I’ll have an Isicia Omentata and hold the pickle: How Romans invented the burger

Roman Centurian enthusiast Joe Jackson at Hadrian's Wall in Gisland eating a burger made from a 1500 year old recipe.
Roman Centurian enthusiast Joe Jackson at Hadrian's Wall in Gisland eating a burger made from a 1500 year old recipe.
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IF you’ve ever wondered what the Romans did for us - for better or worse - here’s your answer: They invented the burger.

Visitors to Hadrian’s Wall this weekend will be able taste an almost 1,500 year old recipe which has a more than striking resemblance to the modern day burger.

It has long been known that the Romans brought fast food outlets - or thermopolia as they called them - to Britain. In large towns people wanted access to quick food during their lunch break and vendors selling chicken legs, lamb chops and shellfish became commonplace. But it now appears as well as a fast food culture, the Romans may also have bought the burger to Britain.

A recipe from the ancient Roman cookbook, Apicius, which was written by an unknown author in the late 4th or 5th centuries AD , details a dish called ‘Isicia Omentata’ which comprises minced meat, pepper, wine, pine nuts, and a rich fish based sauce (Garum), all formed into a pattie.

This Roman forefather to the modern day burger will be served up for the first time in a thousand years at Birdoswald Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall on Saturday (23rd May). The pattie will be cooked over a traditional open fire and served in a bun for visitors to decide for themselves whether the Roman ‘burger’ beats its modern day counterparts.

Food Historian Annie Gray said: “We all know that the Romans left a huge mark on Britain, fundamentally altering the British diet forever. Street food became available en masse, and many of our favourite foods were introduced, including Isicia Omentata, what can be seen as the Roman forefather to today’s burger. This ‘burger’ was decidedly more upmarket than many of today’s offerings, and is richer and more complex than the plain beef version most common today.

The burger has been around longer than you think

The burger has been around longer than you think

“Since our ‘Roman Burger’, other similar recipes can be seen throughout history, the more flat or meatball like Medieval ‘Pompeys’ or ‘Rissoles’, Georgian ‘Patties’ popularised fried mince meat, and by the end of the Victorian era we see the first proper Hamburger. Burgers aren’t a modern invention, rather a staple throughout the centuries that has evolved.”

English Heritage curator Frances McIntosh said: “This weekend visitors to Birdoswald at Hadrian’s Wall can have a taste of Roman - British food and decide for themselves whether the Romans brought the first ‘burger’ to Britain. At the peak of Roman occupation along Hadrian’s Wall over 10, 000 soldiers would have been based at forts such as Birdoswald. Having access to tasty, convenient food was vitally important as they patrolled the frontier and vendors serving fast food would have been commonplace in large towns.”

TIMELINE: 2,000 YEARS OF THE BURGER

AD 43 Roman invasion of Britain

1961: A new Wimpy Bar opens in Rotherham

1961: A new Wimpy Bar opens in Rotherham

Late 4th-5th entury AD Unknown author writes Apicius, first documented appearance of Isicia Omentata (‘Roman Burger’)

Medieval England Street food ‘Pompeys’ or Rissoles appear, using basic ‘burger recipe’ but more flat or meatball-like

1500s Spanish discover the tomato

1600s Pickled Gherkins become popular. Samuel Pepys records eating them. In 1661, ketchup develops, probably from Oriental origins, similar to soy sauce.

1961: A new Wimpy Bar opens in Rotherham

1961: A new Wimpy Bar opens in Rotherham

Georgian England ‘Patties’ and ‘Rissoles’ bring fried minced meat into the culinary repertoire. Both are descended from Roman Garum, used in Isicia Omentata.

1880s The Hamburg Steak appears on American restaurant menus. The steak is put into a bun, and the Hamburger is born

1920s The first fast food chain is founded in America

1940s McDonalds is born

1954 The UK’s first fast food chain, Wimpy, opens

2010s The horsemeat scandal sparks a trend for ‘gourmet’ burgers, bringing things full circle, as burgers once more become the luxury fast food they were in Roman Britain.