Ancient Roman Ritual Cheesecake – Honey and Millet Libum


“Libations and liba take their name from him [Liber] and a part is given to the sacred fires. The liba are made for the god, who enjoy the sweet juices, and honey has been discovered by Baccus” (Nomine ab auctoris ducunt libamina nomen libaque, quod sanctis pars datur inde focis. Liba deo fiunt, sucis quia dulcibus idem gaudet, et a Baccho mella reperta ferunt, Ovid’s Fasti).
As we have seen in the past, libum is a ritual cake specifically prepared as a sacrifice for the gods. In Ovid’s Fasti, we read that the libum for Baccus (also called Liber) is coated still hot with white honey, being this god the father of honey (melle pater fruitur, liboque infusa calenti iure repertori candida mella damus). In another passage, we read instead about a libum prepared for Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, made with millet.
The discovery of honey by Baccus (or Dionysus in the Greek tradition) is one version of the myth that pre-dates the role of this god as the discoverer of wine. In other myths, there are two different gods, Baccus and Aristeus, here merged in the same mythological figure. Baccus as the god of honey before being the god of wine is particularly interesting, since mead is considered by some authors the first alcoholic beverage, invented long before the discovery of wine. In Nonnus de Panopolis’ Dionysiaca, the author shows the cultural passage between mead and wine narrating a myth: Dionysus and Aristaeus (here the inventor of the apiculture and sheep farming) presents their two beverages to the gods, asking Eros to be their judge, to establish which beverage is the best, whether mead or wine. The gods taste Aristaeus’ mead, but despite its sweetness, it is excessively satiating, and they can not drink more than three cups. So, Dionysus wins and Eros wreaths his head with ivy and grapes.

It is unclear whether the various kinds of libum were all prepared following the same principles, however, the most complete information about it is contained in Cato’s De Agri Cultura, in which the author explains in detail how to make it, with flour, eggs, and cheese (75).
The recipe is particularly easy: Cato recommends using one libra (about 330 grams) of superfine wheat flour (siligo), two librae of cheese that must be pounded in the mortar, one egg, mixing all the ingredients together until the dough has the same consistency as bread. After that, place the cheesecake on bay laurel leaves arranged on a pan and cook it.
Given the simplicity of the recipe, it is probable that it corresponds at least to one of the ritual cakes mentioned by the other authors, and for this reason, we adapted Cato’s recipe to the version described by Ovid. We prepared libum with millet flour and honey, but there are other possibilities, for example you can use wheat flour or millet grains, steeped in water overnight and then kneaded with the cheese. This is a kind of technique that Cato uses for spelt, as we saw in the past preparing the recipe for placenta.
We used fresh caciotta, since Cato specifies that the cheese must be pounded in the mortar, but you can use other kinds of cheese. We recommend, in any case, cheese with a good water content and not too salty.
To cook our libum, we used the testum, an ancient portable oven made with clay very useful if one does not have a regular oven, because can be placed in a brazier or fireplace.

For more information about ancient cuisine, check out our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources. In addition, the first five 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, check out our book Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
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Libum - Thumbnail

300 grams cheese
150 grams millet flour
half an egg

Libum - Preview 5yt

Mince the cheese and pound it in the mortar, then add the flour and half an egg to make a homogeneous paste. Grease your cooking pan with olive oil and cook the libum in the oven or under the testum for about 20-25 minutes, then serve hot drizzling honey on top.

Libum - Plate 1

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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 1-5
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 – first and second part (13th-14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Anonimo Toscano – first part (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)

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