Moretum: 1st century CE

Salve, suckers!

Actually, I apologise. That was really inappropriate and I shouldn’t have said it; I meant salvete, suckers.

I’m going to go ahead and slap a big warning on this one for anyone who might come within 6 feet of me in the next few days: don’t. Seriously, this isn’t a joke. Especially if you’re a ‘sleeps all day, turns into a bat and drinks people’s blood by night’ kind of a person.

In fact, if there was ever a recipe made for enforced self-isolation, it’s this one. Containing a whopping four bulbs of garlic, this is one dish that’s not for the faint of heart or faint of nose.

Luckily, we love garlic in this house and (obviously) have no parties to go to where – had we eaten this beforehand – we might have been written out of the social calendar for the next decade. True, in recent times the closest I’ve come to having a ‘social calendar’ is booking my daughter’s parents’ evening slot at her nursery but you get the picture.

Today’s dish is Moretum. No, it’s not just something I see in the mirror after a heavy cake binging session, but is actually a Roman cheese paste mixed with herbs that was eaten through the Roman Republic (c. 509 – 27 BC) and into the Imperial periods (27 BC – 476 CE.) The word moretum translates to ‘salad’ (if we believe the notoriously hit-and-miss abilities of Google translate) and was enjoyed with bread. Since the main kitchen tool used in the preparation of Moretum was a mortar and pestle, there may also be a linguistic link between the recipe and the method of mixing the ingredients together. I don’t know though, and Google translate also tells me that the Latin word for mortar was mortarium, which translates as ‘trough’ – not very well linked to ‘salad’ after all.

As with previous Roman recipes, I’ve found that Farrell Monaco’s website (where she covers not one but three Moretum recipes – including the one I’m trying today) has been invaluable for advice and information. As always, if you prefer your historical cooking to be done by someone who a) knows what they’re talking about and b) has the tools and ability to carry out the cooking with as much historical accuracy as possible, then you should definitely head on over to her brilliant site. If, however, you just like the schadenfreude of reading about a woman bashing four bulbs of garlic to smithereens with a rolling pin (we’d lost our pestle) while her husband and daughter flee the kitchen, gasping for fresh air and vowing never to be in the same room as her again, read on.

The recipe I’m using isn’t really from a recipe book at all. It’s from a collection of poems from the 1st century CE called the Appendix Vergiliana – specifically one poem simply entitled ‘Moretum’. Yep, it’s my idea of great poetry: an ode to cheese.

Virgil: Author of the Appendix Vergiliana?

Except it’s not really. The author (whoever he may be – despite the name, there is debate around whether Virgil or other unknown author(s) wrote the poems in Appendix Vergiliana) isn’t really writing a love song to the Roman equivalent of Boursin (however much Boursin deserves such exaltation.) No, what we have here is a pastoral poem – a mode of literature which Terry Gifford summed up as having a focus on countryside lifestyles whist highlighting the contrast between urban and rural. Virgil himself popularized pastorals in his Eclogues, which maybe explains why, if the poem Moretum was written by a copycat, they chose the pastoral mode rather than any other. Traditionally, a pastoral poem would paint an idyllic image of rural living and simple country folk. Reading it though, I was struck by how unappealing it all sounded. The main character is portrayed as sweaty, sweary and smelly. He lives a life he doesn’t seem too happy with – unable to even afford meat and going round and round in a cycle of hard toil and sleep; hardly the blissful existence most pastorals painted. If anything, I ended up reading the poem as a satire of a pastoral – but that might be my poor literary judgement.

In fact, to say I lack a sophisticated appreciation for literary art is putting it mildly; I find cracker jokes funny and am naturally wary of people who say not all poetry has be written in rhyming couplet. The problem is, if it’s more advanced than a limerick out of a children’s book I lack the required nuance to ‘get’ it and
I’m not good with free verse poetry that
Does this sort of thing
in an
Arty kind of way –
It makes me panic, I mean:
Which words should I
Emphasise?
(And why do none of them rhyme?)

So here’s my no-frills, no-nuance breakdown of Moretum: a peasant farmer called Symilus wakes up and begins his day’s chores. These include lighting the fire, milling grain, making bread, picking the ingredients for Moretum, making the Moretum and ploughing. He’s not alone, old Symilus, though. He lives with a slave woman from Africa called Scybale who is described in uncomfortable and intrusive detail – notes on her hair, facial features, skin colour, breasts, stomach and legs made for jarring reading in the 21st century. For eight lines the author daydreams through a voyeuristic fantasy and though I’m sure someone will come along to tell me that this was/is a valid literary trope and we shouldn’t push our modern sensibilities onto past cultures (fair) it doesn’t stop my initial reaction to it.

All that aside, the poem does give a very detailed breakdown of how Moretum was made, which I tried to follow as closely as possible. First, I peeled four bulbs of garlic and placed them in the mortar with salt and and entire block (170g) of grated pecorino cheese (the poem doesn’t specify how much or which cheese Symilus used but it does refer to a cheese “hard from taking up the salt” and “hanging” by a rope which suggests a salty, hard cheese. Not only does pecorino fit these criteria, it was also a stalwart of the Roman army and is still (mostly) made following original methods, making it an ideal choice for my experiment today.

Now I understood why Symilus hated his life and “cursed his early meal” when making it; this was bloody hard work. It took well over 20 minutes to pulverize the garlic cloves in a mortar (even after I’d finally located the pestle but but not before I ruined our rolling pin) and I ended up with a blister in the middle of my palm. I’ve never looked at a kitchen appliance with as much longing as I have when I gazed at our mixer, with its shiny blades and never-before-used grater attachment. But I stayed strong; if I was going to do this at all I was going to do it no less than 75% properly and I’d already lost most of my leeway because I’d grated my cheese to make it easier, instead of bashing it up in chunks too.

