In spring, according to the Latin poet Ovid (Fasti, 4th book), the Romans celebrated a festival for Cybele, the Great Mother, offering her a herbosum moretum simply prepared with wild herbs and cheese, a food that the goddess was able to recognize as priscus cibus, suitable for a prisca dea. Priscus means something more than ancient: it refers to something primal, ancestral. This herbosum moretum is the first food (in the same way as Cybele is the first goddess) that pre-dates the practice even of agriculture, referring to a pastoral world in which food was obtained through sheep farming and harvesting the spontaneous herbs and fruit produced by the soil.
The reference to the first times wants to recall in the reader and in the faithful the memory of the golden age, the age of the gods, in which the earth offered spontaneously food to harvest, without the need to sow the soil. Despite, in ancient Rome, Cybele and Ceres (equivalent to Greek Demeter) are clearly two different divinities, they have some aspects in common, but Cybele, a divinity who came from Phrygia becoming important first in Greece and then Rome, is not the goddess of the harvest: she is the first goddess, mother of the gods and humankind, more similar to Rhea mother of Zeus, or Jupiter in the Roman tradition, than to Demeter.
In the short and beautiful Homeric Hymn to the Mother of the Gods, we find references to her cult: she cherishes the song of the aulos, krotalon, and typanon, a wind and two percussion instruments, the howl of the wolves and the call of the lions, the echoing mountains, the wooded valleys. She is the goddess of everything that is wild, visceral, ancestral. The clatter that accompanies the procession in her festival, as Ovid recalls, is similar to the one made by the Korybantes, the warriors that hid the cries of the newborn Jupiter from his father, Saturn, who devoured his children to prevent them from overthrowing him. Cybele’s cult is wild and violent: her priests are eunuchs to recall her lover Attis who evirated himself after the goddess discovered his love for a nymph, killed by Cybele.
When Ovid writes about the priscus cibus for the prisca dea, he keeps in mind all these references, which he describes in the Fasti. It is not the first time that we find a mention of the moretum. We have further examples of moreta in Roman sources, for instance the one described in a pseudo-Vergilian poem titled, indeed, Moretum and some recipes that we find in Columella’s De Re Rustica. In the poem, it is clearly considered a simple food for a farmer, rustic and unsuitable for a rich table for the use of a lot of garlic, practically absent in the high-end cooking of De Re Coquinaria.
Pseudo-Virgil’s moretum includes olive oil, considered the gift of the goddess Pallas (Minerva), and vinegar, but in the case of Ovid’s herbosum moretum we would exclude these ingredients because they belong to a civilization that discovered agriculture. In Roman culture, grapes and olives are fundamental symbols of a society based on the products of the soil, ideologically distant from the ancestral world of the prisca dea.
Columella’s recipes for moretum are more complex, with a long list of herbs, fresh or dry, dressed with vinegar aromatized with pepper and olive oil. The most interesting characteristic, however, is that he adds nuts and seeds to the preparation based on pounded herbs and cheese: walnuts and toasted sesame seeds. The kind of cheese used in the pseudo-Vergilian text is aged cheese, whereas Columella specifies that it must be fresh and salted.
We prepared the herbosum moretum in the way described by Ovid, by harvesting wild herbs and pounding them with a firm cheese in the mortar, without adding vinegar or olive oil, and clearly, without pepper. The use of the mortar is not specified in the poem, but the word itself moretum probably refers to the mortar, used, in any case, for both the other two preparations and taken for granted in De Re Coquinaria, in which we find a recipe for condimenta moretaria: fresh herbs mixed with lovage, pepper, honey, garum, and vinegar.
There are plenty of herbs mentioned in the texts: mint, rue, cilantro, fennel, savory, celery, leek, lettuce, arugula, thyme, lesser calamint, pennyroyal. Use the ones you have at your disposal, but if can harvest some wild herbs, it is better for a proper offering to Cybele as a Roman would do. We shaped our moretum as a cake, the form that seems most common for a religious offering in ancient Rome, but pseudo-Vergilian moretum is a ball of cheese and Columella provides no directions about it.
