Ancient Recipe: Savillum (Cheesecake) (Roman, 1st century BCE)

“Make a savillum thus:  Mix half a libra* of flour and two and a half librae of cheese, as is done for libum [another kind of cheesecake].  Add 1/4 libra of honey and 1 egg.  Grease an earthenware bowl with oil.  When you have mixed the ingredients well, pour into the bowl and cover the bowl with an earthenware testo [lid].  See that you cook it well in the middle, where it is highest.  When it is cooked, remove the bowl, spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy, put it back beneath the testo for a moment, and then remove.  Serve it thus with a plate and spoon.” ~ From Cato’s De Agri Cultura (“Concerning Agriculture”), 160 BCE
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Savillum is a Roman recipe found in De Agri Cultura, the earliest-known work of Roman prose. It was written by the Roman politician Cato the Elder, a man noted for his devotion to simplicity and love of country life. Fitting its author’s lifestyle, De Agri Cultura is a straightforward instructional manual on farming. Those recipes which appear are just as simple and rustic as savillum.

This is one of several Roman dishes that could be called “cheesecake”, although it lacks a crust on the bottom. I frequently choose to make it for ancient food-themed events and parties because it’s an easy Roman dish to love, as it doesn’t deviate too far from a modern Western palate. It’s amazingly simple, with a batter made from just four ingredients: honey, fresh cheese (ricotta or a farmer’s cheese), flour and egg. After baking, the savillum is topped with a spice that was as well-known to the Romans as it is to us: poppy seeds (papaver). One time I ran out of poppy seeds and used black sesame seeds, and it was just as delicious.

Savillum would have been served at the end of a Roman meal, in keeping with the Roman dining customs that we follow to this day: appetizer, main course and dessert, called gustatio (tasting), prima mensa (first plate) and secunda mensa (second plate). Like many Roman desserts, this recipe makes extensive use of honey (mel), the favorite Roman sweetener. In fact, other than fruits like dates and figs, honey was the only Roman sweetener. Sugar was first refined from sugarcane in ancient India around 350 CE, centuries after this recipe was recorded. Even then, sugar did not penetrate far into the Roman world. Its faraway origin made it too expensive for daily use, and the Roman historian Pliny the Elder writes in the 1st century that sugar is to be used “only for medicinal purposes”, as it was said to soothe stomach pain and other ailments. Presumably if sugar had been more widely available to the Romans, they would have experimented enough to learn how to cook with it.

Honey, on the other hand, was widely available because it could be produced in so many places. The islands of Malta and Sicily were main centers of Roman beekeeping, with one Maltese apiary examined by archaeologists harboring over 100 hives. Romans were well-aware of regional differences creating unique flavors and qualities of honey. The Greek city of Cecropia and the island of Corsica were infamous for their inferior honey, while the Greek cities of Hybla and Hymettus were said to produce the best. In his Epigrams (86-103 CE), the poet Martial uses the reputations of these various honeys to make a metaphor about writing: don’t expect good poetry from lousy material, just as you wouldn’t expect Hymettian honey out of a Cecropian bee.

Romans preserved food in honey, used it in sauces for meat and delicate desserts like savillum, and mixed it with water and spices to make a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage called hydromel (honey-water), although they drew the line at fermenting honey into mead, regarded as the practice of foreign enemies. Like rock sugar, honey was believed to have medicinal properties, and the physician Galen wrote that it “warms and clears wounds and ulcers in any part of the body.” Despite this seeming honey obsession, the Roman diet was still low in sugar by modern standards, and Roman burial remains show strong, healthy teeth.

There are many modern recreations of this recipe, but I use Cathy Kaufman’s reconstruction in her book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations (2006).

THE RECIPE

The savillum will puff up into a golden brown mound as it cooks, which looks pretty cool but is unfortunately ruined by poking holes for extra honey to soak in. It’s mushy, so serve with a spoon, hot or room temperature.

3 1/2 cups ricotta or farmer’s cheese, drained and densely packed

3/8 of a cup honey, plus another 3/4 of a cup

1 1/4 cup flour, whole-wheat (more authentic) or white

1 beaten egg

poppyseeds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients except the 3/4 cup honey and the poppyseeds. Pour into a deep pie dish or springform cake pan and cook for 1 hour and 40 minutes. When the cake is firm, poke some holes to allow the additional honey to seep in. Top with 3/4 cup of honey and the poppyseeds and bake for 10 minutes more.

THE VERDICT

This is one of my favorite Roman recipes I’ve tried. You could easily serve it at a modern dinner-party and none would be the wiser. X out of X.

*Sometimes called the “Roman pound”, one libra was actually only .72 of a pound, or 329 grams.

