MORETUM, OR ROMAN CHEESE WITH GARLIC

By Baroness Aurelia Rufinia, Chef de Cuisine de Baron Jehan du Lac
aureliarufinia (at) yahoo (dot) com

A poem attributed to Virgil describes the simple lunch of a farmer. He grinds garlic, fresh herbs and cheese together to make a cheese paste to put on his bread. Several Roman cookery books have made attempts at recreating this recipe, with limited results. For Carolingia's May Day, I made my own second (and third) attempts to enter in the Baronial Artisan's competition.

Tunc quoque tale aliquid meditans intraverat hortum.
Ac primum, leviter digitis tellure refossa,
quattuor educit cum spissis alia fibris,
inde comas apii gracilis rutamque rigentem
vellit et exiguo coriandra trementia filo.
Haec ubi collegit, laetum consedit ad ignem
et clara famulam poscit mortaria voce.
Singula tum capitum nodoso corpore nudat
et summis spoliat coriis contemptaque passim
spargit humi atque abicit. Servatum germine bulbum
tinguit aqua lapidisque cavom demittit in orbem.
His salis inspargit micas, sale durus adeso
caseus adicitur, dictas super ingerit herbas
et laeva vestem saetosa sub inguina fulcit:
dextera pistillo primum flagrantia mollit
alia, tum pariter mixto terit omnia suco.
It manus in gyrum: paulatim singula vires
deperdunt proprias; color est e pluribus unus,
nec totus viridis, quia lactea frusta repugnant,
nec de lacte nitens, quia tot variatur ab herbis.
Saepe viri nares acer iaculatur apertas
spiritus et simo damnat sua prandia voltu,
saepe manu summa lacrimantia lumina terget
immeritoque furens dicit convicia fumo.
Procedebat opus nec iam salebrosus ut ante
sed gravior lentos ibat pistillus in orbis.
Ergo Palladii guttas instillat olivi
exiguique super vires infundit aceti
atque iterum commiscet opus mixtumque retractat.
Tum demum digitis mortaria tota duobus
circuit inque globum distantia contrahit unum,
constet ut effecti species nomenque moreti
(Translation by Mistress Morwenna Westerne)
Then also he had entered the garden.
And first, with his fingers easily having again dug out from the
earth he leads out four garlic bulbs with thick roots, after that
the fronds of slender [celery or parsley] and stiff rue, he plucks
and coriander trembling on the slight stalk.
When he has gathered them, he sits down at the cheerful fire
and with a clear voice he demands the mortar from his maid-
servant. Then he removes each one of the heads from the knotty
body and strips the outermost skin and having disdained it he
scatters it here and there on the ground and throws it down.
Water moistens the bulb preserved from the sprig and he sends
it down into the hollow circle of stone. He sprinkles these
grains of salt, hard cheese is cast at the salt, gnawing away, he
pours in the herbs having been said above and his left hand
under his hairy loins supports his garment: his right hand first
softens with the pestle the fiery garlic, then all alike he grinds
the mixed flavors. His hand goes in circles: little by little
strength destroys each single individual; from many there is
one color, neither wholly green, which fights against the milky-
white in vain, nor pressing upon the white, which is changed
by so many herbs. Often the sharp odor throws the man's un-
covered nostrils and he condemns his lunches with a crumpled
face often he wipes his tearing eyes with the top of his hand
and raging, he speaks angrily to the innocent fume. The work
proceeds not now as jolting as before but heavily the pestle
goes in slow circles. Therefore he drips in drops of Pallas' oil
and pours scant vinegar on the top of its strength and again the
work mingles together and he takes the mixture in hand again.
Then finally with two fingers he circles the whole mortar and
the different parts collect in one ball, it agrees so that the ap-
pearance and name of moretum having been accomplished


Redaction:

(NB: I choose not to use rue in cooking. Mistress Aramanthra suggests substituting fresh sage and fresh parsley for rue when called for.)

(NB2: Quantities are approximate. I am of the "oh, that looks about right" school of cooking)

(NB3: The mortar and pestles most people have in their homes are considerably smaller than the average Roman mortar and pestle.)

Peel and chop garlic into small pieces. Grind in mortar until mushy. Set aside. Chop sage into small pieces. Grind in mortar until mushy. Follow suit with the rest of the herbs. When everything is mushy, put it all into mortar and grind together. Grate cheese. Put cheese and garlic and herbs in a bowl, mix well. It will be somewhat powdery. Add a bit of olive oil and vinegar and mix until it will hold itself into a ball. Serve with bread.

Both Giacosa's A Taste of Ancient Rome and Grant's Roman Cookery recommend using a soft ricotta cheese for this recipe. I choose not to use ricotta because a) I tried that once before, and it wasn't very good, and b) the poem calls specifically for a hard cheese. (Dalby and Grainger, in The Classical Cookbook , recommend a hard cheese.) My first attempt was made in October of 2004, using Giacosa's recipe. I used ricotta, and dried herbs (corriander seeds and celery seeds) because it didn't occur to me to use fresh ones. Giacosa does not insert a copy of the poem in her book, just the list of ingredients. She also calls for four cloves of garlic, not four heads. The result was a faintly flavored ricotta with no backbone.

Other posted redactions of this recipe call for seeds or dried herbs. Since the farmer has plucked the herbs from the garden, and the green of the herbs stains the white of the cheese, it's pretty clear that the herbs are fresh. Apium the word for "celery" is also the word for "parsley." Food in Antiquity by Don and Patricia Brothwell addresses this subject, saying that celery started out as a medicinal herb, but is used by Apicius as a flavoring. Patrick Faas, in Around the Roman Table, lists several different varieties of parsley, each with its own Latin name. It's possible that if the poet were calling for parsley, he would have called it by name, such as petroselenion, or "rock parsley." For this redaction, I had already used parsley as a partial substitute for rue, and used celery tops for apium.

The second attempt was made for the May Day Casa Moomba picnic in Carolingia. The garlic in this case was hand chopped, and the cheese was hand grated. The third attempt (in the Baronial Artisan competition) was mostly identical, but with pre-grated cheese and chopped garlic from a jar. The third attempt was slightly saltier than the second.

The Virgiliana Moretum with Bread makes a nice snack for a picnic, and it disappeared quite fast. Not all Roman cuisine is contained in the pages of Apicius.

References:

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Reprinted from the Fall, 2005, issue of Arts and Sciences, a special issue of the Pikestaff,
the official newsletter of the Kingdom of the East. Used by permission.