La nouvelle cuisine first came to Switzerland with the Romans. At least that is what detailed examination of some 5,000 Mediterranean amphora and 4,000 garbage remains discovered among the ruins of Augusta Rauricorum, the most important Roman trading settlement in the Upper Rhine region, seems to indicate.
By analyzing and dating sediments in the amphora (clay vessels used for transporting liquids), as well as painstakingly sifting through household food wastes such as bones, archaeologists have been able to glean considerable information about the development of trade and eating habits in Roman Switzerland some 1,800 years ago.
According to Professor Max Martin, head of the Augst Roman Museum here in northern Switzerland, the original inhabitants of the region, the Celts, lived off the land and cooked with animal fat. ''But when the Romans came,'' he explained, ''their cooking habits changed. Not only did they begin using olive oil from Spain, but they also took to delicacies introduced by their colonizers.''
In the nearly three-century-old existence of Augusta Rauricorum, 12 generations of townspeople consumed a variety of victuals ranging from imported oysters, dates, and fish to snails, starlings, frogs, blackbirds, and hares.
Although France and Italy have more, and in many cases better preserved, Roman monuments, Switzerland's heritage is far from negligible and often more accessible to the shovels and brushes of archaeologists. Few Swiss towns have been built over Roman ruins, says Professor Martin. Most settlements were also created from scratch, thus significantly facilitating analysis without the confusion of earlier historic influences.
As a result, Switzerland offers some fine examples of Roman civilization. These include temple ruins at Nyon on Lake Geneva, mosaic floors in western Switzerland, and Roman fortifications in the north. But for the visitor, Augusta Rauricorum is a good place to start.
Lying on the outskirts of the present-day town of Augst some seven miles from Basel and easily reached by train, car, or bus, Augusta Rauricorum was probably founded in 15-10 B.C. It was actually planned in 44 B.C. but saw its establishment postponed with the assassination of Julius Caesar and the ensuing civil war.
Situated on the Rhine because of its importance as a waterway and at a point where a bridge could easily be built, the town soon developed into a thriving administrative and commercial center with heavy through-traffic. Apart from an amphitheater, theater, temple, and various government buildings such as a courthouse, Augusta Rauricorum boasted marketplaces for cereals, fruit, and wood. To cope with north-south trade, banks, merchant houses, transport agencies , wagon-repair shops, and hostelries were also established.
But as with many other Roman towns north of the Alps, Augusta Rauricorum was plundered and destroyed by invading Alemannic tribes between 260 and 280 A.D.
Although archaeological discoveries in the Augst area were already reported in the 16th century, it has only been in the past 40 years that excavation has been carried out in a systematic manner. Barely one-third of the former Roman settlement has been excavated, primarily on construction sites of public works projects and residential expansion, but since 1957 archaeologists have been documenting up to 20,000 finds every year.
The visitor can examine the partially restored remains of the theater (used nowadays for open-air plays and other cultural events), the amphitheater, the forum, and the temple, but perhaps the most pertinent feature of Augst to offer an insight into Roman life is its museum.
Providing a vivid illustration of Switzerland's colonial era, the museum has been incorporated into an expansive columned house with a red-tile roof, based on the original plans of a Roman insula, or villa. The museum was unable to create a complete replica of the insula because of financial restraints. Therefore it has included a shop front and other aspects of town activity.
But everything ranging from the thickness of the walls in the kitchen to the tiles of the roof and the beams in the dining room have been faithfully reconstructed according to archaeological finds. Even the inner-courtyard garden is cultivated with plants and herbs, such as the peppermint, rosemary, and thyme grown by the Romans. The furnishings, jewelry, tools, and other objects are either originals or faithful copies.
The kitchen, for example, is lined with bronze casseroles, clay pots, and iron pans as well as special receptacles for cooking fish and snails. As in a real insula, there are two cooking areas: an oven for making bread and an open hearth. Kitchen utensils include spoons, ladles, knives, a sieve, and an herb grinder. A larder for smoking meats is located in another part of the house.
