And so I decided to make some Pesto. It is a paste of herbs that originated in Genoa in the Liguria region of Northern Italy. It is made by crushing garlic with basil leaves, pine nuts, blended with some olive oil, Parmesan or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (made from cow’s milk) and including Fiore Sardo, a cheese made from sheep’s milk [1] and the name originates from the Italian verb Pestare , which means “to pound”, “to crush” [2] I’ll never know if the ancient Romans made Pesto, but they certainly made a cheese, garlic and parsley paste called Moretum, which is mentioned in Virgil’s poem of the same name, although Moretum translates as ‘The Salad’ [3] This is a poem for Pesto, it’s not an epic like Virgil wrote in imitation of his teacher Parthenius, where he spoke of Symilus, the husbandman who scoured his kitchen and his garden plot to concoct a very garlicky spread for his unleavened corn bread, with the help of his African housekeeper, Scybale.  

I find Moretum interesting in that  it shows the ubiquity of herb pastes through the millennia and is an important poem since the unofficial motto of the USA, “E Pluribus Unum” (“from many, one”), finds it’s origins here. It is on the Great Seal of the United States, which was adopted in 1782 [4]  It was only in 1956 that the President approved a Joint Resolution of the 84th Congress declaring “In God We Trust” as the official national motto of the USA [5] Moretum in fact drew my attention with the mention of corn bread and an accompanying paste, so I took a closer look. 
In a blog maintained by  David Wilson-Okamura, he includes the poem [6] scanned from Joseph J. Mooney translation of “The Minor Poems of Vergil ” which notes that the Latin “Moretum,” which is usually translated salad, would be better called “cheese and garlic paste,” and that it seems to have been a somewhat attractive subject to ancient poets. I have added the notes for reference below. 

For his corn bread, Symilus bid his housekeeper Sybale lay some logs on the embers of an evening fire and boil some chilly water. Meanwhile, he has ground, twice eight pounds in weight of cornmeal which he proceeds to sieve onto a smooth board as he mixes the tepid water into it to knead a dough. Now the poem is quite simply the mundanity of waking up in the morning and making corn bread but this one was written in dactylic hexameter so it might have sounded nice in a classical tongue like Latin which took it’s cue from Homer’s, where a dactylic hexameter has six feet, each foot a dactyl, of a long and two short syllables. Here is a wonderfully short introduction to the rhythm of ancient Epic poetry [7] Symilus flattens the unleavened but salted bread into round cakes and places them on the hearth that has since been cleaned for him by Sybale. Virgil’s  measurements confound me. He used sixteen ancient pounds [8] of cornmeal for breakfast, that is 5.262 kg or 11.6 lb today [9] That’s too much of bread for breakfast, I’m sure he intended sharing it with his housekeeper but his mood that morning wasn’t particularly magnanimous as he was “solicitous about the coming day’s unpleasant emptiness “, so he was quite intent on feeding himself.

He needed something to go with his flat cakes and since he had no smoking meat hung above the hearth, nor salt cured backs and sides of bacon, except for some cheese hanging by a rope of broom and an ancient bundle of dill, he went out to his garden plot instead. There he finds himself amongst his cabbages, leafy beets, fruitful sorrel ( I should think this may have been green leafy Rumex or it may have been the fruit of the Roselle hibiscus that is great for a ruby red infusion), elecampane (like sunflower), mallows (Family – Malvaceae that consists of varieties of Hibiscus), parsnips, leeks, poppies, lettuce, radishes and big belly gourds. Some of these were not meant for the owner, but for sale at the market, from where he would return with his purse heavy but without any meat. He reflects on what he may use from the garden and his thoughts dwell over ruddy onions, leeks, acrid cress, endives, colewort (like Kale) which to Symilus, “recalls the lagging wish for sexual delights” when finally he digs from his garden everything he needs to make his Moretum. He digs up four bulbs of garlic, collects unspecified amounts of graceful foliage of parsley, stiffness causing rue (a bitter tasting edible plant that can be toxic), salt, cheese, coriander seeds, places them in his mortar “And with his left hand ‘neath his hairy groin’ supports his garment;” and he proceeds to grind it with his pestle. Out of many, comes a single colour that is not entirely green nor milky white, “color est e pluribus unus“, which except for one letter is the unofficial motto of the USA. Symilus also adds some olive oil and a scant amount of vinegar and grinds the paste to a ball. I can imagine him doing this because in my home state of Goa, the huge traditional floor mounted mortars and pestles also achieve a similar consistency of a ball, in the grinding of fresh coconut, plenty of chilli peppers and aromatic spices along with water. Thus Symilus, assailed by the vapour of garlic, curses his early meal while wiping the tears in his eyes from the smoke, and he heaps revulsion on that too as he rages. Finally “into one coherent ball doth bring the diff’rent portions, that it may the name and likeness of a finished salad fit ” he has his Moretum.

color est e pluribus unus
and out of many comes a single colour (from Virgil's Moretum)

"His hand in circles move:
Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour, not entirely green
Because the milky fragments this forbid,
Nor showing white as from the milk because
That colour’s altered by so many herbs."

