Great Goddess Herbed Cheese: Reviving The Spring Offering Of Moretum

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 that 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.

Originally Cybele was the primary mother goddess of ancient Anatolia,  known as “Great Mother” and “Mother of the Mountain” and the “Mistress of Animals” may date back to the earliest neolithic at Çatalhöyük. It appears that Cybele was first adopted by the Greeks in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and then spread from there to mainland Greece, followed by Rome.

Cybele, The Magna Mater

The Megalesia Feast was 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, Cybele was the “Mother of the Gods” and Moretum was eaten during the golden age, “before humankind had to cultivate the earth to produce food”. It was offered during her festival and feast 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.

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Lovage stalks & greens
More lovage, crow garlic greens, rue, and cilantro

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.”

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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 historical use as an 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.

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Roman Mortaria

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!

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Roman Bread

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 I most unmagically, used a food processor. In my defence, 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 (more magic!) and it added a tangy bright flavour. Feel free to improvise with any herbal vinegar you have at home.

The Moretum turned out creamy and very garlicky and pungent, which I loved. So be warned, adjust the recipe if your palate is more delicate.  I served it 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!

For 6

Ingredients:

  • 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

Directions:

  • 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.

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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

9 thoughts on “Great Goddess Herbed Cheese: Reviving The Spring Offering Of Moretum

  1. that looks delicious—i am certain of it, because i make something like this very frequently for after-yoga with friends. the cheese (or cheeses) vary, as do the herbs and spices used, but you really can’t go too wrong! freshly-baked flatbread would be wonderful with it, and i intend to try to finesse that next time i serve it…

    as my yoga friends are all basically pagan like me, it seems delightfully appropriate that our usual snack was once offered to the goddess in one of her many forms. 🙂

    1. I know! So fascinating that one of our favourite foods stretches back to the days of the goddess…who knew? I just recently watched a cooking show on Netflix all about the history of Pizza and no one mentioned this at all!

  2. Great article! I live across the Haro straits from you in the San Juan and must find garlic mustard. Have you heard of it over here? Also I have tons of loveage and not a clue what to do with it. Not.a.clue. Other than this recipe do you have any suggestions? And PS I’m a patron! Love doing this to support your amazing blog.

    1. Oh thank-you wonderful Gather Patron!!! So many uses for lovage! I use it in pasta and soups, and I’m curious to try a lovage syrup I saw somewhere online. In early spring its tender new leaves are wonderful in salads. In summer and fall you can use the seeds as a spice and they are absolutely delicious in cookies! Check out this recipe for lavender & lovage seed digestive biscuits: https://gathervictoria.com/2017/08/15/lavender-lovage-seed-digestive-biscuits-non-gluten-vegan-and-good-for-the-tummy/. I’ve got some other recipes in the works and hope to have them out this spring/summer. Thank-you so much again!

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