A few days ago we had a very interesting visit to the little Castro dei Volsci archaeological museum with our host Gregory from Casa Gregorio. Across from the museum was the excavation of a Roman Villa once owned by a very rich man. The museum contained quite a few artifacts from the villa, including the one below. Can you guess what it is—or what it’s for?
Lucia Rossi, the curator of the museum, began our tour by pointing out how the small size of the museum limited the number of artifacts that could be displayed. There were thousands of other things in boxes hidden away in storage she explained before delivering a fascinating glimpse into the territory and the inhabitants of the villa just outside our door. The museum, it turns out, was just the right size.
One of the objects that fascinated us was the terracotta “vase” you see above. Notice the holes in it, and there are those odd little bowed shelves you see running around the circumference. You find them many places where Romans lived the good life—Pompeii for example. Here’s a hint: think gourmet food, highly desirable in Roman times, edible as a savory or as a sweet dessert when dipped in honey and dusted with poppy seeds.
Certainly the answer is now upon the tip of your tongue. Perhaps you have correctly guessed that it is a glirarium. You are one smart cookie if you did. Pat yourself on the back.
What’s a glirarium you might ask if you are not currently a student of Roman gourmet practices? Well, the squeamish among you may want to avert your eyes. It is a place where the esteemed ghiro or edible dormous could get his fattening-up before becoming a savory snack or dessert for rich Romans.
You see, these nocturnal rodents got quite fat before their hibernation nap, a time when they were most tasty for the Romans. So, these pots were put in the gardens (status symbols, you see) and captured dormice were placed inside along with the fruits they savored. They didn’t need additional water, preferring a dry environment, so you just sealed the whole deal and buried the pot a bit so they could live a darkness and peace. The little buggers evidently stored the processed fruit in those holes, much like a modern person keeps track of the hundreds of pills proscribed by pill-happy doctors in little attached boxes, so as to keep track of things and thus live an orderly life. The environment was such that it would induce that fine, pre-hibernation fat, which was used by Romans (and Elizabethans, evidently) to induce sleep. Think dormouse/dormire.
They tell me the edible dormouse is no longer found in Italy. Perhaps the rich Romans, happily rubbing balls of glistening dormouse fat over their portly, dormouse-enhanced bodies when sleep was desired, gleefully and unknowingly consumed them all.
Perhaps this is a good thing.
Note: Amazon.com is not yet listing glirariums among its gourmet paraphernalia. Search specialty stores or make your own.
If you wish to learn more on the practice of raising the edible dormouse, see: Pass the Dormice: Breeding, Selling, And Eating Honeyed Dormice in Antiquity