"It manus in gyrum:
dextera pistillo primum flagrantia mollit
alia, tum pariter mixto terit omnia suco.
It manus in gyrum: paulatim singula vires
deperdunt proprias; color est e pluribus unus,
nec totus viridis, quia lactea frusta repugnant,
nec de lacte nitens, quia tot variatur ab herbis."

I enjoyed working my way through Virgil’s poem and wished to dedicate my own to the making of Pesto. It has been written in the narrative technique of a stream of consciousness writing, a type where the thoughts and emotions of a narrator or character are written in a way that the reader can follow the mental state as an observer [10] It is a technique I discovered in the novel “To the Lighthouse ” by Virginia Woolf, (1927) [11]. This novel reads like a long prose poem and is genuinely a beautiful literary work. In it, there’s a fictional character called Lily Briscoe, a painter who represents the artist that Woolf considers ideal; in that she melds the rationality of the masculine with the sympathy of the feminine. The book explores a household through the eyes of this Lily Briscoe, who struggles with articulating these gendered dimensions in her painting, all the while as the author herself paints the most vivid and compelling portrait of each and every one of her characters. It inspired me to write the poem to Pesto using this Woolfian stream of consciousness technique. Enjoy the poem and the recipe therein. 

Pesto ~ davina e. solomon

There was basil aging by the kitchen window, threatening to flower and garlic was mutinying encased in nibbi* , shooting snubs at complacent onions. It's beautiful, she thought, hardly still life in a basket. What would a painter make of it ? Would his eyes glisten at the tint of emerald, as she laid out a bed of fragrant leaves, some of those pungent cloves ... Would he squeeze his brush as the juice flowed from a sunny lemon, down her wrist  and the olive oil that was thick like a moment in a dream, as they reached out to the mortar. She counted out a handful of almonds, substituted them for pine nuts. Aren't recipes like poems written for women by women, merely substitutions in a culinary science ? In the test kitchen of man, his skill would be abundant as his oils would drop almonds onto a table, pleated only in paint. Her hair she bundles up, dark as Algorab, grinding crystals of a salty constellation into this mixture that now gleams in the viridian of summer. She feels his hand on the gesso, laying the flush on her cheek, the wisps of hair stilled on canvas, for how can he capture her fluster as she grinds a fine pesto. She glances at her virridescent poem that fades in specks of cheese, like a palette she never thought she had. Would she make a poet of him as she escapes his canvas to the aurora in her own?
A recipe for Moretum from Virgil's Moretum

He then the garden entered, first when there
With fingers having lightly dug the earth
Away, he garlic roots with fibres thick,
And four of them doth pull; he after that
Desires the parsley's graceful foliage,
And stiffness-causing rue,' and, trembling on
Their slender thread, the coriander seeds,
And when he has collected these he comes
And sits him down beside the cheerful fire
And loudly for the mortar asks his wench.
Then singly each o' th' garlic heads be strips
From knotty body, and of outer coats
Deprives them, these rejected doth he throw
Away and strews at random on the ground.
The bulb preserved from th' plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th' hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.
Th' aforesaid herbs he now doth introduce
And with his left hand 'neath his hairy groin
Supports his garment;' with his right he first
The reeking garlic with the pestle breaks,
Then everything he equally doth rub
I' th' mingled juice. His hand in circles move:
Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour, not entirely green
Because the milky fragments this forbid,
Nor showing white as from the milk because
That colour's altered by so many herbs.
The vapour keen doth oft assail the man's
Uncovered nostrils, and with face and nose
Retracted doth he curse his early meal;
With back of hand his weeping eyes he oft
Doth wipe, and raging, heaps reviling on
The undeserving smoke. The work advanced:
No longer full of jottings as before,
But steadily the pestle circles smooth
Described. Some drops of olive oil he now
Instils, and pours upon its strength besides
A little of his scanty vinegar,
And mixes once again his handiwork,
And mixed withdraws it: then with fingers twain
Round all the mortar doth he go at last
And into one coherent ball doth bring
The diff'rent portions, that it may the name
And likeness of a finished salad fit.


*Nibbi ~  Nibbi is from Heteropsis flexuosa (Araceae). The aerial roots of Heteropsis flexuosa are harvested by indigenous communities in South America for a developing wicker furniture

MoretumThe Latin “moretum,” which is usually translated salad, would be better called “cheese and garlic paste.” It seems to have been a somewhat attractive subject to ancient poets. A poem with this title was written by one “Sveius,” and a few lines of it are quoted by Macrobius (iii, 18). Parthenius, who was Vergil’s instructor in Greek (Macrobius, “Saturnalia,” v, 17), wrote on this subject, and in the Ambrosian MS. of Vergil there is a marginal note saying that Vergil’s poem was an imitation or translation of that of his teacher. Various late grammarians mention lines 41 and 42 as from a poem by Vergil, and Mico Levita (825-853 A.D.), who wrote a work on Latin prosody, quotes line 48 as from a work of Vergil ~ Scanned from Joseph J. Mooney (tr.), The Minor Poems of Vergil: Comprising the Culex, Dirae, Lydia, Moretum, Copa, Priapeia, and Catalepton (Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1916).