from the brutality of the gladiator bouts in the Colosseum to everyday abuse that slaves endured to the depravity of Emperor Domitian whose predilictions nearly drove three women mad. 

Given the banquets of Ancient Rome, there was plenty of food mentioned, including "roast elephant ears and ostrich wings and flamingo tongues on their golden plates." At one party Paulinus describes "..,roast flamingo and dormice rolled in honeyed poppy seeds; all ashes in his mouth. Lepida shared his dining couch, laughing and flirting and talking with everyone except him. But under cover of her stola, under cover of her conversation, her foot caressed his."

Thea is offered "a tray of little sweet marchpane pastries", which I looked up to be decorated disks of marzipan paste. That's a family favorite, so I might give that a try soon.

A couple more dinner party descriptions to share..."oysters in wine sauces, lark tongues braised in herb butter, pastries stuffed with olives and cheeses . . . and mead from Britannia, cold and frothing and lethal."
   
"Sugar-glazed fruit heaped high in silver bowls, whole roasted peacocks with their vibrant tail feathers still in place, honey-brushed pork stuffed with sage and rosemary and gobbets of its own flesh. Drummers danced before my eyes, and sweet-voiced choirboys from Corinth, and lithe brown acrobats climbing toward the ivory ceiling on each others’ shoulders. Slaves shoved food onto our plates as soon as we cleared them, and Domitian roared at us to eat up, eat up. He gestured with the peacock’s crispy, feathered neck, grease spots already staining his priceless purple robe, and I realized he was drunk." 
               
And I'll share just one passage that illustrates the 'bodice ripper' feel to this historical fiction: "He opened his mouth to tell her, and drew in a confused breath of her scents: herbs, crushed mint, bread rising sweet in the oven; and then the pain kicked sharply, swelling through him until he thought he would die. He turned his face into her shoulder, dimly hearing her dismiss the curious slaves. ...Her arms closed tight around his neck, her cheek pressed against his hair. 'I can’t believe it—waited for hours—didn’t know where you were—and I don’t want to know, but you’re all right; you’re all right and that’s all I want. Oh gods, Marcus, don’t leave me.' She kissed his mouth and his eyes and his hands, over and over. 'Don’t leave me again, I can’t bear it.' She couldn’t stop kissing him, and her mouth tasted like all good things on earth."

This was not an easy book to stomach and I can't really say that I enjoyed it. As I mentioned, none of the characters were particularly likable. But Quinn has a compelling way of telling a story and I would consider picking up another book by her if the occasion arises though I prefer less of the romance and more of the history.

On the Plate

I was inspired into the kitchen by a description of one of the Emperor's dinner parties. "Even the food was black: blue-black oysters from Britannia, black bread studded with olives, purple-black plums heaped in onyx bowls...". So, I decided to whip up a quick hand-rolled, hand-cut pasta made with cuttlefish ink. Black pasta for that black-hearted emperor. His cruelty was nauseating, but this pasta was delicious. What I love about it is that I don't have to pull out the pasta maker; it's all done by hand and with a rolling pin. Easy!

Ingredients makes 2 to 3 servings
  • 1 C flour (I used a blend with semolina, bread flour, and all-purpose flour)
  • 1 egg
  • water, as needed
  • 2 t cuttlefish ink

Procedure
Spoon the pasta flour blend into a large mixing bowl and make a hollow in the center, like a volcano. Spoon the cuttlefish ink into the crater of the flour volcano.

Use a fork to begin incorporating the flour. Making a whisking motion with your fork, starting in the middle and blending in the flour from the bottom moving upwards. If your dough is too wet, add a small amount of flour; if your dough is too dry and crumbly, add water 1 t at a time. Turn the dough onto a lightly dusted board and knead for 5 minutes until the dough is elastic and smooth.


Roll out as thinly as you can. I found that rolling it into a long rectangle make the most even strips.


Once the pasta dough is as thin as you can get it, starting at one (short) end of the rectangle, roll the dough into a cylinder.

  
With a sharp knife, hand cut the roll into pieces whose width is the width you want for your pasta. I went with wide fettucine; the kids did all different widths. Carefully unroll the strips and you're all set.

To cook: drop the pasta strips into boiling water. They will cook in about 3 minutes.

I served this with a dousing of piquant olive oil, tossed with fresh tomatoes and basil. Super tasty and super simple.

*This blog currently has a partnership with Amazon.com in their affiliate program, which gives me a small percentage of sales if you buy a product through a link on my blog. It doesn't cost you anything more, but it helps support my culinary adventures in a small way. If you are uncomfortable with this, feel free to go directly to Amazon.com and search for the item of your choice.


Click to see what everyone else read in June 2020: here.

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