If you read about the Roman festival of Saturnalia, you'll probably pick up on three recurring themes: it was a mid-winter holiday used to chivvy and cajole people through the misery and drear of the dark season; that households would play a game where everyone, slaves included, drew lots to determine who would be 'king for a day'; and that they ate must cake.

Mid-winter festivals involving trees and candles seem largely familiar, as is playing king for a day, especially on Epiphany. But what the hell is must cake?

For our answer, we have to thank Cato the Elder, who wrote about must cake in his De Agricultura, when he wasn't wanting to destroy Carthage.

Moisten one modius of flour with must. Add anise, cumin, two pounds of lard, one pound of cheese, and the bark of a laurel twig. Shape into cakes. Place on bay leaves to bake.

As far as I was concerned, this recipe raised more questions than it answered. Exactly how much was a modius? What is must? Is a Roman pound equivalent to an imperial pound? What sort of cheese would this require? Bake for roughly how long?

Finding out the equivalent of a modius was relatively easy. It's a quarter of a bushel. If you'd like that in slightly more familiar terms, about 8.5 litres or 2½ US gallons. Yes, Cato was baking on an industrial scale here, to satisfy his entire farm.

Must. It sounds slightly stale and unpleasant, doesn't it? Actually, in this context it refers to wine-making. Must here would be what we call lees, or the sediment formed in the fermentation process, consisting mostly of grape skins and seed and spent yeast. The inclusion of this sweet, sticky residue served two purposes. First, the only raising agent available to Roman bakers was yeast, and although the yeast would have been mostly spent, it would likely still had enough life in it to prevent this recipe from being little more than a projectile manufacture undertaking for the Roman army. Second, it's the only sweetening in the cake.

Roman pounds were called librae. There were 12 ounces in one Roman libra. Nowadays, 12 ounces is 336 grams, which is strangely close to the 327.45g thought to be a Roman pound. Funny that.

Cheese. What sort of cheese to put in the cake? Before anyone pipes up: 'Who'd put cheese in a cake?' I'll quietly remind you of cheesecake. I'll also mention that it is traditional to serve a slice of cheese with saffron cake or fruit cake. Wensleydale or cheddar work beautifully. If anyone now says: 'Well, use whatever cheese Romans made,' I shall have to point out that Roman cheese manufacturing was a sophisticated process. Although they might not have enjoyed a range quite as extensive as Waitrose's deli, they used rennet, salt, and cows', sheeps', and goats' milk. Ceramic cheese presses have been excavated from Roman digs in southern England. So I'm none the wiser.

If I were to have a go at this, because I haven't yet been tempted, I'd probably try a curd cheese. It's what I use to make cheesecake, after all.

As for baking, Roman woodfired ovens didn't have thermostats, so determining for how long these cakes would have to be baked is anyone's guess. Let's go for 'Until they're cooked.'

So that's a must cake. It sounds a fairly dense concoction, heavy with lard and lacking in egg. I suppose if I were absolutely desperate I could try it using spelt flour, baking powder, and some kiddush wine in place of the must. I'd also have to omit the star anise. Eugh! That's if I were really tempted, of course. For now, I'll just wish people Io Saturnalia!

Baked with the help of

  • Roman History Books and More:
  • How many? A dictionary of weights and measurement:
  • Cato the Elder: De Agricultura, 121, trans. Hooper, WD and Ash, HB, London (1922).
  • Pliny: Naturalis Historia, XI.97, trans. Bostock, J, London (1855).