Libum: 160 B.C.

Who likes cheesecake?

Because I don’t want to live in a world the alternative is true, I’m going to assume that most of you said you did – good. Well, you’re in luck: today’s recipe from Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura could be seen as a type of blueprint cheesecake – one of the very earliest forms.

Before you get excited I should quickly read you the small print because there are a couple of caveats to this cheesecake recipe. For one: does it look like cheesecake? No. Does it smell or taste like a cheesecake? Also no. Essentially what we’re dealing with is a cheesecake in the sense that it has cheese in it and is shaped like a cake but really that’s where the similarities end. Libum may translate as ‘cake’ but rather than matching our modern day idea of cake as something sweet, the notion of ‘cake’ here just relates to the round shape. Some people (my husband is one of them) still use the term cake in this way today – a cake of soap, for example, which is why my toddler spent most of the night hiccuping up bubbles.

That’s not to say that ancient cakes couldn’t be sweet – far from it. Liba may not have contained any sweeteners in the dough, but that didn’t stop people serving them drowned in honey or pomegranate syrup. The Greek writer Athenaeus, writing some 350 years after Cato wrote the recipe for Libum also tells of basynias – boiled dough filled with a honey and date stuffing – and elaphos – dough shaped like deers cooked with honey and sesame – for the festival of elaphebolia.

Back in Cato’s De Agri Cultura we find a large number of different cakes listed, included the alarming entitled ‘placenta’ cake – but his concern with listing these cakes isn’t frivolous. In fact, as Nicola Humble points out in a book that encapsulates my two greatest loves with frightening precision – ‘Cake: A Global History‘ – Cato’s preoccupation with cake in a work that is otherwise serious and instructive shows how culturally significant it was to the ancients.

Libum fits in perfectly with this assessment of the seriousness of cake. Rather than be baked to be eaten (although of course they were also used for this), Libums primary function was as a sacrificial offering to the household gods of ancient Rome. Each household would have had an altar upon which one or two of these cakes would be offered to give thanks to the gods. Is there a link with the word ‘libations’, which seems to be only associated with liquid offerings to the gods? I don’t know – opinions and guesses are welcome! Someone who specialises in Roman food and who made much better Liba than I, Farrell Monaco, sheds some light onto the religious function of these cakes. Go and read her post on Libum for much more accurate history and baking than I can provide!

Copy of De Agri Cultura at the Laurentian Library. Credit here.

Cake for the gods? Must be pretty fancy.

Er…

The thing about sacrificing food to the gods in the ancient world is that people often, um, cheated. They didn’t see it as cheating, obviously, but the foods that were offered were usually not what we’d call the cream of the crop.

Take the ancient Greeks. If you know your Odyssey or your Illiad (*scoff* and who doesn’t?!) you’ll know that men of ancient epics quite frequently cook and offer up food as sacrifices to the gods. It happens fairly often – in fact, Odysseus could probably have been home a lot sooner if he hadn’t dilly-dallied around with “burnt offerings” as much as he did. And what were the offerings of choice? Why, thigh bones wrapped in fat and roasted to a crisp, just like mum used to make. Yummy!

The ancient Egyptians were little better – oh sure, they might make a show of offering their gods fruits, breads, wine, fatty meats and rich cheeses up to three times a day, but once the prayers had been said the altar was cleared before the gods could tuck in and the food was taken home to be eaten by the priests (who later died of blocked arteries – true story.)

And finally, the Persians. Herodotus tells us they had no temples to their gods as they believed altars to be “a folly” but when they felt the need to do some praying they stuck with good old fashioned human sacrifice. Even with this unconventional offering the gods might not get long to enjoy the meal; the butchered victim later had his flesh carried away by a holy man (Magi) to make “whatever use of it he may please.” Hmm. Whether or not we trust Herodotus’ account of human sacrifice – notorious anti-Persian sensationalist that he was – is of course another matter.

Engraving dating from 500-475 BC possibly of Persian king Xerxes killing Spartan king Leonidas to make a tasty kebab with later (also possibly not.)

