Ancient Roman Sweet Spelt


Ancient Romans ate sweets at breakfast, as Martial reported, but also in many social occasions. Usually, they were served at the end of the dinner with the other courses of the secundae mensae, fresh and dried fruit, and wine. Typical ingredients were cheese, honey, spices, dried fruit, and cereals. Many recipes survive thanks to Cato’s agronomy book and De Re Coquinaria, the cookbook attributed to Apicius.
There were many kinds of sweets: cheesecakes and other pastries, fritters, stuffed fruit, and pultes (cereals reduced to cream and mixed with other ingredients). In the past, we prepared dates stuffed with nuts and covered with honey. Today we are making a sort of porridge from Apicius’ book, prepared with spelt, honey, and nuts. The author calls his sweet recipes dulcia domestica, homemade sweets, in contrast with the sweets prepared by the pistores, the bakers.
Below, you will find a note about the method and the ingredients, the original text of the recipe, and the translation into English. Enjoy!

pine nuts
dry white wine
raisin wine
garum or salt
black pepper

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Overcook the spelt using a good amount of water, then strain and let it cool for a while. The cooking time depends on the kind of spelt you are using.
Toast and peel the hazelnut, then crush them slightly in the mortar.
Mince the rue. Add in the mortar a little quantity of black pepper pounding it with pine nuts, walnuts, and rue.
Now, pound the spelt in another mortar without mashing it completely, then add the other ingredients: the ground nuts, pepper, rue, honey, a bit of garum, raisin wine, and white wine. Mix all together to allow the spelt to absorb the liquids, creating a smooth and creamy consistency. Let the cream rest for a while, then plate sprinkling it with hazelnuts.

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Note about the method and the ingredients
Apicius’ recipes are usually quick annotations of ingredients, with scarce information about the method. This is true in particular in the case of this recipe, as you will see reading the original text. The most important element to interpret this recipe is noticing that he writes that the hazelnuts have to be slightly crushed before being sprinkled on the plated dish. This means probably that the other ingredients have to be pounded in the same way they are used in other similar recipes. Pounding all together, indeed, allows the spelt and the nuts to absorb the liquid ingredients that, otherwise, would stay separated.
The word Apicius uses for the cereal is alica, a term that could mean the cereal grains, a preparation of crushed grains (Pliny), or a kind of beer (Martial). In this case, the author specifies to use the boiled cereal. Identifying exactly the ancient variety is not simple. It should be a cereal such as spelt, emmer, or einkorn. In Italian, we use the word farro that includes many varieties similar in taste and appearance, and maybe alica is a generic term used in the same way.
Rue was one of the most used aromatic herbs in ancient Roman cooking. It grows wild in many Italian regions and it is still used to flavor a kind of grappa. Here is hard to buy in grocery stores and we cultivate a few plants in our aromatic garden. If you don’t have it, you can substitute it with another aromatic herb instead, for example, mint.
Apicius uses for this recipe a sauce called piperatum. In other parts of his book, he calls it liquamen piperatum and suggests that it may be substituted with a mixture of black pepper and garum. In this case, garum gives sapidity to a plate that, otherwise, would be unbalanced in the direction of sweetness, in the same way we use today salt to prepare sweets. Remember that balance is a keyword for ancient Roman cooking, and for this recipe you have to use a very little quantity. You can substitute it with a pinch of salt without a substantial change in the outcome.
Garum was a fermented fish sauce widely used by many ancient Mediterranean populations, in particular by Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. The historical sources survived describe in detail its production. It was made with fish and salt, sometimes adding aromatic herbs ad spices. Today there are a few producers of garum. If you do not have it, you can use a South-East Asian fish sauce instead, produced in the same way as some types of garum.
The word Apicius uses here for wine is merum. It means that we have to use an expensive, excellent wine. Falernian, Nomentan, Apian and other varieties were considered among the best ancient Roman varieties.

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Original text
Aliter dulcia [domestica]: piperato mittis mel, merum, passum, rutam. Eo mittis nucleos, nuces, alicam elixatam. Concisas nuces Abellanas tostas adicies, et inferes.

Another [homemade] sweet: add honey, excellent wine, raisin wine, and rue to piperatum. Add pine nuts, walnuts, and boiled spelt. Sprinkle with toasted and crushed hazelnuts, then serve.

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