For more historical recipes based on vegetables and herbs, check out our new book, Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers, which collects many recipes from the Antiquity to early Modern Era, accompanied by an introduction about vegetables in the history of Italian cooking in the cookbooks and their relationship with dietetic, philosophical, and religious practices. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon, in English and Italian, and will be out on the 14th of July in e-book and printed editions.
For more information about ancient cuisine, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources. Moreover, the first seven books of De Re Coquinaria are available on Patreon, with other translations of ancient and medieval sources in addition to several articles on historical food.
To know more about the passage between ancient and medieval cooking, check out our new book, with the translation, commentary, and glossary of a beautiful 6th-century source, De Observatione Ciborum, written by the physician Anthimus to the king of the Franks Theuderic. This book contains some of the earliest medieval recipes, in addition to information about the diet of the Franks and the differences between their food habits and the alimentation of the Mediterranean populations, showing the passage between ancient and late-medieval cooking.
If you are interested in late-medieval cuisine, we recommend Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
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Mince the herbs. Pound in the mortar the cheese and add the herbs, then shape a cake with your hands.
“Non pudet herbosum” dixi “posuisse moretum
in dominae mensis: an sua causa subest?”
“Lacte mero veteres usi narrantur et herbis,
sponte sua siquas terra ferebat” ait;
“candidus elisae miscetur caseus herbae,
cognoscat priscos ut dea prisca cibos.”
“It is not inappropriate to offer a herb moretum at the table of the mistress?” I asked. “What is the origin of this custom?”
“The ancestors, it is said, used only pure milk and herbs that the soil spontaneously produced,” she said. “They mix the white cheese with pounded herbs in such a way the ancestral goddess recognizes the ancestral food.”
Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus. Early-medieval recipes at the court of the Franks.
Registrum Coquine by Johannes Bockenheim. A medieval cookbook
Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes
Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-7
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8th-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Tractatus de Modo Preparandi et Condiendi Omnia Cibaria (13th-14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano – first and second part (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Aristophanes’ Roasted Birds
Pork Roast with Myrtle Berries
Chicken with Taro
Honey and Millet Libum
Ham in Crust
The diet of the ancient Germans
The diet of the Franks
Oysters and Clams
Ancient Sicilian Sea Bass
Pork Roast and Lentils with Sumac
Cuttlefish and Eggs
Gustum de Praecoquis – Appetizer with Apricots
Octopus and Cucumber Salad
Copadia Agnina – Lamb Stew
Apothermum – Spelt Cakes
Pullus Parthicus – Roast Chicken
Tisana Barrica – Barley Soup
Beef Roast and Shallots
Staitites – Ancient Greek Sweet
Chicken Meatballs and Mashed Peas
Sweet Fritters – Dulcia Domestica
Columella’s Moretum and Hapalos Artos
Ancient Roman Frittata
A Saturnalia Recipe – Roast with Saffron Sauce
Muria – Ancestor of Colatura di Alici
Globi – Ancient Roman Sweet
The Diet of the Roman Legionaries – Buccellatum, Lardum, and Posca
How to make garum
Ancient Roman Gourd and Eggs
Ofella – Ancient Roman Steak
Fruit salads – Melon and Peaches
Isicia Marina – Shrimp Cakes and Cucumber Salad
Sala Cattabia – Snow and Posca
Copadia – Beef Stew
Puls Punica – Phoenician Dessert
Farcimina – Spelt and Meat Sausages
Ova Spongia ex Lacte – Sweet Omelettes
Flatbread and Chickpea Soup
Salted Fish with Arugula Sauce
Savillum – Cheesecake
Pasta and Meatballs – Minutal Terentinum
Venison Stew with Spelt Puls
Veal with Allec Sauce – Ius in Elixam Allecatum
Isicia Omentata – Meatballs Wrapped in Caul Fat
Placenta – Honey Cheesecake
Pork Laureate – Porcellum Laureatum
Poppy Seed Bread with Ancient Dry Yeast
Cured Olives and Epityrum