All of which is meant to say: humans are greedy and don’t like sharing. Why offer Zeus an actual saddle of lamb when you can just burn some bones and say that the gods appreciate the smell of burning fat more than the taste of meat? Why allow cheese and meat to fester away on an altar to Osiris when you, a priest, can just eat it and claim that your actions were divinely inspired? Why sacrifice something as useful as a cow to Ahura Mazda when you can kill a potential criminal and ask for a successful harvest in one go?

Liba were no different. No one was going to stuff them with expensive spices or insist they be filled with precious honey just to be left at the altar to some god of lost car keys or getting red wine out of the carpet. Of course, if one were to make enough Liba for the gods to take their share and for everyone else to enjoy then that was another matter. Then all sorts of toppings and additions could be added.

So what’s in them?

Ricotta, spelt flour and egg. They could not be simpler!

The recipe is as follows:

Make libum by this method. Break up two pounds of cheese well in a mortar. When they will have been well broken up, put in a pound of wheat flour or, if you wish it to be more delicate, half a pound of fine flour and mix it well together with the cheese. Add one egg and mix together well. Then make into bread, places leaves beneath, and cook slowly on a hot hearth under an earthen pot.

Cato, De Agri Cultura

I used wholemeal spelt flour because 1) spelt was a very common grain in ancient Rome, 2) we already had it in, and 3) like any good victimarius before me I wasn’t about to waste my best quality plain flour in a time of flour shortages.

I mixed all the ingredients together until a sticky and quite wet dough formed. Although I kneaded it for a few minutes I found that there was only so much it would actually stiffen up, so turned quite quickly to the baking of it.

I greased a cake tin with olive oil and made a bed of bay leaves which I placed my wet dough, rounded to perfection by my own fair hands, onto, and placed the pan into the oven. Cato stated that the dough should be cooked “under an earthen pot”, which panicked me slightly because I imagined the steam would only make my already damp dough damper, which could hamper the dough de-dampening – d’oh! Nevertheless, I complied and in lieu of an authentic earthen Roman pot, I placed a stoneware lasagne dish over the pan and left it to cook for an hour.

After an hour the Libum was firmer but still felt a bit undercooked. It lacked any sort of brownness, so I put it back under the lasagne dish for another thirty minutes and crossed my fingers that I wasn’t about to give our household gods indigestion from under baked dough. After half an hour it looked much better and was ready to offer up to the goddess of house and hearthside, Vesta.

Before we placed it on our household altar, though, we thought we should probably try it. Cato’s original recipe was somewhat plain but would probably have been embellished with all sorts of additions. For authenticity I chose not to add any of these additions to the actual dough, but instead heated honey and toasted pine nuts, both very common features of Roman kitchens, to have as accompaniments.

Eaten alone, Libum was perfectly pleasant. Both my husband and I struggled to equate it to a modern day food – it didn’t taste cheesy but there was a creaminess to it that was thanks to the ricotta. The base of the cake where it had been sat on the bay leaves was particularly delicious and fragrant. I’d never really tasted bay before, not having a palate sophisticated enough to pick up on bay in stews or casseroles, but here it was unmistakable. The spelt was also a great choice of flour as it provided additional texture that fine white flour wouldn’t, as well as a contrasting nuttiness that worked very nicely. The Libum was dense – very dense – but not exactly heavy or stodgy, and it cut beautifully. It wasn’t, however, like a cheesecake. There was no light moussiness or whipped quality to it.

So far, so good. Of all the things I’ve tried to cook, this felt like something that was as close to the original as I could make it – it tasted ‘old’ and looked authentically simple. One Libum fit comfortably in the palm of a hand and I could imagine a young girl laying a couple of these at the household altar and munching absentmindedly on one for herself as she made her way back to the kitchen.

With honey was where Libum really shone, however. I drizzled a little, then a lot, over a slice and sprinkled it with pine nuts. It was glorious. I would now consider honey and multiple little Liba an essential on any cheeseboard, if I were the sort of person who was fancy enough to serve cheeseboards after dinner, or pick them instead of cheesecake for pudding at a restaurant. In fact, if I’d ordered a cheesecake for dessert and a slice of Libum with honey arrived instead, I don’t think I’d send it back.

