Some may say that cheesecake is food of the gods—those people include the ancient Greek Olympians, who feasted on a flour cake filled with cheese and honey after their pentathlon competitions. The ancient Greeks were already aware of the connections between physical aptitude and lifestyle choices—and the athletes engaged in a variety of restrictive diets believed to enhance their performances, such as xerophagia, a diet consisting of dry foods. Like the modern-day cheesecake, the ancient Greek version was an indulgence, something you pair with your wine at the end of a languid feast.
In 250 BC, the Greek poet Archestratus wrote a gastronomic travel guide called Life of Luxury that is only preserved in fragments. In one piece that has survived, he makes mention of the dessert: “Yet accept a cheese-cake made in Athens; or, failing that, if you can get one from somewhere else, go out and demand some Attic honey, since that will make your cheesecake superb.” But, alas, he did not include any recipes.
As with the classical sculptures we now find in museums, we can thank the Romans for preserving the Greek cheesecake into posterity. De Agri Cultura, Cato the Elder’s 160 BC farming manual, is not only the earliest example of surviving Latin prose, but a glorified food blog—it includes not one but several recipes for cheesecakes.
“Cato is a proud Roman, writing in Latin,” Cathy Kaufman, food history and author of Cooking in Ancient Civilizations, explained over email. “Nonetheless, there seems to be an overlap between Archestratus’s gastronomic descriptions and Cato’s recipes.” The only possible difference between an ancient Greek cheesecake and an ancient Roman cheesecake, classicist and food blogger Andrew Coletti added, is that the early Greeks didn’t use chicken eggs.
Cato’s cheesecake recipes include a sweet version called savillum and a savory cheesecake called libum, the latter being related to our modern-day word, libations. “They were often made as religious offerings,” Coletti explained. These were simple baked mixtures of baked cheese and flour that could be eaten with a spoon. Another more complex version from Cato, the placenta cake, involves layering cheese, honey, and dough together and flavored with bay leaves. According to Coletti, black poppyseeds were also used as cheesecake toppings. Think of them as ancient sprinkles.
This was Cato’s original recipe for placenta cake:
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