Ancient Rome Cakes: from Cato’s cheesecake to Poppaea’s cassata

Ancient Rome Cakes: from Cato’s cheesecake...

Browsing the recipe book written by Gavius Apicius in the first century AD, the renowned treatise De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking, in ten books), the reader is struck by the low amount of sweet recipes compared to the abundant number of meat, fish, venom recipes, and also delicacies such as flamingos, parrots and dormice (book VII). The author has not even reserved a definite chapter for them.

In book VII, the author mentions the dulcia domestica, simple and homemade sweets. A speciality, for example, was honeyed dates (Palmulas vel dactylos in melle cocto), to which they added salt and pepper (!).

We should underline that the Romans did not have the same taste in food as ours. Confectioners existed, the Pistores Dulciarii, but since sugar was unknown, they used honey with desserts, which were often bittersweet and-or zesty.

In Latin literature, the work by Apicius represents an unprecedented. We do not have other texts dedicated to the art of cooking. We do not have the original De Re Coquinaria: the ten books in our possession represent a remodelling and addition of the 3rd or 4th century.

Even in the famous Coena Trimalchionis, part of the Satyricon, a novel by Petronius Arbiter, written during the reign of Nero, the author mentions a few sweets served at the end of a banquet:

At the third course, a very large hog was brought in, much larger even than the wild boar that had been previously served. This was followed by a young calf, boiled whole, with more wine, perfumes, fruits, and sweetmeat-thrushes in pastry, stuffed with nuts and raisins, and quinces stuck over with prickles to resemble sea- urchins.” (Satyricon XIV)

We could expect many dessert recipes in volumes concerning agriculture in general, such as texts by Varro, Columella, and Rutilius Taurus Palladius (IV century), but it is not so; only a few hints. We notice, for example, how Columella in De Re Rustica (12,154) describes the recipe for the production of the mulsum, the well-known honey-spiced wine, to which they added plentiful pepper. They served mulsum as an aperitif but used it even as a remedy for raucousness and jaundice.

A text from the Republican age, the De Agri Cultura by Cato the Censor, deserves a separate discussion. The author was the celebrated political rival of Scipio the African and the supporter of the mos maiorum (ancestral custom), in contrast with the Hellenistic tendency of the aristocrats of the Circle of the Scipios. The elderly Cato took up the cudgels on the need to destroy Carthage, repeating the famous phrase: Censeo Carthaginem delendam esse!

In the book, written around 160 B.C., we find a few interesting references to some homemade desserts: the savillum, the libum (a fairly sweet bread prepared with milk and honey) and the globi (ante litteram puffs), all prepared with simple and inexpensive ingredients.

I will focus on the recipe for the Savillum, a cheesecake made with flour, sheep milk ricotta, eggs, plenty of honey and poppy seeds: a forbear of our cheesecake.

Cato writes:

Make a savillum thus: Mix half a libra of flour and two and a half librae of cheese, as is done for libum [another kind of cheesecake]. Add 1/4 libra of honey and one egg. Grease an earthenware bowl with oil. When you have mixed the ingredients well, pour into the bowl and cover the bowl with an earthenware testo [lid]. See that you cook it well in the middle, where it is highest. When cooked, remove the bowl, spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy, put it back beneath the testo for a moment, and then remove it. Serve it thus with a plate and spoon. (LXXXXIV)

Please notice, as Pliny the Elder did in his Naturalis Historia, that they used white poppy seeds to garnish bread covered in honey as they did for sweets.

Some extravagant sweets deserve a special mention. They were popular and consumed during the Saturnalia festival. We allude to the Frictilia, ancestors of our carnival fritters (called Chiacchiere, Frappe, or even Cenci di Carnevale).

They distributed these desserts in the streets and itinerant fried-food sellers, as the poet Martial – who lived under the Flavian emperors – testified (Epigrams, I, xii). They prepared the frictilia with spelt flour, eggs, honey, poppy seeds and pepper. They were cut in round shapes, with their zig-zagged borders, then fried in lard. Because of pig fat, frictilia resulted softer than our fritters and crunchier since fried in oil.

The writer Macrobius, in the IV century, in his dialogic work Saturnalia (in 7 books), described in detail these ancient festivals that they still held at his time in honour of the God Saturn. They celebrated them every year from the 17 to the 23 December, and the tradition of subverting all customs was their prime feature. Slaves, for example, dressed up as masters and could speak freely; even patricians dressed up. Apparently, during these days, they partied and poured rivers of wine. Our Carnival originates from such festivities.

At this point, archaeology and not literature offers another subject for discussion.

Three miles from Pompeii, the ancient Oplontis rose, an exclusive residential area, where sumptuous otium villas – some cliff-sided over the sea – patrician families and wealthy Romans possessed. Indeed, the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 AD buried this small town.

