Cato's 'De Agricultura': Recipes

Translated into English by Quinta Claudia Lucentia Aprica

Cato, De Agricultura 75 - 76

Cato's recipes for libum and placenta are particularly important historical sources, since both of these cakes were recommended for use in religious rituals. If you are hoping to make either of them, please note that I have not tried these recipes out myself, but simply translated them as clearly and as literally as I can. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has tried the recipes, however.

The Roman pounds which Cato uses were equivalent to 327.45g, and thus significantly less than our modern pounds, which are equivalent to 453.6g. Nevertheless, Cato was clearly planning cake-making on an industrial scale a modius was a measure of volume slightly less than two gallons (9.092 litres), so his half-modius placenta cake must have been pretty substantial. Whether either recipe could be considered edible by mortals, even with the addition of honey, is of course a matter of taste.

Libum

Latin text:
'Libum hoc modo facito. Casei P. II bene disterat in mortario. Ubi bene distriverit, farinae siligineae libram aut, si voles tenerius esse, selibram similaginis eodem indito permiscetoque cum caseo bene. Ovum unum addito et una permisceto bene. Inde panem facito, folia subdito, in foco caldo sub testu coquito leniter.'

English translation:
'Make libum by this method. Break up two pounds of cheese well in a mortar. When they will have been well broken up, put in a pound of wheat flour or, if you wish it to be more delicate, half a pound of fine flour and mix it well together with the cheese. Add one egg and mix together well. Then make into bread, places leaves beneath, and cook slowly on a hot hearth under an earthen pot.'

Placenta

Latin text:
'Placentum sic facito. Farinae siligineae L. II, unde solum facias, in tracta farinae L. IIII et alicae primae L. II. Alicam in aquam infundito. Ubi bene mollis erit, in mortarium purum indito siccatoque bene. Deinde manibus depsito. Ubi bene subactum erit, farinae L. IIII paulatim addito. It utrumque tracta facito. In qualo, ubi arescant, conponito. Ubi arebunt, conponito pariter. Cum facies singula tracta, ubi depsueris, panno oleo uncto tangito et circum tergeto unguitoque. Ubi tracta erunt, focum, ubi cocas, calfacito bene et testum. Postea farinae L. II conspargito condepsitoque. Inde facito solum tenue. Casei ovilli P. XIIII ne acidum et bene recens in aquam indito. Ibi macerato, aquam ter mutato. Inde eximito siccatoque bene paulatim manibus, siccum bene in mortarium inponito. Ubi omne caseum bene siccaveris, in mortarium purum manibus condepsito conminuitoque quam maxime. Deinde cribrum farinarium purum sumito caseumque per cribrum facito transeat in mortarium. Postea indito mellis boni P. IIII S. Id una bene conmisceto cum caseo. Postea in tabula pura, quae pateat P. I, ibi balteum ponito, folia laurea uncta supponito, placentam fingito. Tracta singula in totum solum primum ponito, deinde de mortario tract linito, tracta addito singulatim, item linito usque adeo, donec omne caseum cum melle abusus eris. In summum tracta singula indito, postea solum contrahito ornatoque focum deverrito temperatoque, tunc placentam inponito, testo caldo operito, pruna insuper et circum operito. Videto ut bene et otiose percoquas. Aperito, dum inspicias, bis aut ter. Ubi cocta erit, eximito et melle unguito. Haec erit placenta semodialis.'

English translation:
'Make placenta in this way. Two pounds of wheat flour, from which you make the base, four pounds of flour and two pounds of best spelt for the tracta [note these appear to be drawn-out strips of pastry]. Soak the spelt in water.

When it is well-softened, place in a clean mortar and drain well. Then knead with your hands. When it will have been well kneaded, add four pounds of flour gradually. Make both into tracta. Arrange them in a wicker basket, where they may dry.

When they will dry, arrange them equally. With each side, touch the tracta with a cloth anointed with oil, when they will have been kneaded, and wipe them all over and anoint them with oil. When the tracta will have been made, warm well the hearth where you will cook, and the earthen pot. Afterwards, moisten the two pounds of wheat flour and knead together.

From this make a thin base. Soak fourteen pounds of sheep's cheese, not sour and very fresh, in water. Then soften it, and change the water three times. From this, take it out and dry it very gradually with the hands; place it, well dried, in a mortar. When all the cheese will have been well-dried, knead it together with your hands in a clean mortar, and break it down as much as possible. Then take a clean flour sieve and make the cheese pass through the sieve into the mortar.

Afterwards, put in four and a half pounds of good honey. Mix this together well with the cheese. Afterwards place the balteus [literally a girdle - Cato's directions are a little unclear here, but this seems to refer to the base made previously from wheat flour, which is then wrapped around the whole cake before it bakes] on a clean board, which extends for one foot, add oiled laurel leaves, and form the placenta.

First place single tracta over the whole base, then smear the tracta with the mixture from the mortar, add the tracta one by one; in the same way smear continuously for as long as until all the cheese with the honey will have been used up. On the top place single tracta, afterwards wrap over the base and prepare, sweep out and control the hearth, then put in the placenta, cover with a hot crock, cover over at the top and sides with hot coal.

See that it cooks through well and at leisure. Uncover while you inspect it two or three times. When it will have been cooked, take it out and spread it with honey. This will be a half-modius cake.'

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