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What Is Moretum?

Eugene P.
Eugene P.

Moretum, a common part of ancient Roman cuisine, consists of a paste made from cheese that is kneaded together with herbs, garlic, vinegar and olive oil. It is served as a spread that is eaten with bread. The cheese spread was very popular in ancient Rome, so much so that several poems were written about it at the time. The poems have served as a reference for new interpretations of the original recipe.

The name "moretum" is Latin and can be translated to mean salad. This is not a wholly accurate description of the dish, however, because what came to be known as a salad in modern society does not resemble moretum. Instead, it is thought that the name refers to the fact that green herbs are added to the mixture. Another interpretation makes note of a special kind of heavy pottery, called a mortaria, that had a very rough surface and could have been used to help grind the mixture into a paste.

Rue may be featured in moretum.
Rue may be featured in moretum.

The most basic recipe described in the poems calls for garlic, olive oil, coriander, cheese, vinegar and rue to be mashed together and then kneaded into a ball or cake shape. The exact measurements are not clearly known, so many interpreted recipes use proportions that give a reasonable taste to the person making the dish. Changes to the size and flavor of the ingredients since ancient Roman times also might account for some translation problems.

One of the aspects the poems do not reveal is the type of cheese that should be used. There is a mention in the poems that a type of brined, hard cheese that was used. This could be a cheese such as feta, although it is not certain, because ancient Romans consumed a wide variety of cheeses.

Another ingredient that is often left out when attempting to remake the original recipe is rue. Rue is a shrub-like plant that grows in the Mediterranean. It was used in ancient times as a medicinal aid for stomach problems and has a very bitter taste. The sap is a skin irritant that can cause blisters, and it contains chemicals that can be harmful to pregnant women.

Moretum was served during the midday meal called the prandium. This meal traditionally included cheese, meats and breads. It also would often include spiced, hard-boiled eggs.

The original moretum spread also could have included nuts as well as parsley. Dried fruits would not have been uncommon. Later recipes, which developed in the Middle Ages, also indicate the spread evolved into a dish that was sometimes baked.

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    • Rue may be featured in moretum.
      By: Scisetti Alfio
      Rue may be featured in moretum.