Monday, 1 June 2015

Moretum: the rustic Roman breakfast food

Recently, Cathy Raymond made some moretum, as described in Virgil's poem of the same name.  I'm not a huge Virgil fan, so this was the first time I'd come across the poem.  Moretum is often translated "Salad", perhaps because the more accurate translation "Cheese Spread" is deemed too plebian.  Nevertheless, moretum is a cheese spread with herbs and garlic.  Yum!  Here was a recipe I absolutely had to try, and it fits conveniently into the last Historical Food Fortnightly challenge of the year: Breakfast Food.

I ate my moretum with crispbread.  It's not authentically Roman, but it is delicious with moretum.

Virgil's poem describes farmer Symilus preparing his breakfast before going to work in his fields.  First he makes bread, but he doesn't have any meat to eat with it and the thought of eating bread on its own doesn't appeal to him, so he makes some moretum.  This involves a number of herbs from Symilus' vege garden:

"ac primum leviter digitis tellure refossa
quattuor educit cum spissis alia fibris,
inde comas apii graciles rutamque rigentem
vellit et exiguo coriandra trementia filo."  You can read the full Latin text here and there's a translation here:

"Away, he garlic roots with fibres thick,
And four of them doth pull; he after that
Desires the parsley's graceful foliage,
And stiffness-causing rue,' and, trembling on
Their slender thread, the coriander seeds"

That's an insane amount of garlic.  Cathy Raymond says Roman heads of garlic were smaller than ours, but it still seems like a lot, especially since the poem specifically tells us the smell makes Symilus' eyes water.  It's so much garlic that I question whether this recipe is representative of what the Romans actually ate, or whether Virgil was indulging in a bit of poetic exaggeration.  It just doesn't pass the sniff test (pun intended).

I don't know why Virgil might have exaggerated the quantity of garlic, but I used half a clove.  I don't know where that translator is getting parsley from either.  It looks like they've translated apius as parsely, but apius is celery.  I covered both bases by using parsley and celery.

When Cathy made moretum, Opusanglicanum talked of making it with Pecorino Romano.  I'd like to try it with labneh, but Pecorino Romano is closer to what Virgil had in mind.  Pecorino Romano was made in Roman times, and Symilius' cheese is obviously some type of hard cheese.  He keeps it hanging from his roof by a string tied through a hole in the middle of the cheese.

The poem goes on to describe how Symilus pounds his herbs and cheese together in a pestle and mortar.

This is the recipe I've come up with, based on the poem:
  • Half a clove of garlic (though in hindsight a whole one would be nice too)
  • Roughly equal quantities of Pecorino Romano and finely chopped celery 
  • A good pinch of parsley
  • A small pinch of rue
  • A small pinch of coriander seeds
  • A dribble of olive oil
  • A couple of drops of red wine vinegar
Pecorino Romano quickly forms a paste when you crush it in a pestle and mortar.  It does not need a lot of olive oil, and I would recommend adding just one or two drops of vinegar at a time.  I think it would be easy to add too much and spoil the flavour.

The Challenge: Breakfast Food.

The Recipe: Moretum, from the poem of the same name attributed (perhaps wrongly) to Virgil.

The Date/Year and Region: First century BCE Rome.

How Did You Make It: Just like Symilus in the poem, I put all the ingredients in a pestle and mortar and ground them into a paste.

Time to Complete: Just a few minutes.

Total Cost: The block of Pecorino Romano set me back $12.50, which I thought was excessive at the time.  Now I've tasted the moretum, I have to say I don't regret buying the cheese.

How Successful Was It? Very, very good.  Next time you're entertaining, consider making some moretum to serve as a dip.  I'm confident your guests will enjoy it.

How Accurate Is It?  Very!  I've even made it in a pestle and mortar, although if we're going to be honest that's mainly because it requires less effort to make it the authentic Roman way than to clean out a food processor.


  1. Interesting! And as you point out, it sounds more authentic, too.

    My goat cheese cost me about $9 USD, and there's enough that I can have a second batch. Maybe I'll make that right now!

  2. I still like my version of moretum with goat cheese, but your recipe and the authenticity argument convinced me to make my next batch from Pecorino Romano.

    My husband had the interesting idea of making moretum from cottage cheese (with the water strained and squeezed out). Wikipedia claims that squeezing the water out of cottage cheese gives you an approximation of farmer's cheese, which I was originally thinking about. Small curd is easier for me to get, so that's what I would try first.

    1. I'll be interested to know how you get on with a Pecorino Romano version. This is definitely the way to eat it if you don't like the stuff - the vegetable flavours really improve it. I find myself wondering whether that's why Symilus makes moretum instead of just eating bread and cheese.

      To be fair, I suspect the Romans used whatever kind of cheese they had on hand. I don't know much about how Roman cheeses compare to the types available now, but I do know they had many different kinds including fresh and hard cheeses and even vegetarian cheeses. That's interesting about cottage cheese. I must give it a try.

    2. If "apii" or "apius" is celery, maybe the "foliage" is celery leaves instead of parsley. Though I confess I like parsley and celery stalks together.

      Looking at the issue again, probably Symilus didn't want to gnaw on hard cheese for breakfast; he wanted something spreadable, which as you correctly point out, a cheese firm enough to hang from a hole in its center would not be.

      I intend to try your recipe when my last goat cheese batch runs out; I bought an aged Pecorino Toscano (couldn't find Pecorino Romano the last time I shopped for cheese at my supermarket).

    3. I wondered if it might be celery leaves and no parsley too, but I like it with parsley and I don't think it would be as good without. I'll be interested to hear how your Pecorino Toscano batch turns out!

  3. The moretum sounds delicious. It has everything I love in it, cheese, garlic and celery. I really like how you went to the historical source of the recipe to make your own. Whether or not it is exactly like Virgil's moretum doesn't really matter and yours seems to be close enough I think. Now I just have to go out and find some Pecorino Romano.

    Crystal Carson @ Tacky Jacks

    1. Thanks! I was the same with this recipe - saw that it had all the things I like in it and so I just had to try it. I really recommend it.