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  • Writer's pictureCláudio Giordano

Wine & Literature

The book El Cáliz de Letras - Historia del vino en la Literatura is a lively and beautiful work by Miguel Ángel Muro Munilla; rich in content and images, with erudition and amenity, it shows us a broad panorama of authors and works that took wine as an element of their reflections and art. Leafing through it, we come across the short but incisive reference that the author makes to the contemporary and notable writer Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987), referring to her praised and distributed around the world, Memoirs of Hadrian.

Miguel Ángel Munilla says that the text by the French author reflects well the Roman habits at the table, as the good documentation used for the solid and attractive reconstruction of the thought, life and time of the Hispanic Stoic emperor gives way to pages like the ones reproduced below, in which Hadrian deplores the change of his fellow citizens, who go — greatly influenced by the discovery of Asian cuisine — from frugality and sobriety of dishes to excessive complications.

Nostalgic for Greek behavior, Adriano expresses himself in this way by the pen of Marguerite:

“Eating too much is a Roman vice, but I was voluptuously sober. Hogging on the holidays has always been the natural ambition, joy, and pride of the poor. I loved the aroma of roast meats and the noise of kettles at army festivities, and that camp banquets (or what camp was worth for a banquet) were what they should always be: a cheery and rude counterweight to the deprivations of business days. In the time of the Saturnalia, I tolerated the smell of frying in public squares. But the feasts in Rome filled me with such disgust and boredom that once, when I thought I was near death during a reconnaissance or a military expedition, I told myself to reassure myself that at least I would not have to eat a meal again. Do not inflict on me the offense of taking me for a vulgar renouncer; an operation that takes place two or three times a day, and whose purpose is to nourish life surely deserves all our care. Eating a fruit means bringing into our Being a beautiful living object, strange, nourished and favored like us by the earth; it means consummating a sacrifice in which we choose ourselves over things. I never bit the breadcrumbs of the barracks without marveling that this heavy and coarse mass could transform itself into blood, into heat, perhaps into courage. Ah! Why does my spirit, even in its best days, only possess a part of the assimilating powers of a body?

In Rome, during the interminable official banquets, it occurred to me to think of the relatively recent origins of our luxury, in this town of parsimonious farmers and frugal soldiers, fed on garlic and barley, suddenly precipitated by conquest in Asian kitchens and gorging themselves on awkwardly complicated foods of hungry peasants. Our Romans gorge themselves on birds, flood themselves with sauces, and poison themselves with spices. A disciple of Apicio is proud of the succession of the entrances, of the series of sour or sweet dishes, heavy or light, that make up the beautiful arrangement of its banquets, come and go, still, if each of them were served separately, assimilated, fasting, learnedly savored by a gourmet with intact papillas. Presented at the same time, in a trivial and everyday mix, they create in the palate and in the stomach of the man who eats them a detestable confusion where smells, flavors and substances lose their own value and their delicious identity.

Poor Lucio used to amuse himself in making strange dishes for me; his pheasant patés, with their wise dose of ham and spices, gave evidence of an art as exact as that of the musician or the painter; however, I longed for the pure meat of the beautiful bird. Greece knew more about these things; its resinous wine, its bread sprinkled with sesame, its fish cooked on the grills by the sea, blackened here and there by the fire and seasoned by the crunch of a grain of sand, satisfied the appetite without surrounding with too many complications the simplest of our joys. In some dump in Aegina or Falera I have tasted food so fresh that it was still divinely clean despite the tavern waiter’s dirty fingers, so modest but so sufficient that they seemed to contain, in the most succinct way possible, an essence of immortality. Also the meat roasted at night, after the hunt, had that almost sacramental quality that took us back further, to the savage origins of the races. Wine initiates us in the volcanic mysteries of the soil, in the hidden mineral riches; a glass of Samos drunk at noon, in full sun, or absorbed on a winter night, in a state of fatigue that allows us to feel its warm pouring in the depths of the diaphragm, its safe and fiery dispersion in our arteries, it is a sensation almost sacred, sometimes too intense for a human head. I have not found her since leaving the numbered cellars of Rome, and the pedantry of the great wine tasters overwhelms me. Even more mercifully, the water drunk in the hollow of the hand, or even from the same source, makes the secret salt of the earth and the rain of heaven flow into us. But even water is a delight that a sick person like me should only taste soberly. It does not matter: in agony, mixed with the bitterness of the last potions, I will endeavor to savor their cool insipidity on my lips.”

* The excerpts from Memoirs of Hadrian were extracted: in Portuguese, from the translation edited by Nova Fronteira (24th edition, 2019); in Spanish, from

The English version was based on these translations.


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