Cheesecake it isn’t, however. Libum is much closer to bread than cheesecake and there can be no doubt that like most bread, Libum performs best when warm and fresh from the oven.

Unfortunately, this morning I realised we’d run out of bread (fresh or otherwise) for our morning toast and wondered whether leftover Libum would work instead. Cato may have argued that the best Liba were the ones that were offered to the gods, but what he might have been pleased to know is that a day old Libum, slathered with lemon curd and eaten on a rainy morning in front of the TV also holds up well, with or without the gods’ blessings.

E x

Libum (makes 1 cake)

250g ricotta
125g spelt flour or wholemeal plain flour
1 egg
Bay leaves

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees c.
  2. Break up the ricotta in a large bowl to a rough paste.
  3. Add the flour and egg to the ricotta and combine thoroughly.
  4. Grease a round cake pan with olive oil and make a bed of bay leaves in the bottom. You want enough bay leaves to completely cover the base of the dough.
  5. Shape the dough into a round disk, about the size of a hand.
  6. Place the dough on the bay leaves in the cake pan and place in the oven. If you have an ovenproof dish to cover the pan and help create steam you can place it over the dough. If not, don’t worry and just bake as you would a normal cake but check on it after 1 hour.
  7. After 1.5 hours if baking under a pot (and after 1 hour if baking as normal) check on the cake. It should be golden brown on top and the edges and firm to touch, like bread. If not, bake for another 5-10 minutes and check again.
  8. Take the cake out of the oven and while it is cooling, place some pine nuts in a dry frying pan and toast for a couple of minutes. Keep an eye on them as they turn quickly and you don’t want them to burn.
  9. Heat some honey in a microwave or add it to the frying pan with the pine nuts if you want to combine the two and heat until runny.
  10. Serve the Libum on a dish and honey and pine nuts in a jug or plate to dip slices into.

Anglo-Saxon Bread: 1047

When I was 6 or 7 we did an experiment at school mixing water and flour together and using the glue created to stick bits of lovingly beglittered tat to other bits of beglittered tat to take home as a ‘gift’ for our parents. My mum kept all our artwork stuck to the kitchen door but now that I think of it I’m not sure I remember my handmade glue creation making the cut, which seems really unfair when you consider that a Father Christmas made by my sister out of a toilet roll tube and some glued on cotton wool enjoyed pride of place on our tree every bloody year. It wasn’t even homemade glue she used either.

Probably not the most promising anecdote to start with but one that I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout this week’s experiment, for reasons that I imagine are already apparent.

Inspired by Netflix’s The Last Kingdom, I decided to try something Anglo-Saxon. On the show there’s a lot of talk of meat from the Vikings, and lack of meat and unfortunate abundance of gruel from Alfred the Great, but not as much talk of bread as you might expect, given that it’s a universal foodstuff. I’ve worked out this could be for a few reasons:

  1. The producers were fully aware that there was an original plot they were trying to remain faithful to whilst also creating TV drama that would grip an audience. Lengthy discussions on the merits and nuances of bread probably weren’t considered as sexy or compelling as having yet another scene where Uhtred had to show off his muscles and improbably conditioned hair like a macho Barbie.
  2. The script writer was a coeliac with a grudge.
  3. There wasn’t really a universally accepted Anglo-Saxon term for ‘bread’ – at least not in any way that we’d use it today.

To really understand why there was no clear word for bread in Anglo-Saxon England you have to understand the special kind of jiggery pokery that is the evolution of the English language. I don’t. Luckily, Dr Irina Yanushkevich seems to so I’ve taken a lot of my info and processes this week from her paper ‘The Domain of Bread in Anglo-Saxon Culture’.

To cut a long story short(ish) (and hide the fact that I don’t really understand it all), the Anglo-Saxons had many words relating to different types of bread, or bread like substances, or specific ingredients used to make bread, or the tools needed to prepare bread, or the physical action of making the bread, or the times of year which you could start making bread, or the types of people who might make bread, or the sacrificial role of the bread in religious ceremonies, or how much someone wants to eat the bread or how they will pay for the bread.

