Aliter Dulcia

Inspiration for this week’s column came from an answer to an online word game. My husband suggested the word “vestal.” Vestal? This answer surprised me. Of course, I had to ask how he knew such a word. He said, “I think I heard it in a song.” The mystery deepened. Sure enough, “16 Vestal Virgins” was used in the song A Whiter Shade of Pale (Procal Harum) ( Learning this, I, of course, had to dig further to discover who the 16 Vestal Virgins were. The story is a rather dark piece of Roman history.

The concise version of the history of the Vestal Virgins is they were selected from wealthy families when they were 6-8 years old. The affluent Roman society considered that having a daughter chosen was a status and came with privileges. The Vestals were priestesses and acquired their name after Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. Think here of keeping the home fires burning. It was their duty to not only remain a virgin for 30 years but they were to keep Vesta’s sacred fire burning. If the fire went out or the women gave up their virginity, the punishment was death by live burial. The Romans couldn’t kill them, so they buried the condemned woman in a room and along with a bit of food and water. Thus, the Romans considered that when she ran out of food, she died by choice.

During the time the women were confined in the temple, they were allowed out only for special events and by permission of the patriarchy. There’s more to the story that includes flogging for any infractions and pardoning prisoners. Considered above reproach, the Vestal Virgins were entrusted with the transportation of valuable legal documents. They could only eat fruits, vegetables, and a dough fried in olive oil, called Aliter Dulcia ( They weren’t allowed to eat animals because they were not allowed to eat anything that touched a flame.

It took some digging to find a consensus on what Aliter Dulcia was in Imperial Rome as it has morphed into a delicacy in modern-day Italy. In Imperial Rome, it was a simple bread made with flour and water or milk, then drizzled in honey. In Apicius Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, (Edited and Translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling, 2019), the oldest known cookbook, are three different versions.

They range from the simplest form of water and flour to drenching the dough in egg before frying or baking in olive oil, then drizzled with honey and garnished with ground nuts. Dipping the dough in egg before frying is similar to French toast.

My colleague in Italy, a lover of coffee, gelato, and fine sweets, tells me Aliter Dulcia is an irresistible sweet treat served in many restaurants and cafes, each adding a signature twist. Travelers find various versions of fried dough across every culture. Descriptions of Aliter Dulcia remind me of the French Beignet of New Orleans fame, or French Canadian heritage, beigne. Or, as Americans say, donuts.

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