Moretum (Herb and Cheese Spread)

A number of Roman authors described and praised this herb spread, though there is not one definite recipe. Here is a version I have recreated that you can concoct in your own kitchen.

A photo of the moretum I prepared, following Columella’s recipe, in a mortar.

The Romans were especially fond of their herbs. Recipes of all kinds, from meats to desserts, included a wide array of plants from the garden as seasonings. One easy and adjustable way to add herbal flavors to dishes was in the form of sauces, spreads, and other condiments.

Of the many herb-rich recipes, one of the best recorded was a spread called moretum. Sometimes it contained garlic, sometimes cheese, and sometimes it was served on bread, but moretum always included a multitude of herbs, with the intent of adding character to the often dull dishes of average Romans.

This spread was presumably popular for all citizens of Rome, but it was especially trendy, for some odd reason, among authors. Authors like Sveius, Macrobius, and Parthenius all include some mention of the condiment in their writings.

In fact, the celebrated poet Virgil, best known for writing the Aeneid, penned a tribute to the humble spread and titled it… you guessed it, Moretum! He describes a farmer called Symilus, who rises early in the morning in the winter and prepares himself a helping of the dish. After some literary deliberation in the poem, Symilus goes to the garden and picks himself four heads of garlic (!), along with parsley, rue, and coriander seeds. He returns to his cottage and throws those ingredients into a mortar with cheese, salt, and a little vinegar.

As he prepares his moretum, Virgil adds that Symilus’s eyes begin to water and he curses his meal, certainly a result of the offensive odor produced by crushing so much garlic. It’s charming to read, but I think Virgil’s poem-recipe is anecdotal and way too garlicky for my palate! I decided to pass on that version.

I found another recipe from Apicius, the biggest and most prominent Roman cookbook I’ve come across thus far. This version didn’t include cheese and was challengingly vague, so I bypassed it. Because I wanted to make a recipe with cheese and avoid an overwhelming amount of garlic, I went with a third recipe from an author named Columella. He wrote about moretum in his book De re rustica (On Agriculture):

Quemadmodum moretum facias: addito in mortarium satureiam, mentam, rutam, coriandrum, apium, porrum sectivum aut, si id non erit, viridem cepam, folia lactucae, folia erucae, thymum viride, vel nepetam, tum etiam viride puleium et caseum recentem et salsum. Ea omnia pariter conterito acetique piperati exiguum permisceto; hanc mixturam cum in catillo composueris, oleum superfundito.

How to make moretum: Put into a mortar savory, mint, rue, coriander, parsley, chives or green onion, lettuce leaves, rocket leaves, fresh thyme or catnip, and also fresh pennyroyal, fresh cheese, and salt. Crush together and mix in vinegar and a little pepper. Put this mixture in a small dish and pour oil over it.

This dish was interesting, as it’s the only one I’ve come across so far with multiple conflicting recipes. For the other foods I’ve prepared, I have either had to guess on a handful of ingredients or make up the recipe entirely. Below is the recipe I decided to use, based on the one Columella wrote down:

A good handful of lettuce leaves (I used butter lettuce)

A good handful of arugula leaves

10 sprigs of parsley

10 sprigs of cilantro

6 sprigs of mint

6 chives

10 sprigs of thyme

¾ cup of ricotta cheese

1 tbsp. of red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Rinse the herbs. Remove the thyme leaves from the stems and pull the leafy ends from the parsley and cilantro. Take all the herbs and put them into a mortar, tearing the lettuce and chives into smaller pieces to fit, if necessary. Crush with a pestle until ground into a paste. The measurements for the herbs aren’t particular, but I ended up with about ¼ cup of green paste in the end. Mix the cheese into the mortar, along with the salt, pepper, and vinegar, and mash until well incorporated. Scoop the moretum onto a small plate and pour oil over to serve. Slice a baguette or other crusty bread and spread on a bit of moretum, if you wish.

Pictures of my ingredients, the herbs in the mortar, the herb paste, and the finished moretum on bread.

It may seem that I’m missing a good deal of ingredients from the original recipe (catnip, rue, etc.), which is partly the case. Rue is, from what I’ve read, quite a tricky ingredient to get a hold of and is extremely bitter, so I decided to leave it out. I didn’t have savory at hand, so I decided to omit that as well, using thyme as a substitute. I chose thyme over catnip and chives over green onions, just because of what I had in the kitchen.

The other swaps are simply semantics: rocket is another name for arugula, coriander is cilantro, and pennyroyal is a type of mint. I also took after Virgil’s example and spread the moretum on some bread.

I really thought this spread was delicious. The assortment of herbs became wonderfully aromatic as I ground them in the mortar, and was very flavorful in my final product. I didn’t notice that one herb or ingredient stood out — all of the tastes blended together well. It reminded me a lot of pesto, save for the pine nuts, and I think it could be added to all sorts of things, in addition to bread.

The word moretum translates to “salad” in English. Though it isn’t a salad in the traditional sense of the word, I can begin to see why Virgil was so bucolically fond of the spread: making this recipe truly feels like taking a whole garden and crushing it with a pestle and mortar, but without the uncontrollable swearing and watery eyes.

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