Ancient Cuisine Part 2: The 2,500-year-old Cheesecake.
If a sweetening agent is essential for any form of cooking, it must be for desserts, and in this capacity, honey was essential for the chefs of ancient Greece and Rome. Rome was somewhat obsessed with baking; when Mount Vesuvius obliterated Pompeii in AD 79, there were no less than thirty-three bakeries in the city. Bread was a staple food item; it was sometimes dipped in wine and taken with olives, cheese and grapes. Cakes were equally popular, but without the aid of a leavening agent like baking powder, ancient bakers were forced to use oodles of eggs, which were beaten mercilessly to help the mixture rise! Roman cakes are sometimes collectively referred to as ‘honey cakes’ since the universal use of honey as a sweetener imparted a distinctive flavour. Although butter was not unknown, the Romans preferred to use soft cheeses as a source of fat. The basic dough was a combination of course flour, eggs, honey and/or cheese. Enkithoy or enkythoi was a flat, moulded, spongy cake, a recipe for which appeared in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae, published in 3rd-century Greece, and sometimes called the oldest surviving cookbook. The spira was the precursor for modern Danish pastries, with spiral patterns and a thin crust sometimes filled with fruit, while the globi was (predictably) spherical in shape and consisted of fried balls of cheesy dough dipped in (no prizes for guessing) honey.
There were also sweet buns flavoured with blackcurrants, and spicy wine cakes manufactured from honey, reduced red wine and cinnamon, along with milk puddings laced with honey. The Romans ate a large variety of nuts including walnuts, almonds and pistachios, and these were often used to enhance pastries and puddings in conjunction with honey. Apicius, the collection of Roman recipes attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a 1st century AD gourmand, includes several recipes for honey cakes, including aliter dulcia, which is prepared by grinding a mixture of pepper, pine nuts, honey, rue (a perennial, evergreen shrub used for flavouring), wine and passum (a sweet raisin wine developed in Carthage). This was then cooked with milk, tracta (a thin pastry crumbled into dishes to add starch) and egg, and served drenched in honey and seasoned with a little pepper (honey and pepper were a common, spicy combination).
But the ancients’ most enduring contribution to modern cuisine is arguably in the form of a variety of cheesecakes, which may date back as far as the 5th century BC. Aegimus, one of the earliest Greek physicians, is said to have been the first person to write a treatise about the human pulse, and is also supposed to have written a work on the art of making cheesecakes! Cheesecakes feature prominently in De agri cultura, the oldest surviving work of Latin prose authored by Cato the Elder. Estimated to have been written about 160 BC, De agri cultura details rural life and agricultural practices of the time, including the care of vineyards, and was much admired for its simple and direct style. There are a couple of recipes for wine, along with three for traditional Roman cheesecakes.
Libum (which literally means ‘cake’ in Latin) was a ritual food prepared as an offering to the gods. The Roman poet Ovid, a contemporary of the older Virgil and Horace, enthuses about a libum infused with clear honey, and traces the origin of these cakes back to the very discovery of honey by Bacchus – also known as the inventor of beekeeping (incidentally, Ovid also mentions the use of birthday cakes). Cato’s recipe for libum uses a combination of cheese, flour and egg, which is kneaded into a circular shape and then topped with bay leaves before being covered and baked. Once the libum has browned, the bay leaves are removed, and it is served hot (honey may be added to create a sweet rather than savoury version).
Savillum is a completely different, soft, sweet cheesecake eaten as a dessert with a spoon. The dough is again made from flour, cheese and egg, with the addition of honey; it is important not to add too much flour, so that the cake stays soft. After cooking for about twenty minutes in a testum (a kind of portable earthenware oven, rather like a tagine), the savillum is drenched in honey and sprinkled with white poppy seeds, whereupon it is returned to the testum for a few minutes prior to serving.
Finally, the placenta cake is perhaps more like modern cheesecakes in that it is formed on a crust which is prepared separately. The name derives from the Greek plakous, for flat cakes, and later gave its name to the organ, due to similarly in shape! Described in the 4th century BC by Antiphanes and Archestratos, both Greek poets, the recipe was adopted by the Romans, and bakers commonly sold slices of this delicacy. Flour was used to make the crust, which was then covered with layers of a pecorino cheese and honey mixture, interspersed with sheets of tracta. It was cooked in a testum for about half an hour, and then smothered with more honey.
Ancient Greek and Roman cuisine was surprisingly sophisticated, especially given the lack of important modern elements, but this made it all the more dependent on a few key ingredients, and it all hinged on honey!