 

 

Ancient Recipe: Egyptian Beer (Egypt, ca. 5000 BCE)

“Give me 18 cups of wine; I want to drink to drunkenness, my throat is dry as straw!” ~ Words of a female partygoer in an Ancient Egyptian banquet painting

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Homemade bousa with bonus homemade glass.

At some point in the distant past, an Australopithecus taking a stroll through the East African grasslands ate some rotten fruit off the ground and got a little dizzy and giggly. That hirsute lush was the first of our ancestors to get drunk. But the first hominids to do so deliberately were the people of the ancient world: the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese and others who stumbled upon the wonderful secret of brewing beer.

Beer was invented independently by several civilizations, and may have originally been discovered by accident. If water leaked into an ancient container used to store grain, the excess moisture would cause grain to sprout, releasing new chemical compounds that altered its taste. Moisture would also foster the growth of bacteria and yeast, which would feed on the grain and produce alcohol as a waste product. And if some curious Egyptian or Sumerian (perhaps a direct descendant of the aforementioned Australopithecus) decided to taste the leaky drippings of that improperly sealed jar–bam! A life-changing discovery. Some archaeologists believe it was the rise of beer-making that directly inspired early humans to transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural economy. That is, the ancients planted grain for beer before they planted it for bread.

Ancient Egyptian beer, called bousa, was a dietary staple. With more nutrients and less alcohol than modern beers (about 2%), it could be drank throughout the day and was actually safer to drink than water due to the lack of modern sanitation. Laborers were often paid in beer rations (the workers on the Great Pyramids at Giza received 4-5 liters a day). Beer was served at every Egyptian meal, especially among the lower classes. Multiple people often shared the same beer vessel using long reed strawscreating a visual effect similar to 1950s teenagers sharing an ice cream float (or modern college kids sharing a fishbowl of liquor and fruit juice at that one restaurant that doesn’t card). The straw was both social and practical: bousa is a lumpy semisolid rather than the liquid we might expect. The custom persists in some African cultures that make beer in a similar manner (here’s a picture of people sharing beer with straws at a wedding in 1980s Burundi).

Written sources record various kinds of beer flavored with different ingredients and given poetic names like “Friend’s Beer”, “Iron Beer”, or “Beer of the Protector”. Some of these variants were only made for special occasions, such as the annual “Festival of Drunkenness“. On that day, Egyptians indulged in a beer dyed red with pomegranate juice or powdered ochre (a kind of mineral clay) in honor of the ferocious lion goddess Sekhmet. According to legend, Sekhmet once threatened to devour all of Egypt, until she was tricked into thinking the red-dyed beer was blood. Literally bloodthirsty, the goddess chugged a few barrels and passed out, sparing the Egyptians from her hunger. Sekhmet was one of several goddesses associated with beer in Egyptian mythology. Viewed as an offshoot of bread-making, beer-brewing was considered a largely feminine activity.

THE RECIPE *

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First, we will malt the grain, meaning we’ll allow it to sprout and then roast it. Soak one cup of wheat berries in a bowl of water at room temperature for 8-10 hours/overnight. Drain the wheat berries and place them in a large glass jar. Cover the jar with a light cloth, such as cheesecloth, secured with a rubber band. Let stand at room temperature for 1-3 days or until you see little tails sprouting from the grains. During this time, make sure the grains stay moist but not submerged in water. Once a day, shake the jar gently to help air circulation.

Once your grains have sprouted, spread them on a baking sheet and roast them at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about 3 hours. When done, they should be completely dry and dark brown and give off a pleasant, nutty aroma. Grind the malted grains into coarse flour in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle.

3Some Egyptian beers used bread as a starter yeast culture, and others used grain porridge, as confirmed by archaeological evidence. We’ll be making a porridge-based beer. Boil two cups of barley in two cups of water until you have a soft, mushy porridge. It should be soft enough that you can break an individual barley grain with the edge of a spoon. When your barley porridge is no longer boiling hot but still warm, put it into a pot with the ground-up wheat berries from the previous step and six cups of water. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.

When you uncover your Egyptian beer, the first thing you’ll notice is that it smells like it’s gone bad. This, of course, is because it has. The smell will dissipate completely if you take off the lid and let it air out for a while. It’s safe to drink, I promise! And it tastes completely different from the off-putting initial aroma. Very lightly sour and fizzy, with a little bit of smokiness from the roasted grain. You can also try sweetening it with honey or date syrup, or mixing it with pomegranate juice if there’s a lion-headed goddess you’re trying to intoxicate.

THE VERDICT

This beer is not bad, but it’s also not something I could picture myself ordering at a bar. The rank smell means that I have to rank it behind my Mesopotamian beer recipe, which I’ll share another time. III out of X.

* Adapted from Cooking in Ancient Civilizations by Cathy Kaufman (2006).