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Wheat, olive oil and wine were the three great staples of the Roman diet, and the surrounding seas were rich in fish and shellfish. Vegetables were plentiful and included radishes, parsnips, carrots, lentils, beans, lettuce, asparagus and beets. Meat was, for many, a luxury, but pork, game, birds – even snails and dormice - were specially bred for the table. Fruits, nuts and honey were also consumed, and many exotic spices were added, including pepper, asafœtida, and the infamous liquamen – a salty sauce made from rotting fish entrails. Milk and beef were rare in the Roman diet, but cheese was popular. For more detail, see the article on the Roman pantry.
Wine was most commonly drunk at all meals. It was usually watered or mixed with other substances, including honey. Milk was regarded as an uncivilized beverage, but beer and mead appeared on tables in some northern provinces. Non-alcoholic beverages included hydromel – a mixture of water and honey – and a type of barley water.
Food was often cooked in a small, ill-ventilated kitchen on iron trivets over a charcoal brazier on a masonry platform. Arched openings on the platform allowed for fuel storage. Cooking pots were usually earthenware bronze and food was placed on pottery or silver dishes for diners could help themselves. Based on some of the spectacular finds in Pompeii and Britain, many families had beautiful silver services and likely took great pride in using and displaying their dishware.
Romans generally ate one large meal a day. Breakfast (ientaculum), was generally very light – a piece of bread, a cup of wine, a few olives. Prandium, the luncheon, was another light meal at midday. This was followed up by cena, the main meal around sunset. This meal consisted of three courses: Gustatio, where appetizers were offered, the Mensa Prima (literally "First Table"), where the main dishes were served, usually vegetables and meat, if the family could afford it, followed by Mensa Secunda, of fruits, nuts, or pastries.
Wealthy Romans reclined on couches to dine, and at official dinner parties, placement of guests had great social significance. The dining room, called triclinium for the three dining couches, usually allowed for nine guests to be served, though larger villae and palaces had many dining rooms.