Truly, if I were an Anglo-Saxon baker I’d be getting restraining orders against most of the village, so obsessed people appeared to be with bread. If I learned anything from this experiment it’s that when compared to the Anglo-Saxons, even the nation’s own self aggrandising bread whisperer Paul Hollywood pales into insignificance in terms of preoccupation with the stuff.

But where does the word bread come from?

I’m so glad you asked.

Anglo-Saxons had different breads for different people, with fine white wheat being used for the most expensive types and pea or bean flour used for the poorest. This lowly bread was also known as horsebread, and was considered fit only for animals or in times of famine. On the other hand, wheat was a labour intensive crop to grow, and riskier for farmers as it was comparatively more susceptible to damage compared to its hardier counterparts rye and barley, (both very common bread varieties for the Anglo-Saxons), so breads made out of it cost much more, hence why in the later middle ages wheat became known as a cash crop.

According to Dr. Yanushkevich, the word bread may derive from the Gothic word broe, which was related to brewing or fermenting, as baking and brewing went hand in hand at this time. The Anglo-Saxons possibly used broe to describe bread leavened with barm from fermenting beer and the word hlāf to describe bread that was unleavened. So far, so simple. The trouble is that hlāf could also be used to mean ‘food’ in general and, later, breads that were only used in religious contexts.

Still with me? Ok. Whatever you called it, bread was a pretty big deal to the Anglo-Saxons. It could be spread with butter for a quick snack after a hard day’s work of fleeing from the Vikings bravely defending England, or used to mop up sauces at a feast or even serve as plates, known as trenchers, once it had gone too hard and stale to eat (though this use was more prevalent during the middle ages.) Therefore, the leaders of England did what all good capitalist overlords do: regulated the production and sale of it (yeah, yeah, I know it’s not good history to apply modern systems to different eras but whatever.)

In 1047 King Edward the Confessor passed the Bread Purity Law after his delicate royal palate had been offended by something masquerading as bread but that was Definitely Not Proper Bread as he and his entourage travelled to London. In the Bread Purity Law he made it a crime to call anything that contained anything other than just “fine flour, water, barm and salt” bread. Bad news for artisan food markets everywhere.

Unfortunately the Hovis baker’s boy had to be executed after yet again breaching the terms of the Bread Law
Image credit: Dmitry Makeev

Technically, then, I should be fined 30 shillings (it being my first bread related offence) under Edward’s law as my bread didn’t contain any barm, which was the froth on top of fermenting beer and which the Anglo-Saxons skimmed off and added as a rising agent. What I made was something that would have been an everyday quick fix to go with a main meal, rather than to be shown off to your rich guests as the world’s most underwhelming showstopper. This was the bread shown fleetingly in scenes of The Last Kingdom; bread that would quickly and easily feed an army, fill a belly that hadn’t eaten meat in days and placate an upset child with a dab of honey on it.

In the same way we wouldn’t write a recipe on how to boil a pan of water, it appears the Anglo-Saxons considered this type of bread to be so simple and ingrained into people’s lives that they didn’t write any recipes for it either. All we have are references to the laws and customs of the time to work out how to make it.

First, I mixed 160g of as unadulterated white wheat flour as I could find with a pinch of salt before adding 5 or 6 tablespoons of water and stirring until it was the consistency of a standard bread dough. Now, it’s unlikely that the Anglo-Saxons making this basic type of bread would have used wheat flour; more likely they’d have used a barley or rye mixture but not only did Sainsbury’s flour aisle not stretch to those good honest grains (too much shelf space taken up failing to flog the tomato and pesto bread mix, apparently) but I also felt that in a recipe as sparse as this one, I might as well treat myself to a better quality of flour.

Unleavened Anglo-Saxon bread was baked on flat stones or griddles placed on embers, with pans placed over them to encourage steam to help them rise just a little bit. Resisting the urge to use the dough to fix our faulty cupboard door handle back on, I scraped two ladle’s worth of it onto my griddle and put a very authentic Anglo-Saxon wok over the top to create some moisture.

