Saturday, June 27, 2015

Another Moretum Experiment

I was pretty satisfied with the moretum [i.e.,  the name for an ancient Roman type of cheese spread] I had made until I read my friend Stella Anderson's moretum recipe on her blog, Historical Living with Hvitr.  Stella's blog post makes three points about the redaction of the recipe found in Virgil's poem by the author of Pass the Garum ("PTG") that has made me reconsider my original views about moretum in general and Virgil's recipe in particular.

First, Stella noted that, whether or not garlic heads were smaller in those days, the amount of garlic used by the farmer in Virgil's poem was "insane".  She points out that Virgil intended to convey the idea that the amount of garlic was excessive by stating that the garlic made the farmer's eyes water as he pounded it.  (In contrast, my eyes didn't water at all as I put my single clove into my moretum recipe.)

Second, it turns out that apius, the Latin word actually used in Virgil's poem, means "celery" not "parsley", making it unclear why the translation used by  PTG refers to parsley in the first place.

Third, and most importantly, the poem itself explicitly describes the cheese used in the farmer's moretum as a hard cheese.  I'm not sure how I missed that detail.  I can't read Latin, but the translation used by PTG describes the cheese in question as follows:  "...a cheese transfixed/ By rope of broom through mid-circumference/ Was hanging there, an ancient bundle, too,/ Of dill together tied."  Or, in Stella's words, "...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."

These facts convince me that, however tasty a soft-cheese spread might be with the additions proposed by Virgil, Stella and my friend at Opus Anglicanum (who made up some moretum with her own redaction of the recipe given in Virgil) are right; a hard cheese was meant to be used in the recipe, and may well have been generally preferred for moretum in ancient Rome.  The cheese was pounded in a mortar with olive oil to make it spreadable, and the added vegetables and herbs likely provide a useful level of moisture to the mix as well as a more pleasing flavor. Although Virgil likely exaggerated the amount of garlic used to make the farmer look more like a country bumpkin, a significant amount of garlic might be necessary for achieving a pleasing flavor balance in a salted cheese that was even drier than normal because it had been hanging for a long time.  

So I went looking for some Pecorino Romano, a type of sheep's milk cheese which was already being made in Roman times.  On my first effort, I failed to locate Pecorino Romano in my local supermarket, but did find and purchased some Pecorino Toscano.  I selected an aged version of Pecorino Toscano, hoping to duplicate the effect of Symilius's ancient cheese.  Later, I found Pecorino Romano, and purchased it as well.

Now, I have two possible hard cheeses to experiment with.  I think I'll start with the Pecorino Toscano, because I have a smaller piece of that and because Stella has already vetted Pecorino Romano as a base for moretum.   Pecorino Toscano is somewhat softer in texture and less sharp in flavor than Pecorino Romano, so it is a good choice for my next batch, which I'm going to make using Stella's redaction of the moretum recipe from the poem as a starting point.   The result will be described in this blog.

EDIT:  (7/1/2015) Fact correction; Stella's recipe used Pecorino Romano, not Pecorino Toscano.  I have corrected the text accordingly.

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