To the finally mashed garlic and cheese I added parsley, rue and ground coriander seeds. The rue was dried, not fresh, so wouldn’t have been exactly the same, but I’m pretty sure the general bitter flavour was still there. It’s safe to use rue in food quantities (i.e. a couple of pinches) but some people, particularly pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers, should not eat it. More info here.

The smell. Good God, the smell.

Once the ingredients were in the pot (I had to transfer them out of the mortar because it was too small), Symilus began to mix all the ingredients together with his right fist while his left hand “‘neath his hairy groin” stopped his tunic from flapping into it all. What a delightful image. What a lucky woman Scybale was to live with such an appealing sounding man.

The mixture turned quite green, matching the description in the poem where Symilus notices the white from the garlic and cheese mingling with the green from the herbs, and smelled pungent. Very pungent. Even with the window and doors open I knew we wouldn’t be rid of the smell for days. I hoped to God it was worth it.

Eventually the mixture formed a stiff coarse paste. I added enough olive oil to loosen it up to the consistency of, well, Boursin (I promise I don’t get royalties from them or have shares in the company) and some white wine vinegar, as per the poem’s instructions and shaped it a little of it into a pleasing ball to serve along with some Roman flat bread (also mentioned in the poem – recipe is also below). Then there was no putting it off any more – it was time to try it.

My unsuspecting husband said these looked like veggie meatballs so I dared him to eat one whole. He’s not allowed to open his mouth for a month now.

What did it taste of? Garlic. There was just no getting away from that. But until you try it I don’t think you can know just how garlicky garlic can be. We’re used to eating it in a cooked form, which somewhat mellows it. This was raw mashed quadruple garlic and boy did I know it – it brought tears to my eyes. The first mouthful was so overwhelming I actually didn’t take anything in apart from Oh my God this is very garlicky quickly followed by why is it so spicy?! and Bloody hell I can see my own breath.

But once the heat from the first mouthful had died down, I was able to think about it more. It was fairly creamy, because of the cheese, but in the tangy way parmesan or other aged hard cheeses are (rather than the creaminess of soft cheese) and though I couldn’t really taste the herbs they did make it look more appetising. I think this could have taken even more cheese, so in the recipe below I’ve recommended two blocks of pecorino (yes, I know) and you can scale it down if you need to. The recipe is from the original poem and makes far too much for the average family to enjoy in one go, so I’d half it if you didn’t want any left over and you were feeding a (hungry) family of 4.

Garlic may have been the overriding flavour but once you got used to it, it was very moreish. I actually ended up standing in the kitchen absentmindedly dipping slice after slice of flatbread into the bowl as I watched my husband and daughter playing in the garden among the flowerbeds together (see, I can do pastoral scenes too.)

The best way I could describe it was like a very, very, very strong thick garlic butter (the olive oil obviously acting as the butter element). It was not, however, a meal. No wonder Symilus couldn’t find a partner if he was scoffing a plate of this for his lunch each day. But it was too good to just throw out once we’d tried a bit. So I froze what was left in an ice cube tray for individual portions – I reckon that one large cube or two small ones stirred into pasta would make a strong but delicious garlicky sauce for a family of 4.

I would absolutely make this again. Perhaps in smaller quantities, though, and only if I knew I didn’t have to speak to anyone the day after eating it. I recommend making Symilus’ flatbread too to go with it – it was the perfect subtle companion, offering a nutty but otherwise quite plain base for the Moretum to do its thing. I’ve yet to try the frozen Moretum but I have high hopes it’ll do well – let me know if you can think of any other cooking ideas for it other than pasta sauce.

And to the manufacturers of Boursin – if you’re reading this and now you’re thinking of making a Moretum inspired version; I would like 20% of the profits (and there will be profits) which I’ll accept in the form of money and/or wheels of your original Garlic and Herb.

E x

Moretum (half this recipe if you only want enough for 4)

For the Moretum:
4 bulbs of garlic
340g of pecorino cheese
A large handful of finely chopped parsley
One or two pinches of dried rue (or a few leaves of chopped fresh rue – but no more than a few leaves of fresh because rue can be toxic in large quantities and DO NOT use any at all if you are pregnant or breastfeeding)
1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground coriander seeds
Olive oil
White wine vinegar
Couple of pinches of salt

For the flatbreads:
320g spelt flour (or wholewheat flour)
Approx. 100ml warm water
Salt

  1. Make the flatbreads first. Heat the oven to 165 degrees C.
  2. Mix flour, salt and water until it forms a stiff dough. You may need more water – add as much as you need to get a stiff dough.
  3. Knead the dough and then turn out onto a floured surface. Roll it out to no more than 1/2 centimetre thickness.
  4. Cut the dough into equal rectangles or squares and place on a baking tray. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. They should be crisp when you remove them. If they aren’t, bake a bit longer.
  5. Peel the garlic and place the peeled cloves into a mortar. Pulverize them until they are a coarse paste. It will take much longer than you think. Alternatively, whizz them in a blender for a few seconds.
  6. Grate the cheese into the mashed garlic and add the herbs and salt.
  7. Mix everything together, making sure the herbs and salt are well incorporated.
  8. Add olive oil to loosen the mixture to a consistency you like, and a couple of teaspoons of white wine vinegar. Mix well.
  9. Transfer to a bowl and enjoy with the flatbreads.