After only a couple of minutes I was overjoyed to smell burning, which I was sure would only add to the complexity of flavours in this recipe, so I quickly whipped my wok off (not rude) and flipped the breads over for another couple of minutes. Then they were done.

Not a cartoon filter, just a combination of plate patina, odd lighting and blinding photographic talent

These were genuinely decent. I would actually rather make these again than buy pitta bread, they were that easy and cheap to make. I’m not going to talk about the flavour because it was a plain white piece of bread and everyone already knows what that tastes like (and if you don’t then you need to re-examine how you’re living your life.) Accompaniment wise, though, I could see this working with anything; my husband had managed to whack a great slab of cheddar on top of his with alarming speed while I opted for a far more dignified scraping of chocolate spread. Both worked well. What I would say is that this bread was much, much better eaten hot than it was after an hour or so. After it had cooled it was really quite chewy and hard work. To a battle-weary Anglo-Saxon that might not have mattered so much, but modern day standards have thankfully improved.

I might not be a great Anglo-Saxon warrior or a Viking warlord, and yes, I’ve written the word bread so many times that it doesn’t actually look right or mean anything to me anymore, but spending an hour making this has made me feel a little bit closer to the history which inspired The Last Kingdom, and to Uhtred’s impossible hair, which is a huge benefit however you look at it.

E x

Anglo-Saxon Bread

160g plain flour, water

1. Combine flour and water and mix into a dough.

2. Heat a griddle pan or frying pan and place a little oil or butter to melt on it.

3. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of dough onto pan (or however much you want depending on how big you want your bread.) Make sure it doesn’t come up too much by flattening and spreading it with the back of a spoon.

4. Cook for 5 minutes before flipping and cooking on the other side for another 5 minutes. If dough is still pale and soft then return to pan and cook for longer.

Medieval gingerbread? (hold the ginger…): 1430’s

I’m back to work on Monday having enjoyed an entire 2 weeks of Christmas holiday (perks of being a teacher!) and, well, I’m not sure I’ll be going back. No real reason, it’s just I’ve become so used to only wearing pyjamas and eating chocolate for every meal that I don’t think I can remember how to be a functioning adult, let alone a functioning adult in charge of the future generations of this country. I’ve also had a cold all Christmas and I am pretty sure that if part of your holiday is spent lying on the sofa being poorly instead of lying on the sofa drunk on mulled wine, then you’re allowed to redo the whole thing. I mean, I need to double check it, but I’m fairly certain the law is on my side with this one.

Anyway, in an effort to prolong the festivities I decided to make some gingerbread. This is actually something I’ve wanted to do for ages and every year I tell myself that I’ll make one of those gingerbread houses and decorate it with smarties and jelly tots just like a Hansel and Gretel fever dream. And yet every year I never get round to it. Eggnog always seems to happen instead. So I thought my first dip into the pantry of history could be one that fulfils my wish for a biscuit house and gets post number 1 done in one go!

Except… it turns out that 15th century medieval cooks didn’t quite go in for candy cane picket fences and soft snap biscuit walls. In fact, their whole concept of gingerbread was totally different to ours. For a start: no ginger was needed. In gingerbread. Gingerbread. I actually did some research into this recipe and from what I can gather it was either left out because the other ingredients were believed to fulfil the job of the ginger (more on that in a second) or because the author just forgot to add it in. He had one job! Either way, we aren’t sure why a recipe daring to call itself ‘Gyngerbrede’ would so boldly flout the trade descriptions act, but there we go.

The actual ingredients are honey, powdered pepper, saffron, cinnamon and bread. Always helpful, the author of this recipe didn’t really specify any quantities other than a ‘quart of hony’ which is roughly equivalent to a modern day litre. This is absolutely outrageous decadence for a recipe written at a time of famine, war and plague, so this recipe must have been aspirational and only for the rich (as if the presence of spices hadn’t given that away). I substituted a quart for 250ml instead.

