Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Final Moretum Experiment

Garlic grater (note the label "Ail", French for garlic)
In my refrigerator, I still have the Pecorino Romano I'd bought this past summer when I was busily experimenting with different recipes for making moretum, an ancient Roman cheese spread described by Virgil.  So I decided to do a final, more open-ended moretum experiment.

I used about a quarter pound (about 113 g) of my half-pound sized chunk of cheese for this recipe. I chopped the cheese into bits, as I had done for the Oro Antico I used in my last experiment.  I was surprised at how easy the task was.  I had expected the cheese to be rock-hard but it was still fairly soft, even after being in my refrigerator's meat drawer for over six months. Pounding, however, still worked better than grinding for turning the cheese bits into a paste.

Next, I added above 4 or 5 large cloves of garlic--more than a third of a bulb.  To prepare them for mixing, I used the tool shown above:  a small ceramic plate, which had been scored in the center (the green part) with criss-crossing lines before firing, to roughen the surface.  Rubbing peeled cloves on the rough section turns garlic into a paste very quickly.  

After that, I chopped up two ribs of celery and added them to the mix.  Some grinding was necessary to mix in the celery and it was hard to blend it into the paste.  I realized afterward I should have used the garlic plate on the celery as well, to help turn it into a paste before mixing it with the cheese. However, the grated garlic worked pretty well to help the other ingredients cohere into a spreadable paste.  In fact, I achieved a moister and smoother paste than I'd managed with my last batch. I needed significantly less olive oil to complete the transformation of my ingredients into cheese spread.

And that's all I used.  I didn't have parsley in the house and thus didn't add any (though Symilius, the cheese-eating "hero" of Virgil's poem, added celery instead of parsley, as Stella Anderson noted here). Nor did I add salt, since the Pecorino had plenty.

Having combined the ingredients, I thought I was done until I looked at Virgil's poem again and saw that Symilius also adds a "little of his scanty vinegar" to his moretum.  Both Stella and the author of Pass the Garum had included a tiny amount of vinegar in their redactions, which for some reason I had forgotten.  So I tried adding a bit of balsamic vinegar to my moretum, on the theory that such a vinegar might have been added to provide a bit of sweetness, giving the mixture the sweet-and-sour flavor so enjoyed by the Romans. Not so.  Even though I accidentally got more than a few drops of vinegar in my cheese mix, I could taste no discernible difference after I had added it.

Finally, Symilius also used ground coriander seeds in his moretum. I had ground coriander seed available, so I added some to my batch after it had been in the refrigerator for about a day, but half a teaspoon plus a generous sprinkle of powdered seed did nothing to change the taste; it remained very garlicky and too sharp.  Adding fresh green herbs like parsley might have taken the edge off of the sharpness, but I didn't have any handy this time.

My final thoughts:
  • A certain amount of "pounding" with the mortar, not grinding, is necessary to make moretum, because harder cheeses were used, and using harder cheese seems to give better taste results.
  • Grating the garlic helps to make the resulting paste smoother.  Perhaps grating the celery would have a beneficial effect on the texture also, but I did not think of trying that when I made this last batch.  
  • Grating the garlic also releases more garlic juice, making the resulting cheese more garlicky than might otherwise be the case for a similar quantity of garlic.  
  • Modern cheeses must contain more salt than Roman cheeses did, because I found no need for the additional salt Symilius is said to have added in the poem.
  • It's difficult to tell what purpose adding vinegar was supposed to serve without knowing the characteristics of the vinegar used. I couldn't detect any noticeable difference in my moretum after adding balsamic vinegar.  Possibly wine vinegar would give a more noticeable result.
  • It would be fun to make moretum using the historical Roman "viniagre" Alan Coxon makes. However, I'm not up for paying nearly 10 British pounds (plus shipping) just for the privilege of adding a few drops of his vinegar to a batch of moretum every now and then.
  • I should keep an eye out to see whether the remains of any garlic grater plates such as the one I used have been found at Roman archaeological sites (though I wouldn't expect a farmer like Symilius to have or use one).  It seems to me that such a device would be very useful for making moretum, and would have been easy to make with technology available to the Romans.
  • It may be worthwhile to use celery root, rather than celery ribs, in moretum.  The tough fibers of celery ribs make it hard to completely mix them into the pounded cheese; that problem might not exist if the root were used instead.
  • Moretum recipes work better with very hard cheese; this moretum was much more garlicky than the batch I made with cheese that had gone very hard, confirming my suspicion that one of the purposes of moretum was to make palatable a cheese that had passed its prime.
If anyone has additional thoughts about moretum or about the process I used, please don't hesitate to comment!

EDIT:  (2/15/2016) Corrected some syntax errors and clarified my final thoughts about my moretum experiments a bit.

No comments:

Post a Comment