Wednesday, July 1, 2015

My Second (?) Moretum Experiment

Second moretum experiment--results
This afternoon, while taking a break from scanning the Internet for plausible job openings, I made another batch of moretum, based on my friend Stella Anderson's redaction of Virgil's recipe.

I started out with a chunk of a cheese called Oro Antico, which claimed to be a Pecorino Toscano (which, like Pecorino Romano, is a sheep's milk cheese) that had been aged for 6 months.  I ended up using a piece of the chunk that was about the size of the palm of my hand and roughly an inch thick.  

The cheese was quite tough and dry after sitting in my refrigerator for nearly 2 weeks, so I chopped it up into 1/2 cm-sized bits before I made a serious effort to pound it.  And I do mean "pound".  Virgil is right about Symilus "pounding" his cheese.  The normal twisting, grinding motion I normally employ in using a mortar and pestle did nothing to the cheese bits--the mortar simply skidded off without discernible effect.  However, holding the mortar vertical and bringing it straight down onto the cheese bits with controlled force worked very well. By this method I eventually managed to turn my chunk of cheese into a quantity of coarse, slightly fluffy damp powder, into which I ground an equal volume of diced celery.  With the celery, conventional grinding was necessary to work it into the mass of powdered cheese.  

After I got the cheese and celery somewhat combined, I began adding olive oil to the mixture.  A small "dribble" did nothing, but about an ounce or so of oil turned the powder into a  spreadable, if coarse, paste.  Then I ground in an 1/8th of a teaspoon of ground coriander seeds, about a tablespoon of chopped parsley, and 3  small cloves of garlic.   I would have tried adding rue if I had had any on hand.

The result of my labors was indeed tasty.  It still tasted like Pecorino Toscano, but was moister and had a pleasant tang from the herbs.  It didn't have much garlic taste, which leads me to conclude that the older and harder your cheese is, the more garlic can be added to the recipe without the garlic flavor becoming overwhelming.  I shudder to think how tough Symilus's cheese must have been if he needed four heads of garlic to make it palatable!

From this second moretum experiment, I conclude that the recipe in Virgil's poem assumes that a hard cheese like a Pecorino was used; such a cheese requires "pounding" instead of grinding in the mortar and can tolerate the addition of much more garlic than a soft cheese.  Celery is also a critical addition, because in addition to having a pleasant flavor it makes the resulting cheese-and-olive-oil paste moister and easier to spread.  I suspect that the use of any herbs or vegetables other than celery would depend upon maker's taste and the herbs available to him or her.  For example, Symilus didn't use basil in his moretum, but basil would probably be quite tasty in this recipe instead of (or perhaps even in addition to) the parsley. 

Many thanks to Stella and the author of opus anglicanum for motivating me to rethink my original assumptions and arrive at a more plausibly historical moretum recipe.

EDIT:  (7/3/2015)  My moretum got pretty hard sitting in the refrigerator (not a problem Virgil's farmer would have had), so I ended up adding almost another ounce of olive oil, mixing it in with a (non-period style) fork.  This worked pretty well to retain spreadability while not changing the taste.  I also added some salt (totally unnecessary; I'd forgotten that the Pecorino is already salted) and black pepper (which worked well). 

EDIT:  (1/31/2016) Added a question mark to the title, because I realized that this was really my third moretum experiment.

1 comment:

  1. Your cheese must have been a bit drier than mine, because mine turned into a paste fairly quickly with only a small amount of oil. I'm sure you're right that it could be made with any herbs the cook had available, and it would be nice with basil - something else to try another time.