If there’s one thing the world can agree on, it’s that cheesecake is hands down the best dessert ever.
Okay... well, maybe not everyone agrees – but we certainly do!
While most people today think of cheesecake as being a layer of soft, sweet cheese on top of a graham cracker crust, the first recipe to ever exist didn’t really look (or taste) anything like that.
The first cheesecake recipe, believe it or not, came from ancient Rome and was first recorded in 160 BC! Today, we’re going to share our Ancient Roman Savillum Cheesecake Recipe, found in our Ancient Rome Project Passport.
If you’re studying the history of ancient Rome with your children, this is the perfect opportunity to break out this recipe and surprise them with a delicious sweet treat. :-)
What Is Savillum?
Savillum is an ancient Roman cheesecake recipe found in the oldest surviving Latin writings called De Agri Cultura, which translates to “on farming” or “on agriculture.” This work was written by an important Roman figure, Cato the Elder.
Despite being a politician, Cato was known for being a simple man of his time who loved the country and farming. He decided to write the first-ever instructional manual on farming in 160 BC. This handbook provided practical ways to cultivate grapevines, olives, and livestock. It also contained old Roman customs and recipes, one of which was Savillum.
Even for his time, Savillum was considered a “rustic” recipe with very few ingredients, including fresh ricotta or farmer’s cheese, flour, eggs, poppy seeds, and honey (since Romans didn’t have cane sugar). Some recipes even include bay leaves for a savory, sweet taste.
Although Savillum isn’t exactly the cheesecake of today, it has a similar palette, minus the added sugar and graham cracker crust. Without Cato’s recording of this ancient Roman recipe, we may have never come to know and taste the wonderful cheesecake we love today!
Romans Loved Honey!
Romans were the first to follow the traditional dining customs we know today – an appetizer to start, the main course, and then a dessert to finish. This means Savillum would have been served at the end of the meal as a dessert.
Most desserts that Romans ate were sweetened with honey. They also used fruits like dates and figs to sweeten their recipes. Since Rome wasn’t privy to sugar, they used an abundance of honey.
Even once sugar was widely available to other cultures, it would have taken too long to ship, plus it was expensive. Honey continued to be Rome’s staple choice of sweetener and still is today by tradition.
Honey was available everywhere in Rome, as beekeeping was an important profession in their culture. Central locations for beekeeping were on the islands of Malta and Sicily. Romans were known for making the best quality honey with many different flavors.
They not only used honey to sweeten desserts like Savillum, but they used it to make sauces for meat. Honey was also used to create a traditional beverage called “hydromel,” a non-alcoholic drink that consisted of honey, water, and spices.
They also prized honey for its medicinal properties and used it to treat wounds, headaches, ulcers, digestive problems, sore throats, and coughs. Athletes even used honey as it was believed to increase their performance significantly. It is said that runners in the ancient world ate Savillum of all things as a post-race snack to recover!
Savillum was also a popular wedding or festival cake during its time. There are three recipes within Cato the Elder’s book that were intended to be used for religious events – one of them being Savillum (honey cheesecake), and the others Libum (unleavened bread with cheese) and Placenta Cake (a layered cheese and honey pastry similar in appearance to baklava).
Romans Loved Cheese!
We have the Romans (and many other cultures) to thank for cheese. Ancient Roman food not only consisted of eating honey, drinking wine, and drizzling olive oil on practically anything – they loved their cheese.
Cheese, much like bread, has been a comfort food for centuries. In ancient Rome, cheesemaking was an art form that involved many different methods we still use today. It was quite the enterprise, too, as Romans valued foreign cheese and were regularly transporting and trading cheeses with other countries along the Mediterranean.
Romans mostly used goat’s milk to make their cheese. They had skilled cheesemakers throughout their cities who made artisan cheeses with different texture and flavors. These Roman cheesemakers are credited today with being the first to ripen, age, and store cheese. One of the Roman cheeses we still eat is Pecorino Romano.
Cheese was eaten as an appetizer or snack, and of course, to make sweet treats like Savillum. Whether poor or rich, cheese was a food loved by everyone.
How to Make Savillum
Now that you know how much Romans enjoyed cheese and honey, it’s time to make Savillum! Some of you may be wondering, is Savillum cheesecake gluten-free? The answer is no, but fortunately, it can be made gluten-free by swapping out the regular all-purpose flour with gluten-free flour.
- 3 c. ricotta cheese
- 1 c. all-purpose flour
- 6 Tbs. honey, plus more for drizzling
- 1 egg
- 2-3 Tbs. poppy seeds
- Preheat oven to 400° F.
- In a bowl, mix together the cheese, flour, 6 Tbs. of honey, and egg.
- Grease a cake pan and pour in the batter, distributing evenly.
- Bake for the first 30 minutes uncovered.
- Place a piece of aluminum foil over the top for the remaining 10-15 minutes, or until the cake has set.
- Once it has cooled, top with additional honey and poppy seeds.
- With the oven OFF, place the cake back in the oven for an additional 5 minutes. Serve warm or cold.
Bring out the Togas and Savillum!
Whether you’re planning a toga party to wrap up your kids’ chapter on ancient Rome, or you’re just looking for a quick and easy dessert – Savillum is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
For more ancient Roman resources and recipes, check out our Ancient Rome Project Passport. We also have other Project Passports, including Greece, Egypt, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance and Reformation.