Libum – Ancient Roman Cheesecake


Libum, according to Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and other Latin authors, was a ritual food prepared as an annual offering to the gods. There were many ways to prepare it. Virgil writes of a libum offered with milk to Priapus; Ovid of one prepared with millet for Vesta, of another eaten with honey for Liber. In the latter case, the author specifies that the libum is prepared by an old woman and split, still hot, between the faithful and the god, identified with Bacchus and considered the discoverer of honey and inventor of beekeeping.
We took the following recipe from De Agri Cultura, written about the 2nd century BCE by Marcus Porcio Cato.
Cato’s agronomy book is particularly interesting because reports recipes of dishes mentioned by other authors whose method would be otherwise lost, most of all, sweets, bread and cheesecakes. Libum is one of them.
Following Cato’s direction, we obtained a cheesecake, simple but loaded with flavor thanks to the presence of bay laurel leaves.
Below, you will find a short note about the ingredients and the original text of the recipe with the translation into English. Enjoy!

300 gr firm cow cheese
150 gr white wheat flour
half an egg
bay laurel leaves

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Cut the cheese, pound it in the mortar, and mix with the flour, kneading well, and half an egg. When the dough reaches a smooth consistency, flour the work surface and shape the dough into a circular form. Coat the cooking vessel with bay laurel leaves and lay carefully the libum. Cover it with the testum and place hot charcoal on the top and below. Cook for 20-30 minutes, until the libum is browned.
Remove the bay laurel leaves and serve still hot or warm.

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Note about the ingredients and the method
We used here an ancient Roman portable oven, named testum. Copying the archaeological artifacts, we molded our own with terracotta. If you don’t have one, you can just bake the libum with a regular oven. We used in the past the testum also to prepare a flatbread described in the Appendix Vergiliana.
Cato writes nothing about the kind of cheese to use. You can choose cow, goat or sheep cheese, all common in ancient Rome. The only direction is that it had to be hard enough to be pounded in the mortar, so we suggest avoiding ricotta or soft cheese.
The author uses two words for the flour, farina siliginea and similago that mean superfine flour: white wheat flour of the best quality.

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Original text
Libum hoc modo facito. Casei P. II bene disterat in mortario. Ubi bene distriverit, farinae siligineae libram aut, si voles tenerius esse, selibram similaginis eodem indito permiscetoque cum caseo bene. Ovum unum addito et una permisceto bene. Inde panem facito, folia subdito, in foco caldo sub testu coquito leniter.

Make libum in this way. Pound well in the mortar two pounds of cheese, then add one pound of superfine flour or, if you want a libum more tender, half a pound, mixing well with the cheese. Add one egg and mix well. Shape the bread, placing it on bay laurel leaves. Cook at low heat in the hearth covering with the testum.

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