The ruins of Oplontis, which corresponds to nowadays Torre Annunziata (Naples), became the object of interest and partial scrutiny at the beginning of the XVIII and in the XIX century. From 1964 on, they excavated one villa that archaeologists think was owned by the empress Poppaea Sabina, the wife of Nero. They speculate that the woman, pregnant, died in this domus. Because of its extraordinary extension, they have not yet explored the site thoroughly. The Villa of Poppaea is a true gem: ample, magnificent and enriched inside by splendid frescoes in the second Pompeian style.

In one of the marvellous rooms next to the triclinium (room n. 23), they found a fresco with a red background replicating a small oval table, quite elegant, on which stands a prosperous silver tray, a sweet similar to our cassata (see picture).

Pastry chefs of Torre Annunziata have long claimed that their ancestors from Oplonti invented the well-known pudding, and they still make it today, based on the recipe that seems contained in an old papyrus (actually false!) discovered in the archaeological site.

The cake in the fresco looks like a cassata, apart from the red on the outside, instead of the green one they use today for the almond paste. Richly decorated, it has an inviting look, and they could prepare it with a base similar to spelt bread with honey, topped with a thick ricotta cheese layer mixed with honey and pieces of dried fruit; apricots, plums, figs, dates and raisins, with nuts. It is a semifreddo, called Cassata Oplontina or Poppaea’s Cassata in Torre Annunziata since they say the splendid empress loved it so much.

The figure of the empress Poppaea Sabina deserves a little in-depth analysis. She was the second wife of Nero, and her description by the historian Tacitus is unsettling:

There was in the capital a certain Poppaea Sabina, daughter of Titus Ollius. […] She was a woman who possessed all advantages but a character. For her mother,  after eclipsing the beauties of it her day, had endowed her alike with her fame and her looks: her wealth was adequate to the distinction of her birth. Her conversation was engaging, her wit not without a point; she paraded modesty and practised wantonness. In public, she rarely appeared, and then with her face half-veiled, so as not quite to satiate the beholder, — or, possibly, because it so became her. She was never sparing of her reputation and drew no distinctions between husbands and adulterers: vulnerable neither to her own nor to alien passion, where material advantage offered, thither she transferred her desires. Thus, whilst living in the wedded state with Rufrius Crispinus, a Roman knight by whom she had had a son, she was seduced by Otho, with his youth, his voluptuousness, and his reputed position as the most favoured of Nero’s friends: nor was it long before adultery was supplemented by matrimony. (Annals XIII, 45)

After killing his mother Agrippina and divorcing the noble Octavia, daughter of the defunct emperors Claudius and Messalina, Nero could finally marry Poppaea (62 AD). Suetonius writes:

He dearly loved Poppaea, whom he married twelve days after his divorce from Octavia, yet he caused her death too by kicking her when she was pregnant and ill because she had scolded him for coming home late from the races. (The Twelve Caesars, Nero, 35).

Tacitus continues: (Nero) was desirous of children and wholly swayed by the love of his wife. (Annals XVI, 6)

Hence, the empress died in 65 AD in Rome or the villa at Oplontis because of an incident during her pregnancy while expecting her second son from her Princeps.

In the last decades, historians tended to reanalyse the figure of Poppaea Sabina, an intelligent woman, educated and much loved by Nero. They reconsider the imperial pair in a more positive light, and such a line of thought comes from a recently uncovered text.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (P.Oxy. LXXVII, 5105), a city in Upper Egypt, illustrates the couple’s story differently.

The papyri contain a hexametric poem in Greek, known as the Apotheosis of Poppaea, which celebrates the empress who, after her death, climbs to the skies, deified, as a new Aphrodite. The text, written shortly after the passing of the empress, around 65-66 AD, even if the daring is still a matter of discussion among scholars, was published (editio princeps) in London in 2011 by the Swiss papyrologist Paul Schubert and its content allows us to shed light on the marriage between Nero and Poppaea and the love they shared.

The short poem describes the rise to the heavens of the empress, who flies among the planets of Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn. Her triumphant arrival is among the stars, and yet her eyes are in search of her husband in the darkness.

The Apotheosis represents a different testimony from the anti-Neronian vision of ancient historians (filo-senators and Christians). It is a work of a poet close to the Julius-Claudia family, maybe the famous intellectual from Alexandria of Egypt, Leonidas of Alexandria (see: L.Capponi, Il ritorno della Fenice, Pisa 2017).

In my opinion, one could even venture the attribution of the poem to the pen of Nero himself, who had a remarkable artistic vein and was an excellent connoisseur of the Greek language and culture as a decent poet (Suetonius, Nero, 52).

The subject deserves further study, but since time and space are tyrants, we will limit ourselves in conclusion to underlining how the attractive and young Poppaea Sabina, despite really loathed, died in childbirth, perhaps in her domus of Oplontis, between the frescoed walls with baskets of fruit and sweet delicacies, mourned by his affectionate husband, the Princeps Nero.

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