First, I had to take my honey and boil until a scum formed, then skim this scum off. This was pretty easy and smelled quite good. There was minimal scum to get rid of because I guess modern day honey manufacturing methods have taken out a lot of the impurities for us, but I sort of swirled a spoon around the pan for the spirit of the thing.

Then I added powdered pepper, (which I hand ground in a pestle and mortar that I found in the cupboard that neither myself or my husband bought but which I’ve learnt is one of those things that all kitchens must generate themselves, like cinnamon sticks and batteries) and stirred it. This was a bit trickier because there were no quantities given in the recipe so I just put in a teaspoon of ground peppercorns and hoped for the best. Then I added a few strands of saffron (did you know that saffron was so highly prized that in 15th century Germany, merchants who cheated their customers by adulterating their stock could be arrested and executed?) and gave it all a quick stir.

So far, so good. I think Dulux would call this colour ‘Moderate Dehydration’

Next I risked my marriage by grating a quarter of a loaf of white bread all over the kitchen counter less than 15 minutes after my husband had lovingly tidied and wiped down all the surfaces and swept the floor. I suppose if I was doing this properly I would have made my own medieval loaf, but as it was I couldn’t be arsed and my toddler was now very curious about the pan of bubbling honey, so I just used a plain wheat loaf instead. Ordinary medieval peasants would only have access to rougher grains for their breads, for example rye, as wheat was a ‘cash crop’ and usually only for the wealthy. However, given that I’d already established this recipe was written by a lunatic who presumably had enough cash to sink a litre of honey and saffron in one go, I assumed using a simple shop bought cottage white loaf would be close enough to the fine wheat bread of the wealthy medieval classes. I grated the bread into as fine breadcrumbs as I could using a cheese grater because the curious and slightly insomniatic (is this a word?) toddler was now in bed in the room above the kitchen so using the food processor to make breadcrumbs was out of the question, and tipped the mass into the honey mix.

It all began to smell very medieval. Sort of ferment-y and sweet and musty. I stirred it all together until it was basically a thick paste and tipped it into a dish to squidge down. It had a grainy texture, like homemade fudge. At this point the recipe suggested adding sandalwood for a red colour, and I can see why; once I had patted it into all the edges and smoothed it down it resembled less cookie-cutter house of dreams and more regurgitated cat food. The author must have thought the same because he practically begged me to add evergreen leaves and cloves for disguise decoration.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to eat this?

Realised at this point that I’d forgotten to add the cinnamon, which by medieval standards would have been a big no-no. Remember I mentioned earlier that one possible reason for the lack of ginger in this recipe was because it was believed the other ingredients would have done ginger’s job for it? Medieval people believed in the theory of the 4 humours – that the human body was made up of 4 essential liquids: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Illness was caused when the humours became corrupted or misaligned and because each humour shared attributes with the 4 elements (hot, cold, wet, dry) a sick person could have their humours realigned by taking a medicine with elements in it which would generate more of the humour they were lacking, or cause them to purge some of the humour they had too much of. Ginger, with its spicy kick, was associated with the element of heat and therefore would have been seen as a medicinal ingredient for those whose illness was caused by a lack of bile and who needed to create more by warming up their insides. Other ingredients with similarly spicy qualities, such as cinnamon, did the same, which is why a medieval person using this recipe as more of a medieval version of a chakra cleanse rather than a sweet treat might have been distraught by my forgetfulness. Although the teaspoon of pepper, another spicy addition to the recipe, may have made up for it. Either way, whoever the author was they must have really been lacking in yellow bile…

After a couple of hours in the fridge I cut it into slices and sprinkled on some of the forgotten cinnamon. It didn’t taste as bad as I thought it would! It’s not as painfully sweet as I expected but is very sticky and kind of nougat like. I had chilled mine in the fridge before cutting it because I’m a sucker for an anachronism, and I think that made it more palatable. A teaspoon of pepper is maybe too much as it definitely had a kick to it, although that may also have been overeager cinnamonning at the end. All in all I definitely wouldn’t call this gingerbread, but I can see why someone who had the misfortune to live before chocolate and gummy bears were invented might think it was a decent treat.

E x