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Digging The Food In Trier

March 09, 1986|WALTER HOUK

TRIER, West Germany — To dine like a Roman emperor, go not to Rome but to Trier, on the Mosel River near the Luxembourg frontier. This oldest city in Germany was once capital of the Western Roman Empire. Here Rosemarie Gracher, the first woman to be certified as a master chef in Germany, presides over a restaurant in which she has re-created the foods of Imperial Rome.

The restaurant is Zum Domstein. Gracher serves her Roman meals in a dining room full of Roman antiquities dug up on the premises. From deep research she recaptures the flavors of centuries ago, before powerful infusions of new foods and condiments from Asia and the New World forever altered European cooking.

The location is a natural. Today's Trier unfolds layer upon layer of a history that began 2,001 years ago when the Romans founded the city. Intact from that era are such monuments as a great city gate and an imperial palace. Remaining as ruins or partial restorations are baths, an amphitheater and foundations of a river bridge. Moreover, sections of the medieval city still overlie buried strata of Roman works. With its Romischer Weinkellar (Roman wine cellar), Zum Domstein is a microcosm of that two-tier Trier.

The restaurant occupies a charming, four-story medieval building facing the imposing west facade of the Dom, or Cathedral. On this site once stood the palace of Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who ruled a Roman Empire newly converted to Christianity. The Empress had the palace torn down in the fourth century to make room for--and to provide brick and stone for--a cathedral for Trier. While digging a basement addition under the restaurant the Gracher family found a wealth of Roman kitchen, dining and other artifacts that could only have come from the palace. This underground dining room now houses Germany's finest private collection of excavated Roman relics.

One surviving half of a large stone sculpture depicts a Roman wine boat, an oared galley carrying wine casks, of which a famous whole example is on display at nearby Neumagen. It was probably executed in Trier, where boats and casks were built for wines produced then as now in Mosel River vineyards. Stone relief panels show a wine press, a rabbit nibbling grape leaves and other subjects. In a corner of the room stands an intact amphora, a large earthen vessel the Romans used to transport such liquids as wine and olive oil.

Glass cases hold smaller treasures: Roman coins, mirrors, oil lamps, bracelets, and such utilitarian objects as vases, bottles, jugs and other vessels of ceramic and glass. Though both were made in Roman Trier, glassware is rarer than pottery.

And one case holds the "Art of Cookery" by Marcus Gavius Apicius, believed to date from 25 A.D. The book is a 1709 second edition of a 9th-Century translation into German with notes by Martinus Lister.

Serving as the foundation of the restaurant's Roman menu, that antique volume reinforces the ambiance generated by the museum display for Chef Gracher's Roman cuisine. In fact, the text provided most of our contemporary knowledge of the Empire's food and drink, herbs and sauces. The detective work was not easy. Though Cato, Petronius, Pliny and other classical writers dealt with food and drink, herbs and sauces, and Apicius discussed cooking, not even his so-called cookbook gave advice on measurements and kitchen techniques. Sophisticated testing was required over a long period.

Chef Gracher discovered how the Romans orchestrated their basic foods with a surprisingly varied tonality of herbs and spices known to the Classic Age. Dishes may be further enhanced by inventive uses of fruits--apricot, fig, pear, plum, raisin--and nuts. And flavors are often intensified or made to sparkle with honey, wine and vinegar.

Research also reconstructed what Gracher calls "special fish sauce." A substance the Romans knew as garum , it derives from whole fish salted and placed in the sun to cure into a liquid similar to an ingredient in today's Worchestershire sauce.

The resulting dinner is served on ceramic dishes adapted from Roman models, with tableware of our time. Meals start with mulsum, a white wine cocktail of which honey is an ingredient. Happily, the wines--a Greek retsina, a Tuscan red and a Lacryma Christe Vesuvio dessert wine--are better than some of those described in Roman chronicles.

The fare ranges through nine appetizer preparations, five entrees, four desserts. Among the appetizers: a sausage rolled in pine nuts and herbs, a salad of green beans in fish sauce, lentils and mussels cooked with herbs, vinegar, honey and fruit sauce. Many of them are accompanied by mustea, a bread flavored with wine, cheese and bay leaf.

In the Mensa Prima, or main course, offerings are fish in fish sauce; pork flavored with honey, vinegar, wine and apricot sauce; ham with figs and myrtle; veal with wine, nuts, herbs and onions; venison with wine, plums and herbs.

That will be followed by a Mensa Secunda or dessert: sweetened souffles of eggs alone or with pears and honey, omelet with almonds and the like. But no coffee. That has yet to be discovered.

Zum Domstein, Hauptmarkt 5, 5500 Trier. 0651-74490. Mensa Prima varies from about $8 to $11. The price includes appetizers, dessert and a glass of mulsum.

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