Since first discovering fire, we’ve never lacked for capability, and although prehistoric caves didn’t come fitted with kitchens this didn’t stop us getting creative in them. We are driven as a species by our basic need for sustenance, but we are unique in our ability to inject ingenuity into how we fulfil this. It’s through such creativity that we’ve forged culture, and through such creativity in our search for sustenance that we’ve created cuisine. Of course, along the way we’ve also invented nourishment to turn the stomach, and this list is stuffed full of examples of the weirdest food delicacies in history.
From delicacies derived from intestinal slurry and poultry dressed up as mythical beasts to chivalric scenes acted out by game, this list looks at some of the ways we’ve used and abused our culinary culture to make statements about power, civility, and class. By nature of their exclusivity, delicacies relate to all three. And because historically only those with the means to source the rarest of foodstuffs—not to mention the resources to turn them into something gastronomically pleasant—have created such delicacies, only these people will feature in this list. If you have a strong stomach, read on.
10) The Roman Dormouse
We should be thankful to the Romans. Being the officious folk they were, the original Latinos were in the habit of writing almost everything down: from their laws and their history to their architecture and even their recipes. In fact, you can still read a genuine Roman cookbook called De re coquinaria or “On the Subject of Cooking”, wrongly attributed to a notorious yet affluent foodie called Apicius who lived during the reign of the emperor Tiberius and poisoned himself after spending his fortune on food because he was afraid of starving to death (there’s some food for thought).
De re coquinaria is full of culinary creations to make the modern stomach turn (believe me, I’ve recreated some of them). Camel heel, sow’s womb, and chicken covered in so much egg and coriander that you beg for death are just a few of the bizarre delicacies they decided to pass on to future ages. But one of the strangest guest appearances is that of the humble dormouse.
A quick note: this isn’t the critter that chews through the wires in your house but a far larger, arboreal rodent about the size of a rat. Apicius recommends stuffing it with bits of pork and its own trimmings, all pounded up with some pepper, fennel juice, broth, and nuts for good measure. Stick it in an earthenware casserole dish to roast or a stock pot to boil and—voilà. You’ve made something disgusting.
So how did the Romans make an industry out of dormice? According to the agricultural writer Varro, already by the first century BC the rich were rearing them on their rural estates. Most of them used special terracotta pots called gliraria in which they kept their dormice in confined, darkened conditions while they gradually fattened them up. But one particularly committed individual called Titus Pompeius constructed a four-square-mile enclosure on his estate in Transalpine Gaul where he let his dormice roam wild before turning them into ragù.
Yet not everybody was happy about the dish of the day . In 115 BC, one of the consuls for the year, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, passed a law prohibiting people from serving up of molluscs, exotic birds, and dormice at their banquets. Despite the reverential respect in which the aristocracy held their consul, however, on this occasion—and much to the dismay of dormice the empire over—they simply chose to ignore him.