It Began Here


Gliding through the millennia, we find ancient Romans enjoying savillum, a dessert that’s wended its way to us as cheesecake.  No less a personage than Senator and historian Marcus Porcius Cato (better known as Cato the Elder) provided instructions, 160 BC, in his De Agri Cultura:

Make a savillum thus: Mix 1/2 libra (*1) of flour and 2 1/2 libra of cheese, as is done for libum (*2).

Add 1/4 libra of honey and 1 egg.  Grease an earthenware pan with oil.  When you have mixed the ingredients well, pour into the pan and cover the pan with an earthenware testo (*3).

See that you cook it well in the middle, where it is the highest.  When it is cooked, remove the pan, spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy, put it back beneath the testo for a moment, then remove.  Serve it thus with a plate and spoon.

(Explanations follow at the bottom of this page, in the “Notes” section.)

As sugar was uncommon in ancient times, and was used mainly as medicine, Roman cooks made full use of honey, the original sweetener.  This is more than adequate for the purpose, and it gives the savillum a nice smooth texture.  In fact, it’s remarkably silky even before it’s cooked.  Here’s the just-mixed batter:Savillum Batter

After it’s cooked and the cake sets, it’s topped with a mixture of poppy seeds and honey, then is allowed to cool a bit before serving.  The topping provides a sweet, slightly crunchy crust that anticipates the graham cracker crust that would develop many centuries later.

The original savillum likely was somewhat thin, as is today’s preparation.  Over the centuries, the cake thickened and became the cheesecake we recognize today.  There’s no reason not to enjoy the best of both worlds – original ingredients and modern form – thus, the recipe below has been modified accordingly.  Specifically, it’s cooked in a square pan, instead of a longer rectangular vessel, making the savillum prepared as below twice as high as what’s in the photo, and increasing the cooking time in tandem.

Much credit goes to the New Varangian Guard, an Australian organization that converted Cato’s instructions into a format more amenable to modern cooking.  If you recall, the NVG also provided recipes for the Byzantine feast this journal featured a couple years ago.

Note the purple napkin in today’s picture.  That’s Imperial Purple.  Perhaps cooks in the Emperor’s kitchens a century or so after De Agri Cultura read their Cato and followed the instructions they found.  In which case, a happy Augustus awaits his savillum.  No wonder the Roman Empire lasted, in various forms, for another 1,500 years.

*****

Savillum

(Cheesecake, as per Ancient Rome)

For the cake:

  • 1 15-ounce container of whole milk ricotta
  • 2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour (*4)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup honey

For the topping:

  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 3 tablespoons poppy seeds (*5)

Preheat the oven to 350°.  In a large bowl, use a rubber spatula to mix the two cheeses until there are no large lumps.  Sift in the flour, then add the eggs and honey.  Whisk until smooth.

Lightly spritz a 9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray, then pour in the batter.  Cook for 40 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and the cheese sets.

About five minutes before the savillum is baked, put the honey for the topping and the poppy seeds in a small saucepan.  Place the saucepan over a low flame and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture begins to boil.  Turn off flame.

Remove the savillum from the oven (but leave the oven on!).  Drizzle the topping over the surface, using a rubber spatula to promote even coverage.  Put the baking pan back in the oven and cook for four minutes more.

Let cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes (longer if you don’t want it to be as warm), then cut and serve.

NOTES:

1 – A libra is the ancient Roman pound, and is equivalent to about 10 ounces.

2 – Libum is a cheesecake much more savory than is savillum.  Its closest modern counterpart is the quiche.

3 – Effectively, a testo is a lid.  From antiquity up through at least the 18th century, a favored cooking method was to place the food in a vessel with a tight-fitting lid, then to nestle it among hot embers, often shoveling a few glowing coals atop the lid too.  Of course, with the advent of enclosed ovens in the 1800s, the ancient method of cooking among embers disappeared from kitchens, along with fireplaces.

4 – AP flour is fine as well, though whole wheat flour is much closer to what would have been used in ancient Rome.

5 – As you can see, 3 tablespoons of poppy seeds covers the cake in a solid layer.  Not an issue for me, as I like poppy seeds, but adjust the quantity to your liking.

14 thoughts on “It Began Here

    1. Well thank you, Angela! Isn’t it some variation of the cliché, we don’t like something because, but despite?

      In which case, I appreciate you giving the article more than a fair shot. If it means anything to you, I don’t like cheese, not really anyway, meaning I too was skeptical at first.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think you have a point; don’t knock it off till you have tried it at least. If I was ever to try cheese cake, I would definitely give yours a try because it looks fresh and made with love.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wonderful, Angela, and I deeply appreciate your kindness!

        The compliment was meant to celebrate your broadmindedness in taking to a dish’s aesthetics, if not its taste. Few have that skill.

        Recently, I heard the opinion that people of African and Asian descent are somewhat lactose-intolerant. At least they are when compared to those of European ancestry, who love their milks, cheeses and related products. If so, my insensitivity was inadvertent.

        However, thinking about it more, as I usually do, I asked, what of the Masai? They’ve been all about cattle for centuries. For that matter, so too are the Tibetans and their yaks. For that matter, the Japanese and the Koreans raise cattle by the tens of millions.