Although Augusta Rauricorum possessed two large public baths (thermae), relatively few private homes could afford their own bathing facilities. As can be seen in the Roman house, at least four rooms are needed: a changing room (apodyterium) with benches and stools, a warm bath (tepidarium) used as a type of steam sauna before entering the hot bath (caldarium), and a cold bath (frigidarium).
Apart from bronze and stone statues, mosaics, glass vessels, and oil lamps, the museum also exhibits some superb examples of Roman silverware, notably the eight-sided Achilles plate and the gold-gilted Ariadne tablet.
Stone inscriptions, also shown in the museum, are regarded by archaeologists as an important key to Augusta Rauricorum's social and cultural life. It is believed that only 10 percent of the town's population was Roman, mainly administrators from Italy. The majority were locals of Rauraci-Celt origin.
But as indicated by inscriptions on tombstones, Roman civilization was gradually absorbing indigenous customs. Many townspeople, particularly the wealthy, had assumed Roman first names such as Marcus or Silvius, but retained Celtic surnames. Grafitti, publicity, and business transactions were recorded in Latin, although people did not necessarily speak it as the language of the day.
About an hour and a half's drive to the south is another interesting Roman-Swiss settlement: Aventicum. Situated in the beautiful present-day Swiss town of Avenches on the main road between Bern and Lausanne overlooking Lake Morat and surrounded by fertile fields, Aventicum was larger than Augusta Rauricorum, possibly up to 20,000 people, but archaeologists have carried out fewer excavations because of lack of funds.
Benefiting from the busy commercial transit routes between Lake Geneva and the Rhine, Aventicum developed into a flourishing Roman town soon after its creation in 16 B.C.
Prior to the arrival of the Romans, the Celts had built a fortress at Mt. Vully just north of Avenches. Parts of their walled defenses can still be seen today. But the Romans, who wished to establish a capital for their civitas Helvetiorum, or Helvetic state, preferred a more easily controlled location.
First constructed out of wood in a style totally alien to the fortified burgs and isolated farms of the Celts, Aventicum presented a new concept of urban living for the local inhabitants. Forcibly moved to the new town, the Celts did not take easily the Romanization of their lives.
Half a century later, during the reign of Emperor Claudius that the town was entirely rebuilt in stone from the Neuchatel region and the Celts began to accept this new and highly organized civilization.
In 70 A.D., Aventicum was officially named a colony, thus introducing substantial changes in social structure. Retired Roman soldiers, who had been granted land for their services, came to live in the town. Ordinance surveys were carried out, some of which are still valid today, to facilitate land distribution. The town's new status also brought it new honors such as the 5.7 -kilometers-long peripheral wall, which seems to have had more symbolic than military value.
Apart from constructing carefully planned roads at right angles, administrative buildings, and houses, the Romans ensured fresh water supplies. A walk around Avenches reveals ample evidence of aqueducts, sewage canals, walls, and public baths. One can also find vestiges of insulae, the temple, and forum. The sparse remains of the theater and amphitheater, which held 10,000 and 8,000 seats respectively, can only hint at the imposing structures they must have once been.
According to archaeological finds and aerial photographs, the center of Aventicum was inhabited by the privileged classes with the more modest dwellings situated in the suburbs. Villas were decorated with mosaics and painted murals, some of which can be viewed in the town's medieval towered museum. Fragments of furnishings, such as bed ornaments and bronze candelabras, have also been found.
Although on a smaller scale than Augst, the Avenches museum does have some fine examples of Roman artisanry: imported luxury porcelain, locally made pottery, and a fascinating collection of tools for daily use in the working of stone, metal, and wood.
Aventicum suffered the same fate as Augustus Rauricorum at the hands of the Alemannic invaders from the north. Fortunately, enough survived to regale our curiosity and imagination - and make us want to know more.