How to Make the 2000-Year-Old “Pizza” Discovered on a Pompeii Fresco

Just last month, we fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture the dis­cov­ery of a Pom­pei­ian fres­co pur­port­ed to depict an ancient ances­tor of piz­za. For most of us piz­za-lov­ing mil­lions — nay, bil­lions — around the world, this was a notable curios­i­ty but for Max Miller, it was clear­ly a chal­lenge. As the cre­ator of the hit Youtube chan­nel Tast­ing His­to­ry, each of whose episodes involves faith­ful re-cre­ation of dish­es from eras past, he could­n’t pos­si­bly have ignored this devel­op­ment. But it also pos­es even stiffer dif­fi­cul­ties than most of his culi­nary projects, pro­vid­ing him not a recipe to work with but a pic­ture, and not a par­tic­u­lar­ly detailed pic­ture at that.

The fres­co’s genre is xenia, which, Miller explains in the video above, “comes from the Greek word that referred to a sort of social con­tract between hosts and guests.” The ancient Roman archi­tect Vit­ru­vius (he whose work inspired Leonar­do’s Vit­ru­vian Man) described how the Greeks, after becom­ing wealthy, “began pro­vid­ing din­ing rooms, cham­bers, and store­rooms of pro­vi­sions for their guests.”

The food and drink they brought out for their din­ner par­ties became the sub­ject of xenia art­works like this fres­co from Pom­peii, which hap­pens to include a famil­iar-look­ing round bread. What’s more, “some schol­ars have sug­gest­ed that one of the ingre­di­ents that prob­a­bly is on this bread is sort of piz­za-like, inso­far as it is a kind of spread­able cheese.”

The qual­i­ty of that ingre­di­ent, called more­tum, seem­ing­ly makes or breaks this ancient piz­za, and so Miller spends most of the video explain­ing its prepa­ra­tion, draw­ing details from a poem attrib­uted to Vir­gil. Those fol­low­ing along in their own kitchens will need to gath­er a cou­ple heads of gar­lic, large hand­fuls of pars­ley and cilantro, a small hand­ful of rue, and ten ounces of white cheese. When you’ve made the more­tum, you can bake the Roman bread, loaves of which were pre­served by the explo­sion of Mount Vesu­vius, then spread on the more­tum and “top it with things like white cheese, dates, pome­gran­ates, or what­ev­er else you saw in the fres­co.” Miller notes that actu­al Pom­pei­ians prob­a­bly would­n’t have sliced the final prod­uct, but rather picked off and eat­en its top­pings one-by-one before get­ting around to the bread: a piz­za con­sump­tion method prac­ticed by more than a few of us mod­erns, at least in child­hood.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A New­ly Dis­cov­ered Fres­co in Pom­peii Reveals a Pre­cur­sor to Piz­za

His­tor­i­cal Ital­ian Cook­ing: How to Make Ancient Roman & Medieval Ital­ian Dish­es

The First Piz­za Ordered by Com­put­er, 1974

A Culi­nary Videos Series Shows Every Con­ceiv­able Way to Cook Eggs, Pota­toes, Piz­za, Bacon & More

A Tour of All the Piz­za Styles You Can Eat in the Unit­ed States (and the His­to­ry Behind Your Favorite Slices)

Tast­ing His­to­ry: A Hit YouTube Series Shows How to Cook the Foods of Ancient Greece & Rome, Medieval Europe, and Oth­er Places & Peri­ods

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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