Cato's Punic Porridge
The Romans waged war against Carthage not once, but three times. It seems unusual then that a notable Roman author and ardent patriot would record a recipe of the enemy. This recipe offers a rare taste of Punic cuisine you can prepare in your own kitchen.
A fanciful painting of the Battle of Zama (Second Punic War) by Cornelis Cort, c. 1567, Art Institute of Chicago.
At three points in its history, the Roman Republic waged war against Carthage. The most famous of these is probably the Second Punic War, when Hannibal’s Carthaginian army crossed the Alps with war elephants and entered Italy. This event, though, is only one tableau of the struggle between the two city-states.
The Punic Wars spanned a massive period of time — about 120 years — and as Rome and Carthage jockeyed for control of the western Mediterranean, they drew in other powers like Syracuse and Macedon, and tribes from Numidia, Liguria, and Iberia. At the end of the wars, in 146 BC, Rome finally defeated Carthage and secured its place as the supreme military and political power in the ancient world.
While Rome was triumphant, its opponent was destroyed. Many inhabitants of Carthage were enslaved and the whole city was razed at the end of the Third Punic War. Because of this obliteration, much of the literature and knowledge of Punic culture and everyday life was lost. Therefore a surviving record of Punic cuisine is especially precious, but the one here came from a Roman author, not a Carthaginian.
It was written down by Cato, known by many epithets (the Censor, the Wise, the Ancient), but most famously the Elder. Cato the Elder was a soldier turned senator who was notably conservative, staunchly opposing Hellenization and trying to revive Rome’s ancient customs. He also fiercely promoted war against Carthage: during his time as senator, he was said to end all of his speeches with some version of Carthago delenda est, or “Carthage must be destroyed.”
It seems interesting that a figure so hostile toward another state should care to describe its cuisine, of all things. I thought it was equally curious how simple the recipe was. Apart from honey, there is no real flavoring, in contrast to Roman cuisine and its profuse use of herbs and sauces (at least in the gourmet recipes of Apicius). Regardless of the reason behind Cato’s publication of this recipe, below is a version in Latin and one in English, from his book De agri cultura (On Farming):
Pultem punicam sic coquito. Libram alicae in aquam indito, facito uti bene madeat. Id infundito in alveum purum, eo casei recentis p. III, mellis p. S, ovum unum, omnia una permisceto bene. Ita insipito in aulam novam.
Punic porridge is made as follows. Soak a pound of alica until soft. Transfer it to another dish and add three pounds of curd cheese, half a pound of honey and an egg. Knead this into a mass and pour into a new bowl.
At first sight, I thought, Three pounds of cheese? That’s absurd! However, the Roman pound (libra) was about ¾ of our modern pound. That’s about 329 grams to the approximately 454-gram pound we use today. Cato’s recipe still makes for a lot of porridge, so in my recreation, I followed the same proportions of ingredients but not the exact measurements.
I ran into a bit of a quandary while reading the recipe. The grain in the recipe is called alica, and can either refer to hulled wheat kernels (groats), specifically spelt, or the grits made from them. I couldn’t find ground spelt and wasn’t wanting to make my own grits, so I used farro. For modern chefs, farro is probably the closest grain to alica, since farro refers to spelt and other related strains of wheat. Also, as it’s tricky and impractical to use, say, ¾ of an egg, I just kept the whole egg for my recipe. Here’s my rendition of Cato the Elder's puls Punica:
½ cup of farro
1½ cups of ricotta cheese
¼ cup of honey
Pour the farro into a bowl. Add water, with at least enough to cover the farro (I used twice as much water, so 1 cup). Let farro soak overnight. Drain the water from the bowl in the morning and pour the farro into a pan. Just cover the farro with water and simmer on low heat, about 10 minutes. Strain off the water from the pan and replace the farro. In a separate bowl, beat the egg. Add the cheese and the beaten egg to the pan, keeping it on low heat, and stir until the egg is entirely mixed. Make sure the mixture doesn’t boil. Add the honey to the pan and mix. Take the pan off the heat and pour into a bowl to serve.
Pictures of my ingredients and the finished dish with a glass of deliciously sour posca, a drink Cato was reportedly fond of.
I was expecting something like oatmeal, knowing that this recipe is for porridge, but the consistency was very different. With as much cheese as the recipe called for, it felt more like custard or pudding than a bowl of grain. I really loved the dish — it was sweet and filling, and reminded me of a dessert more than it did a cheap staple. I also enjoyed opening a window, albeit a small one, into a civilization that was reviled by the Romans and has for so long been overlooked by broader Western culture, and found it especially interesting to do so through food.