        Oh well, the theory does explain some things, though it hardly is infallible. Point is, Angela, thanks for your kind words about the cheesecake, despite it not being something the sharpens your appetite.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Keith, funny because the Karamojong (my tribe) have been cattle keepers for thousands of years. They almost worship the cow. They love meat, milk, and blood. That’s right, they drink a cow’s fresh blood whenever they are far away from home in search of pasture for their cattle. I myself love milk; cheese is a bit of a new territory for me, although I love sharp cheddar and parmesan cheese. I think texture plays a big part when it comes to food and especially diary products, so things like cottage cheese, sour cream, cheesecake, etc., is a no no. My tribe enjoys a sour milk that has been cured and all the fat taken off to make ghee. That was never for me: both the sour milk and ghee is still a big no no. I think I lost my thought but my point is that, my pickiness of diary products goes way back and is nothing to do with your wonderful skills. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Enough already with the theories, right Angela? You’re direct proof many Africans/Asians not only can tolerate dairy, but that they have culinary history with it going back millennia.

        You identify texture, not lactose, as being the decisive factor, and thinking about it, I agree. Like you, I prefer the firmer cheeses, as the sublime Parmigiano Reggiano, or asiago. Conversely, you mention cottage cheese being at the other extreme, and I share your disdain.

        Now, following a tangent only loosely related, that whole texture thing also keeps me from trying poutine. I want to like it too, but those annoying cheese curds prevent an appreciation. Again, that regrettable softness you cite. Make instead a dish that boasts French fries, gravy and shaved parmesan, and I’d be on Team Poutine. Not with those cheese curds, though. Just keep it, Quebec.

        Oh, and thanks for the Karamojong history, Angela! Naturally, when outsiders consider the subject, the Maasai are the first nationality that comes to mind, but your own family history shows certain trends are more regional than national. Nearby peoples develop their own specific habits and twists, but broader behaviors are common from neighbor-to-neighbor. Such is the case, I suspect, in Africa, where people living on the grasslands took to cattle, whereas that’s not a practical option in the thick forests or in the deserts.

        Pity, as a good Caesar salad is something that’d force them far from their culinary comfort zone!

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  1. Cool! Interesting to think of people eating this, or something much like it, all those years ago. Such a different perspective of cheesecake from what I’m used to. Cream cheese and RICOTTA? Honey? Poppy seeds? Sounds like something I might like to try, actually; though I think I’d go a little light on the poppy seeds.

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    1. That’s understandable, Rachel, though it seems the seeds’ purpose is more to add texture, a certain crunch. The sort of thing (texturally) that a graham cracker crust does nowadays.

      As for the taste, poppy seeds, in quantity, are a bit bitter. However, the creaminess and the sweet satiny honey balance that nicely. Still, you wouldn’t lose much by going light on the seeds.

      Romans ate many things, though this is one of the few recipes that translates well to the modern day.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A cheesecake version I’d never heard of before. When I first saw the photo I was thinking more like a lemon bar. Very intriguing.

    I also had no idea that the cheesecake had such ancient beginnings. Somehow I think of the B.C. years in terms of cuisine consisting of roasted root vegetables and meat cooked on a spit. I’m sure it was a bit more sophisticated than that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The cool part, JoAnn, is that the recipe comes straight from Cato. No monkeying with the ingredients to make them fit today’s cooking preferences.

      Sure, some unusual things found their way to the Roman table – flamingo tongues and dormice are just a couple – but here’s a recipe that’ll win you laurels every time.

      Definitely, roasted root vegetables and spit-fired meats were common in 100 BC, but it was mainly our ancestors that settled for that. The Almighty deserves constant gratitude for driving the Romans to civilize my ancestors. From cave painting, to Mozart, in less than two millennia. Pax Romana!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s amazing to think of living in caves and then walking down the streets of New York City. Talk about a culture shock. If you could take away all the modern stuff, Central Park would be an ideal place to have a cave dwelling. One would always have to be on the lookout for sudden swarms of bicyclists though. Crashing into that herd would not do well for a caveperson or anyone else for that matter.

        I think it was wise to skip the flamingo tongues and dormice. Just my opinion though.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wise maybe, skipping the bird and the mice, but where’s the style in that? You moderns have no flair.

        Ha, great point about darting squadrons of two-wheelers! As it is, just a single bicyclist is havoc. A whole herd of them, though? Emerge from the cave, stretching. A great night’s sleep. Hello, gorgeous day ahead. Then…SPLAT!

        Of course, the primitive had to contend with charging European bison, so…same thing.

        Great point about the amazing mental trip from the cavern, to Midtown. Brings to mind a scene from Gladiator, wherein a visitor from the Empire’s distant edges first viewed the Coliseum. Overwhelmed, “I can’t believe men (i.e., people) could build such a thing.” Now, multiply that by ten thousand.

        And how, just like a modern, I relate everything to a movie quote?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciated, Tamara!

      Go figure, too, in a partnership one finds only in the kitchen, this most ancient of recipes brings benefits that resonate uniquely with the modern eater. That is, it is both sugar-free and is gluten-free.

      Specifically, sugar was nearly unknown to the Romans, and even then, only as a medication. Honey is just as sweet, and it has a smoother taste profile. As for the gluten, poppy seeds impart much the same texture, but without all those carbs.

      All this while remaining a natural, completely organic preparation. Who knew, back in the day, Cato was writing nutrition tips?

      Liked by 1 person

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