Silvia Marchetti, CNN
It was nutritious, easy to make, and a great snack, especially when sprinkled with poppy seeds and served in cubes.
The ancient Romans ate a delicious honey-crusted cheesecake called the Savillum, considered the true ancestor of the modern American-style cheesecake.
Instead of soft Philadelphia cheese, there was fresh goat’s milk ricotta straight from the shepherds. He was adored by slaves, aristocrats and soldiers.
The first ever fully documented recipe for a delicacy similar to the modern cheesecake dates back to the third century BC and was written by a prominent ancient Roman senator, army general and historian.
“Cato the Elder was not just a great writer and philosopher, he was a gourmet and a supporter of rural traditions and food,” says Giorgio Franchetti, an ancient Roman culinary expert and author of Dining with Ancient Romans.
Franchetti says that Cato wrote down the recipe for his favorite “Savilleum” cake in one of his key works, “De Agri Cultura”. He told CNN it was “very popular with Roman families.”
Cake with legs
Many myths and stories have been built around the creation of this popular dessert, Franchetti says, but he insists that only the one that is of Roman origin is legally valid.
Through the expansion of the Roman Empire, Savillum spread far and wide, eventually landing in England and then, centuries later, in the New World, evolving over time and taking on local characteristics.
“The savillum had very long legs and traveled the world,” says Franchetti, who unearthed many ancient Roman recipes. “Over time, the Romans perfected the technique of cooking and preparing food, bringing it to their colonies that stretched from the Middle East to Britain.
“It was a very simple cake made with simple, everyday ingredients: goat’s milk, honey, and eggs. And thanks to Cato, we even know the exact number of each of them.”
According to another origin legend, the “rudimentary” common dessert of cheese and honey was first prepared by the ancient Greeks before the Romans in the 8th century BC and was used to give energy to Olympic athletes.
However, the few secondary Greek sources that mention the dish, Franchetti says, do not give specific details about how it was made or what it looked like, let alone the exact recipe.
Even if it was adopted and perfected by the Roman conquerors of Greece, he adds, it was the Romans who globalized Savillum, not the Greeks.
“Bake the deep middle well”
In his recipe, Katon offers precise instructions and tips for making the cheesecake.
He says to mix half a libra of flour (1 Roman libra equals about 11.5 ounces or 327 grams), 2.5 libra goat cheese (aka ricotta), one egg, and a quarter libra honey in a terracotta pot, pre-greased with olive oil. , cover with a lid and put on fire.
Cato strongly advises to carefully bake a deep and thick middle. “After baking, drizzle with honey and sprinkle poppy seeds on top, then return to heat to complete baking before serving,” the recipe says.
Savillum was probably served without a spoon, as the Romans liked to eat with their fingers, but for convenience it was cut into cubes. It was usually eaten with meals, not at the end as a dessert.
Cato’s savillum can still be tasted today, along with other ancient Roman dishes recreated at elite “Roman dinners” organized at archaeological sites in Italy by Franchetti and “archeo-chef” Christina Conte, recreating recipes from the Eternal City.
At private events, attendees are usually dressed in typical Roman robes to create an imperial atmosphere.
“Savillum is very easy and quick to make, in just two hours, a lot less than a cheesecake,” says Conte, who also cooks ancient Roman dishes at home with her family. “It has an exquisite sweet and sour taste thanks to honey and cheese.”
“It was a very modest treat, which was regularly enjoyed by both low and aristocratic families. I bake it in the oven or wood-fired oven whenever possible, and I love to serve it while it’s still warm when it’s fluffy and creamy.”
In ideal condition, the savillum resembles a rounded flatbread or scrambled egg, slightly yellowish and with an overcooked surface. According to Conte, the Romans also made it with apples and pears.
Today Savillum’s heritage can be found in numerous classic Italian desserts.
Most pastries and cakes made with cheese products such as ricotta, mascarpone and burrata can trace their origins to it.
Relatives are Neapolitan pastiera, Sicilian cassata and “grandmother’s cake” – a classic cake with ricotta, lemon and pine nuts. Like the Sardinian seadas, made with sheep’s pecorino cheese and honey, Latium’s Laurina ricotta and chocolate pie, and the sfuaggio from the Sicilian village of Polizzi Generosa, made with sweet Tuma sheep’s cheese, candied pumpkin, cinnamon and cocoa.
Then there’s the Italian-style cheesecake. Thanks to globalization, Savillum has returned to its origins through the American cheesecake and turned into a sweet trend in Italy.
alla robiola cakeThe cake, made with a special variety of soft cheese popular in northern Italy, is identical to the classic New York cheesecake – minus the Philadelphia cream cheese – and has a base of crushed homemade biscuits.
Even though Italians are accustomed to delectable local pastries – from cannolo to tiramisu that also include some kind of cheese – Italians have come to love the American cheesecake, regardless of its Roman origins.
Many spas, patisseries and restaurants now have it on their menus, and not just in the big tourist cities that cater to foreign tastes. Today, cheesecake eateries can be found even in the depths of Sicily, considered the “kingdom” of Italian desserts.
Biscomania is a niche boutique of handmade cakes and cookies in the tiny rural town of Capena, not far from Rome. They serve traditional American cheesecakes and Italian twists stuffed with pistachio, nutella and red fruit jam. Philadelphia cheese, mascarpone, ricotta or yogurt are used depending on the tastes of the customers who tend to buy it for special occasions.
And while many cheesecakes require baking, others keep in the fridge without baking.
“This is not just part of a growing American craze,” says Biscomania owner Simone Orlandi. “Chilled cheesecake is a kind of semifreddo, very refreshing and enjoyable in summer. It is usually ordered by young people, they are the most Americanized here.
“Besides the US, the unbaked cheesecake is perhaps the most popular among Italians. Since it does not require any preparation, baking or leavening, families have started making it at home as well. This is a great DIY cake.”
Because Italian dishes tend to be quite filling, Orlandi advises avoiding cheesecake as a dessert at the end of a meal, as it requires a lot of extra digestive power, in her opinion.
Franchetti himself is a fan of cheesecake and says his story shows that even food can be an archaeological treasure.
“Even though we may have lost track of what happened to Savillum through time, we know for certain that it was completely reborn in a cheesecake that English-speaking culture has redistributed around the world.
“The ancient Romans invented and spread it thousands of years ago, and today the Romans have got it back from places that were once under the rule of Rome. In a way, cheesecake has come home.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia company. All rights reserved.