“Moretum” was a Roman cheese spread, made from cheese and garlic, coloured green from the fresh herbs in it as well, and bound together with oil. It was usually served with bread.
The example of it is usually taken from a poem called “Moretum” by Virgil (70–19 B.C.), though other poets such as Sveius and Parthenius also wrote about this cheese spread as well.
Vergil talks about a man gathering ingredients from his garden, and making the dish. The ingredients are alium, apium, ruta, coriandrum, salis, caseus, oleum, acetum (garlic, celery, rue, fresh coriander, salt, cheese, oil and vinegar, if your Latin is – ahem – rusty.)
Some people suggest that the “apium” (celery) might have actually been parsley, but the Romans did have separate words for each, and leaves from celery tops work quite fine as an herb.
Virgil talks about 4 garlics; some interpret this as 4 cloves; other say that he did indeed mean 4 full heads of garlic, as 4 cloves produces only a mildly-flavoured cheese paste, and Virgil does talk about the sharp smell assaulting the man’s nose.
Some suggest the cheese would have been a soft cheese such as ricotta, but it’s pretty clear (“durus .. caseus”) that a hard cheese is indicated, likely grated, with the oil at the end making it all into a spread.
It was made in a mortar and pestle, bearing in mind that Roman mortar and pestles were larger than ours are today in the West, being used for a wider range of things than just grinding spices.
Literature & Lore
…He then the garden entered, first when there
With fingers having lightly dug the earth
Away, he garlic roots with fibres thick,
And four of them doth pull; he after that
Desires the parsley’s graceful foliage,
And stiffness-causing rue,’ and, trembling on
Their slender thread, the coriander seeds,
And when he has collected these he comes
And sits him down beside the cheerful fire
And loudly for the mortar asks his wench.
Then singly each o’ th’ garlic heads be strips
From knotty body, and of outer coats
Deprives them, these rejected doth he throw
Away and strews at random on the ground.
The bulb preserved from th’ plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th’ hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.
Th’ aforesaid herbs he now doth introduce
And with his left hand ‘neath his hairy groin
Supports his garment;’ with his right he first
The reeking garlic with the pestle breaks,
Then everything he equally doth rub
I’ th’ mingled juice. His hand in circles move:
Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour, not entirely green
Because the milky fragments this forbid,
Nor showing white as from the milk because
That colour’s altered by so many herbs.
The vapour keen doth oft assail the man’s
Uncovered nostrils, and with face and nose
Retracted doth he curse his early meal;
With back of hand his weeping eyes he oft
Doth wipe, and raging, heaps reviling on
The undeserving smoke. The work advanced:
No longer full of jottings as before,
But steadily the pestle circles smooth
Described. Some drops of olive oil he now
Instils, and pours upon its strength besides
A little of his scanty vinegar,
And mixes once again his handiwork,
And mixed withdraws it: then with fingers twain
Round all the mortar doth he go at last
And into one coherent ball doth bring
The diff’rent portions, that it may the name
And likeness of a finished salad fit…..
From Virgil’s Moretum. Joseph J. Mooney translation, 1916.
Tunc quoque tale aliquid meditans intraverat hortum.
Ac primum, leviter digitis tellure refossa,
quattuor educit cum spissis alia fibris,
inde comas apii gracilis rutamque rigentem
vellit et exiguo coriandra trementia filo.
Haec ubi collegit, laetum consedit ad ignem
et clara famulam poscit mortaria voce.
Singula tum capitum nodoso corpore nudat
et summis spoliat coriis contemptaque passim
spargit humi atque abicit. Servatum germine bulbum
tinguit aqua lapidisque cavom demittit in orbem.
His salis inspargit micas, sale durus adeso
caseus adicitur, dictas super ingerit herbas
et laeva vestem saetosa sub inguina fulcit:
dextera pistillo primum flagrantia mollit
alia, tum pariter mixto terit omnia suco.
It manus in gyrum: paulatim singula vires
deperdunt proprias; color est e pluribus unus,
nec totus viridis, quia lactea frusta repugnant,
nec de lacte nitens, quia tot variatur ab herbis.
Saepe viri nares acer iaculatur apertas
spiritus et simo damnat sua prandia voltu,
saepe manu summa lacrimantia lumina terget
immeritoque furens dicit convicia fumo.
Procedebat opus nec iam salebrosus ut ante
sed gravior lentos ibat pistillus in orbis.
Ergo Palladii guttas instillat olivi
exiguique super vires infundit aceti
atque iterum commiscet opus mixtumque retractat.
Tum demum digitis mortaria tota duobus
circuit inque globum distantia contrahit unum,
constet ut effecti species nomenque moreti
Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro) was born in Andes (present-day Pietola) near the city now called Mantua in northern Italy, where his parents had a prosperous farm.
The poem is a praise to the simple country life of a poor, old Roman farmer named “Simylus” (so poor, one might ironically note, that he only had one servant, a woman named “Scybale”). It’s 123 lines long, written in hexameter. It describes them getting up before dawn, and making this cheese paste for their breakfast. The poem also goes on to talk a bit about breadmaking, and farm life in general.
Some feel that Virgil based his poem on one written by his Greek teacher Parthenius of Nicaea.
“Moretum” actually meant “garden herbs”, which some translate as “salad”.
American readers may wish to note that some see in this poem a possible source for the motto on the Great Seal of the United States, “e pluribus unum”: “It manus in gyrum: paulatim singula vires deperdunt proprias; color est e pluribus unus” (“His hand moves in circles until the separate ingredients lose their individual colours, and out of many colours, comes one.”)