It was nutritious, easy to prepare, and great as a snack, especially when sprinkled with poppy flower seeds and served cubed.
Ancient Romans feasted on a delicious honey-crusted cheesecake called Savillum, believed to be the true ancestor of modern American-style cheesecake.
Instead of soft Philadelphia cheese, there was fresh goat’s milk ricotta straight from the shepherds. He was worshiped by slaves, aristocrats and soldiers.
The first fully documented recipe in history detailing the preparation of a delicacy that approximates modern cheesecake dates back to the third century BCE, and it was written by a prominent ancient Roman senator, army general, and historian.
“Cato the Elder was not only a great writer and philosopher, he was a gourmet and a proponent of rural traditions and foods,” says Giorgio Franchetti, a specialist in ancient Roman gastronomy and author of the book “Dining With The Ancient Romans”.
Franchetti says Cato recorded the recipe for his favorite cake, Savilium, in one of his key works, “De Agri Cultura.” It was, he tells CNN, “very popular in Roman homes.”
A cake with legs
Many myths and stories have been woven around the creation of this popular dessert, says Franchetti, but he insists that only that of its Roman origin has any legitimacy.
Thanks to the expansion of the Roman Empire, Savillum spread everywhere, eventually landing in England and then, centuries later, in the New World, evolving over time and taking on local twists.
“Savillum had very long legs, he traveled the world,” says Franchetti, who has unearthed many ancient Roman recipes. “Over time, the Romans perfected the technique of cooking and preparation, bringing it to their colonies, which spread from the Middle East to Brittany.
“It was a very basic cake made with simple everyday ingredients: goat’s milk, honey and eggs. And thanks to Cato, we even know the exact amounts of each.”
According to another origin tale, a generic “rudimentary” dessert of cheese and honey was first made by the ancient Greeks before the Romans, in the 8th century BCE, and used to give an energy boost. to Olympic athletes.
However, the few secondary Greek sources that mention the dish, Franchetti says, don’t give specific details of how it was made or what it tasted like, let alone offer an accurate recipe.
Although it was adopted and refined by the Roman conquerors of Greece, he adds, it was the Romans who globalized Savillum, not the Greeks.
‘Cook the deep center well’
In her recipe, Cato offers specific instructions and tips on making the cheesecake.
It says to mix half a libra of flour (1 Roman libra weighed about 11.5 ounces or 327 grams), 2.5 libra of goat cheese (aka ricotta), an egg and a quarter of a libra of honey in a pot in terracotta previously greased with olive oil, cover it with a lid and then place it on the fire.
Cato explicitly advises making sure to cook the deep, thicker center well. “Once cooked, pour over honey and sprinkle over poppy seeds, then put back on the heat to finalize the cooking before serving”, specifies the recipe.
The savillum was probably served without a spoon, as the Romans liked to eat with their fingers, but it was cut into cubes to make it easier. It was usually eaten throughout the meal rather than at the end as a dessert.
Cato’s Savillum can still be enjoyed today, alongside other ancient Roman dishes recreated at elite “Roman dinners” held at archaeological sites in Italy by Franchetti and “archeo-cook” Cristina Conte, which recreates recipes from the Eternal City.
Private events usually see diners dressed in typical Roman robes for the imperial ambience.
“Savillum is extremely easy and quick to prepare, just two hours, much less than cheesecake,” says Conte, who also cooks ancient Roman dishes at home with his family. “It has an exquisite sweet and sour taste due to honey and cheese.”
“It was a very humble delicacy regularly savored by low and aristocratic families alike. I bake it in the oven or in a wood-fired oven when possible, and I love that it is served still lukewarm, when it’s puffy and creamy.”
When cooked to perfection, the Savillum resembles a rounded crepe or omelet, slightly yellowish and with an overcooked surface. The Romans also made a variation of it with apples and pears, according to Conte.
Today, Savillum’s heritage can be found in many classic Italian desserts.
Most pastries and cakes made with cheese products such as ricotta, mascarpone and burrata can trace their lineage there.
The Naples pastiera, the Sicilian cassata and the “granny cake”, a classic tart with ricotta, lemon and pine nuts are related. Just like the seadas from Sardinia made with pecorino sheep’s cheese and honey, the Latium tart Lazio with ricotta and chocolate, and the sfuagghiu from the Sicilian village of Polizzi Generosa, made with soft Tuma sheep’s cheese, pumpkin confit, cinnamon and cocoa.
Then there is the Italian cheesecake. Thanks to globalization, the Savillum returned to its origins via the American cheesecake, and turned into a sweet trend in Italy.
the torta alla robiolaa cake made with a special type of soft cheese popular in northern Italy, is identical to classic New York cheesecake – except for Philadelphia cream cheese – and has a base made of crushed artisan cookies.
Despite being weaned off delicious native pastries – from cannolo to tiramisu, which also contain a kind of cheese – Italians have come to adore American cheesecake, unaware of its Roman origins.
Many seaside resorts, patisseries and restaurants now have it on their menu, and not just in the major tourist towns that cater to foreign tastes. Today you can find restaurants with cheesecakes even in the deepest Sicily, considered the “kingdom” of Italian desserts.
Biscomania is a niche artisan cake and cookie shop in the small rural town of Capena, near Rome. He bakes traditional American cheesecakes and Italian twists with a filling of pistachio, nutella and red fruit jam. Philadelphia cheese, mascarpone, ricotta or yogurt are used, depending on the tastes of customers, who tend to buy it for special occasions.
And while many cheesecakes require baking, others are baked in the refrigerator, without baking.
“It’s not just part of a growing American fashion,” says Simona Orlandi, owner of Biscomania. “The chilled cheesecake is like a kind of semifreddo, very refreshing and pleasant in the summer. Young people usually order it, they are the most Americanized around here.
“Outside of the United States, unbaked cheesecake is perhaps the most popular among Italians. Since it requires no preparation, baking, and yeasting, families have started making it at home as well. It’s a great do-it-yourself cake.”
Because Italian meals are usually quite large, Orlandi advises avoiding cheesecake as an end-of-meal dessert because, she says, it requires a lot of extra digestive power.
Franchetti himself is a fan of cheesecake and says his story shows that even food can be an archaeological treasure.
“While we may have lost track of what happened to the Savillum over time, we know for certain that it was fully reincarnated in cheesecake, which English culture redistributed around the world.
“The ancient Romans invented and spread it millennia ago, and today the Romans have picked it up from places once under the rule of Rome. In a way, cheesecake has returned to the home.”
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