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Classics Kitchen: Moretum, Roman Garlic Cheese Spread

Today has been a cooking frenzy/ baking marathon in preparation for our Classics Kitchen pop-up tomorrow at the Experiencing Ancient Education event run by Reading University as part of the Being Human Festival of the Humanities, where we’ll be giving food demos, sharing ancient recipes and providing Roman food. Recipes for all the food we will be serving (and many more!) can be found in our recipe book – from savoury dishes including Roman-style pesto, olive relish and fish sauce to sweet treats including fig and wine cake and itrion (sesame biscuits).IMG_6331

Now for one final recipe before the big event…

This recipe is taken from a poem in hexameter (probably wrongly) attributed to Virgil, describing Simylus, a humble farmer, preparing a meal for himself before going out to plough his fields. First he picks the garlic, celery, rue and coriander from his garden and combines them with a hard cheese, olive oil and vinegar, which he then eats with a loaf of freshly baked bread made by his slave.

First, lightly digging into the ground with his fingers, he pulls up four heads of garlic with their thick leaves; then he picks slim celery tops and sturdy rue and the thin stems of trembling coriander. With these collected he sits before the fire and sends the slave girl for a mortar. He seasons with grains of salt and after the salt, hard cheese is added; then he mixes in the herbs. With the pestle in his right works at the fiery garlic, then he crushes all alike in a mixture. His hand circles. Gradually the ingredients lose theior individuality; out of the many colours emerges one – neither whole green (for the white tempers it), nor shining white ( since tinted by so many herbs). The work goes on: not jerkily, as before, but more heavily the pestle makes its slow circuits. So he sprinkles in some drops of Athena’s olive oil and adds a little sharp vinegar and agains works the mixture together. Then at length he runs two fingers round the mortar, gathering the whole mixture into a ball, so as to produce the form and name of a finished moretum.

– Appendix Vergiliana 2.4

Moretum IngredientsIngredients

3 garlic cloves
1tsp celery
1 tsp coriander
1tsp salt
100g pecorino/ parmesan
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil

Method

  • Chop the garlic, celery and coriander and grate the pecorino
  • Add all the ingredients to a food processor
  • Purée until you have a smooth consistency
  • Spread on fresh bread to serve (I recommend ciabatta!)

There are obvious similarities with this and the Roman Pesto I made recently, taken from Columella and De Re Rustica (book 11) contains other recipes for moretum also very similar to this one.

Moretum

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Classics Kitchen: Ancient Roman Pesto

Mark GrantThe purpose of this post is twofold – firstly, to alleviate my guilt for not having published anything for over a month (in my defence, I have been away for most of it) & secondly, as a tribute to my time at the JACT Wells Latin School where I spent 2 weeks brushing up on my Latin and having lots of geeky Classics-related fun! The highlight of this time was meeting the marvelous Dr. Mark Grant, Classicist and food historian, whose writing has inspired my interest in food in the ancient world.

As well as giving a lecture, Dr. Grant also gave a Roman cookery class where each group was given a recipe from his book (right) for a dish that would feature in our Roman banquet. My group opted for Roman pesto, a ‘Herb Puree with Pine Kernels’ from Columella. Interestingly, the Romans did grow basil and it often features in ancient medicine, but it was believed to attract scorpions and considered difficult to digest because of its juices and was therefore not used in cooking.

The recipe is taken from page 98 of Roman Cookery, which I thoroughly recommend and encourage you to try out some Roman recipes from!

Mixtura cum Necleis Pineis
Chop into small pieces Gallic cheese, or any other well-known cheese you like. Pound it. Take pine kernels, if you have a lot of them, but if not, hazelnuts toasted after their shells have been removed, or almonds, and mix them in equal quantity with the seasonings detailed. Add a small amount of peppered vinegar and blend. Pour some olive oil over the mixture. If there are no green seasonings, pound dry pennyroyal or thyme or oregano or dry savoury with the cheese, and add peppered vinegar and olive oil. But, if the other herbs have no pungency, each of these herbs can be mixed when dry with cheese.

– Columella, On Agriculture

Ingredients

100g pine kernels or hazelnuts
80ml olive oil
80ml red wine vinegar
125g feta
handful fresh parsley
handful fresh coriander
2/3 mint leaves
sprig of savory, rue & thyme
salt & pepper

Method

  • Put all the ingredients in a food-processor
  • Purée until you have a smooth consistency and serve with bread *
  • If you are using hazelnuts, roast them first under a hot grill for 5 mins to release their nuttiness, turning them frequently to avoid burning

* Mark Grant’s recipe describes this as a patê and recommends the mix is puréed, however, I preferred to blend it a little less so it more closely resembled pesto and I also reduced the quantity of olive oil and red wine vinegar by half for a thicker, more pesto-like consistency…because recipes are made to be tinkered with!Pesto
I am a big fan of pesto and therein, a big fan of garlic, so I did have my doubts about the taste of this and expected it to be much blander than a typical basil pesto. I was completely mistaken, however, as this had such a rich, nutty flavour and a real tanginess from the different herbs. It was served at our Roman banquet with thin strips of fried pasta (lagana, page 60 of Roman Cookery) which made for a delightful combination.

Feasting

While this dish may represent the ancient origin of pesto, that should not rule out its use today, because it is quite simply too tasty not to make again and I fully intend to reintroduce Roman pesto!