Rome (CNN) – They were nutritious, easy to prepare and great as a snack, especially when sprinkled with poppy flower seeds and served in cubes.
The ancient Romans ate a delicious honey-crusted cheesecake called Savillum, which is believed to be 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. She was adored by slaves, aristocrats, and soldiers.
The first fully documented recipe in history detailing the preparation of a delicacy approaching modern cheesecake dates back to the 3rd century BC, and was written by a prominent ancient Roman senator, military general and historian.
“Cato the Elder was not only a great writer and philosopher, he was a gourmet and supporter of rustic traditions and foods,” says Giorgio Francetti, a food scientist in ancient Rome and author of Eating With the Ancient Romans.
Franchetti says Cato recorded his favorite cake recipe, Savilium, in one of his major works, “De Agri Cultura”. He told CNN it was “very popular in Roman homes.”
American-style cheesecake is now gaining popularity in Italy.
Many legends and stories have been woven around the creation of this popular dessert, says Franchetti, but he insists on legitimacy only from its Roman origin.
Thanks to the expansion of the Roman Empire, Savelum spread everywhere, eventually landing in England and then centuries later in the New World, developing over time and taking on local vicissitudes.
“Savelum had very long legs, it roamed the globe,” says Francetti, who discovered many ancient Roman recipes. “Over time, the Romans perfected the method of cooking and preparation, and took it to their colonies, which spread from the Middle East to Britain.
“It was a very basic cake made with simple everyday ingredients: goat’s milk, honey and eggs. Thanks to Kato, we even know the exact amounts of each.”
According to another origin story, a “primitive” general dessert of cheese and honey was first made by the pre-Roman Greeks, in the 8th century BC, and used to give an energy boost to Olympic athletes.
However, the few secondary Greek sources that mention the dish, says Franchetti, do not provide specific details about how it was made or how it was made, let alone provide an accurate recipe.
He adds that even if it was adopted and refined by the Roman conquerors of Greece, it was the Romans who globalized Saphilum, not the Greeks.
“Bake well deep in the middle”
Well-cooked savilium looks like an omelette.
In his recipe, Kato provides precise instructions and advice on making cheesecake.
He says to mix half a Libra of flour (1 Roman libre was about 11.5 ounces or 327 grams), 2.5 lira of goat cheese (also known as ricotta), one egg and a quarter of a lira of honey into a clay pot pre-greased with olive oil, cover with a lid Then put it on fire.
Kato explicitly recommends making sure you bake the thick, deep center thoroughly. “Once baked, pour honey and sprinkle poppy flower seeds over it, then put back on the stove to finish baking before serving,” the recipe says.
Savillum was probably served without spoons, 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 and not at the end as a dessert.
Savellum katto can still be savored today, along with other ancient Roman dishes reinvented at an elite “Roman Dinner” organized at the archaeological sites in Italy by Francetti and “old chef” Christina Conti, who reinvents recipes from the Eternal City.
Special occasions usually see diners dress in typical Roman robes for the imperial vibe.
“Savelum is so easy and quick to make, it only takes two hours to make, which is much less than a cheesecake,” says Conti, who also cooks ancient Roman dishes at home with her family. “It has a wonderful sweet taste because of the honey and cheese.”
“It was a very unpretentious treat regularly savored by low-key and aristocratic families alike. I bake it in an oven or wood-fired oven when possible, and adore it while it’s still warm, when it’s puffy and creamy.”
When baked to perfection, the Savillum resembles a round pancake or omelette, slightly yellowish with an overcooked surface. According to Conti, the Romans also made a different kind of apple and pear.
The Romans loved to eat cheese cubes as a snack between meals.
Today, Savillum’s legacy 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 to it.
Neapolitan pastera, Sicilian cassata and “grandmother’s cake,” a classic tart with ricotta, lemon, and pine nuts are close relatives. As are Sardinian pillowcases made with sheep cheese and honey, Latium’s Laurina’s tart with ricotta and chocolate, and sfuagghiu from the Sicilian village of Polizzi Generosa, made with sweet Tuma sheep cheese, candied pumpkin, cinnamon and cocoa.
Then there is the Italian-style cheesecake. Thanks to globalization, Savillum has returned to its origins with American cheesecake, and has turned into a sweet trend in Italy..
The Torta alla RobiolaMade with a special kind of soft cheese popular in northern Italy, it’s identical to the classic New York cheesecake – except for Philadelphia cream cheese – and has a base made of crushed artisan biscuits.
Despite weaning off the delicious original pastries—from cannolo to tiramisu, which also feature a type of cheese—the Italians have become in love with the American cheesecake, oblivious to its Roman origins.
Many resorts, pastry shops and restaurants are now on their lists, and not only in large tourist cities that cater to foreign tastes. Today you can find restaurants with cheesecake even in the deepest Sicily, which is considered the “kingdom” of Italian sweets.
The return of a “new body” to the homeland
Simona Orlandi: American cheesecake is “refreshing and fun” for Italian summer.
Biscomania is a specialty artisan cake and cookie boutique in the small rural town of Cabina, near Rome. She prepares traditional American cheesecakes and Italian rolls with pistachio, Nutella and red fruit jam. Philadelphia cheese, mascarpone, ricotta or yogurt are used, depending on the tastes of customers who tend to buy them for special occasions.
And while many cheesecakes require baking, others are refrigerated without the need for baking.
“It’s not just part of a growing American fashion,” says Simona Orlandi, owner of Biscomania. “The refrigerated cheesecake is kind of like a semifreddo, and it’s very refreshing and fun in the summer. It’s usually ordered by youngsters, they’re the most American here.”
“Aside from the US, unbaked cheesecake is probably the most popular among Italians. Since it doesn’t require preparation, baking, and fermentation, families have started making it at home too. It’s a wonderful do-it-yourself cake.”
Since Italian meals are usually quite filling, Orlandi advises avoiding cheesecake as an end-of-meal dessert because, in her opinion, it requires a lot of extra digestive power.
Francetti himself is a fan of cheesecake and says his story shows that even food can be an antique treasure.
“Although we have lost traces of what happened to Savelum through time, we know for certain that it was fully embodied in the cheesecake, which English-speaking culture redistributed throughout the world.
“It was invented and propagated by the ancient Romans thousands of years ago, and today the Romans have taken it back from places that were under Rome. In a way, cheesecake has come home.”