Cato’s libum (recipe)

If you’ve always wanted to try cooking some ancient Roman dishes but couldn’t find a source of flamingo tongues on the Internet, rewind. Such exotica were scarcely the norm. Rather, today’s locavore, farm-to-table proponents would be right at home with the basic Roman diet of legumes, whole grains, wild greens, and fresh cheeses. 

Here’s a simple, surprisingly good recipe to start with, a bread made with fresh cheese (here ricotta) and flour (farro’s the best) and baked on bay leaves. It is provided by Cato the Elder, no less, in his treatise on agriculture. 

Make the libum bite-sized for cocktails or divide the dough into just two parts to make small loaves you can slice.

14 ounces good ricotta or any fresh cheese, preferably unpasteurized (ricotta should always be drained overnight in a colander)

4 ounces (approx) flour, preferably farro

1 large egg

pinch salt

several bay leaves, preferably fresh

olive oil, for the pan

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

If you are going to make loaves, line a baking pan or sheet with bay leaves and brush them lightly with olive oil. If you don't have enough leaves to cover the surface, use parchment and distribute the leaves as best you can. 

If you are going to make individual cocktail-sized libum, brush the leaves with oil (you will need one for each piece), and set aside.

Knead all the ingredients (except the bay leaves) until well blended. Add more flour if the dough seems sticky. 

Shape into a loaf, or 2 loaves, or 3 or 4 mini-loves Alternatively, pinch off pieces of dough and roll them with hands into the size and shape of a large olive. Place each one on top of a bay leaf and put it in the baking pan.

Bake for about 30 minutes or until firm and light golden brown. Keep your eye on them, because the baking time will depend on the size of your libum (of course).