This Roman springtime dish is a kind of cheesy pesto once eaten in honour of the Goddess Cybele, The Magna Mater (The Great Mother). And according to Ovid, Moretum descends from a time ancient people drank only pure milk and ate only “the herbs that the earth bore of its free will.” And as we’ll discover a little later on – it may have been the originator of pizza!
Moretum was traditionally served during Megalesia, an April festival which began with a procession carrying the image or a statue of Cybele through the streets in a chariot drawn by lions, her sacred animals. Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius wrote “with bronze and silver they strew all the paths of her journey … and threw snow rose-blossoms over her.”
The Megalesia festival was full of feasting and while Moretum was understood to be “peasant food” it was customary for wealthy Romans to serve it during lavish banquets. The Roman poet Ovid notes that banqueters were not ashamed to set it on the goddess’s table, even though it is considered low class fare.
Megalesia feasts were inaugurated with a ritual at the Temple of the Magna Mater during which the Goddess was offered a dish made of white cheese pounded with simple herbs. And according to Ovid, Moretum was eaten during the golden age, “before humankind had to cultivate the earth to produce food” and was offered so that “the ancient goddess may know the ancient foods.”
Herbs commonly referred to in old recipes are coriander (cilantro) celery leaf, mint, parsley, savory, thyme, and more modern versions include lovage, green onions, arugula or rocket. For my modern interpretation I used cilantro, crow garlic, garlic mustard and in place of celery, that much underutilized herb, lovage. It’s tender spring stalks taste just like a spicer, warmer version of celery.
But the herb most often identified as an ingredient in Moretum is the extremely bitter herb rue and according to this article “its sharp bitter taste is the perfect counterbalance for the garlic and salt cheese.”
Interestingly rue has a long association with women’s magic. It is sacred to Diana and in particular with the goddess of magic, Hecate. As many ancient women’s herbs, it has a historical use as abortifacient – so exercise caution if you are pregnant or trying to conceive!
Moretum is often referred to in the Late Republican and Early Imperial periods as a simple, vegetarian meal. One preserved recipe states the “basic ingredients are a four cloves garlic, one half a celery stick with leaves still attached, fresh parsley, rue, coriander seeds, some mild sheep cheese with a ricotta-like consistency, olive oil, and vinegar”. The ingredients are added into the mortar, one by one, pulverized and minced together with a pestle, then mixed into the cheese and stirred until the mixture is a uniform green colour. This was made into a dip consumed with or on bread.
According to the Roman Cookery Book, Moretum may derive its name from the “stout pottery bowls known to archaeologists as “mortaria” made with a sprinkling of grit baked into the fabric to help with the grinding process. Stone or wooden pestles were used with them.” Others say the word is derived from Mordeo – small bite or snack, and this source states the word ‘moretum’ roughly translates to ‘salad’ in latin.
The ancient poem called Moretum by the poet Virgil details the process of making Moretum by a peasant (the smell is so strong that it makes his eyes water!) and afterwards he places the moretum on freshly baked flatbread. And this is likely why Moretum is an early forerunner of pizza according to Italian Cuisine A Cultural History!
Author Stuart Dean, theorizes that the Moretum/pizza is associated with the round shape of the cosmos and symbolized all four elements. “Water, for example, is in the bread and (from milk) in the cheese. Fire bakes the bread and smokes the cheese. Earth produces the grain from which the bread is made and the herbs that are mixed into the cheese spread. Air functions in a variety of ways, most directly in activating the fire. Thus the pizza does not merely represent, but actually consists of the elements that encircle and hence embody the Goddess…Therefore, it would seem that such a pizza is to Goddess worship what the Eucharist is to Christianity. The Eucharist, however, belongs to a masculine tradition and is with few exceptions mediated by men. That is entirely different from Moretum.”
Fascinating! Well, I knew I just had to try my hand at this ancient Roman dish!
Many modern recipes frequently use Feta cheese and this recipe calls for a sharp Pecorino Romano. But because I couldn’t decide which cheese to use – I ended up going with all three! And because I was making the dish for a little dinner party hosted by Jennifer (for visiting out of town herbalists) I most unmagically, used a food processor. In my defense, I only had a few hours from harvest to preparation to serving, and I wanted to let it sit for 30 minutes to let the flavours mingle.
The recipe calls for white wine vinegar but I used my Venus Vinegar (that was the magic!) and it added a lovely flavour. So feel free to improvise with any herbal vinegars you have at home. It turned out very garlicky and pungent (so adjust the recipe if your palate is more delicate) and I served as a dip with little round flatbreads (more magic!) And it didn’t take too long before the bowl was utterly scraped clean!
Great Goddess Moretum
- 4-5 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
- 3 ounces fresh feta cheese
- 3 ounces Pecorino Romano (roughly grated)
- 3 ounces Ricotta cheese
- 4 stalks of lovage and leaves
- 1 bunch of coriander ( cilantro) leaves, finely minced
- 2-3 tablespoons small bunch of fresh rue leaves, finely minced. (If you can’t find rue use another bitter herb such as dandelion, garlic mustard or young fresh mugwort)
- ½ cup of minced crow garlic greens (you can also use chives or green onions)
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- Mince the garlic and roughly chop up your cheese and herbs.
- Combine until smooth in a food processor.
- Add vinegar and oil to the cheese and process until smooth.
- Let sit for at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight, to allow flavors to develop.
- If you want to serve as pizza, just spread your flatbread with the Moretum, a few additional flakes of cheese and warm in the oven at 350 for 10 minutes or so.