By Dr Pavlos Triantafyllidis
Director of the Archaeological Ephorate of Lesvos
Deputy Director of the Archaeological Ephorate of Samos and Ikaria
Affluent and dignified Archestratus of Gela is travelling from Syracuse to Lesbos on a seaworthy ship of the 4th cent. BC transporting amphorae, foodstuffs, and trading goods; he’s off, with the curiosity of a gourmet, to savour the island’s special flavours and include them in his gastronomic poem Hedypatheia (Life in Luxury), fragments of which reached us through quotes in Deipnosophistae by Athenaeus:
‘Take these most excellent things, the well-made cake
Of fruitful barley, in fair Lesbos grown,
On the circumfluous hill of Eresus;
Whiter than driven snow, if it be true
That these are loaves such as the gods do eat,
Which Mercury their steward buys for them…’
‘I always do account the fish call’d salpe […] And the choicest kinds/Are caught at Lesbos.’, or ‘Parium produces crabs […] and Lesbos periwinkles…’
Archestratus’ admiration for the cuisine of Lesbos only hints the level of historical continuity of the Greek diet and its flavours, preserved from antiquity to the modern gastronomy of the north-eastern Aegean: Lesbos produces olive oil, wine, ouzo and husbandry products; Lemnos, the ‘divine’, grains and wine… Widely exported and renowned products, they lure aspiring connoisseurs of our times, only to satisfy their sophisticated palates.
But which were the elements that shaped the unique character of ancient Greek gastronomy? What daily culinary practices did the Greeks and Romans follow?
A comparative investigation of literary and archaeological records available reveals that antiquity’s gastronomy was founded upon raw materials of the temperate habitats of the Mediterranean land and sea: olive oil, vegetables, honey, wine; wheat and barley grains; legumes; lamb and goat; fish, seashells, octopuses and squids, were the basic Greek ingredients ̶ exactly as nowadays ̶ and their authentic and unique flavours remain to date. Cooked in simple methods, they formed the particularity of Greek and later of Roman cuisine, while the dishes produced followed the valuable, now and then, five golden rules of gastronomy as set by epicurean Archestratus:
- Use raw food materials of good quality
- Combine them harmoniously
- Avoid hot sauces and spices that cover the other tastes
- Prefer lighter sauces to enjoy the meal
- Use spices moderately, so as to not interfere with natural flavours
The ‘Sirens of Flavour’ of the temporary exhibition in the new building of the Archaeological Museum of Lesbos, lure us to ancient cuisine, to the rich meals often accompanied with music, the so-called opson that consisted of bread complemented by vegetables, cheeses, eggs, fish (fresh, salted or dried) and rarely meat. More ‘exotic’ delicacies were also served as the distinctive Achaean cheese, Attica’s figs and honey, the dark aithopas wine of Chios and Lesbos, seafood from fish-abundant Euboea, prunes of Damascus, barley bread of Pylos, mashed yellow peas, green pea soups, teganites (pancakes) fried in oil and topped with honey, mare’s milk cheese, boiled bulbs; also, radishes to sober-up the drunkenness after over-consuming wine and sweet delicacies, the nogalevmata, as cakes with cheese and honey.
For the less advantaged, the menu was rather limited: cereals, wild greens, roots, oak acorns with honey, lupin beans, and bread made of barley or wheat.
The Greeks had three to four meals a day. The first was quite frugal, the akratismos, served at sunrise and consisting of barley bread dipped in wine, accompanied by figs or olives. The second, called ariston was served around noon or early in the afternoon. Before supper they took a light meal, the esperisma. The deipnon was taken at nightfall and was the most important and rich meal of the day; it was then when friends or other acquaintances were invited for the ‘symposium’ that followed, a drink-together strictly among men (although their mistresses were sometimes present) featuring entertainment troupes, harp-playing singers, dancers, and courtesans.
As a rule of thumb, women ate separately from men. If the house was small, the men ate first and the women had to wait until they finished to eat afterwards. The slaves were the waiters, yet Aristotle notes that ‘the poor, having no slaves, would ask their wives or children to serve food.’
The dining room, the andronas (‘andros’ meaning of man) was infused with the fragrances of scented oils and flower-garland decorations. In the wealthy houses, opulent rooms, the triclinia, were typically furnished with three or more couches, the clines, accommodating up to three and placed in a Π shape on the side-walls as suggested by the mosaics on the floor that run along the walls. This arrangement facilitated circulation and visual contact between diners. The left couch was ordained for the host and his family, the middle for the honoured person, and the right for the other guests; they lay on them and took their meal from small side-tables with the dishes. In occasions as such, the host hired extra slaves, servers, and cooks.
And so the feast begins… Round bread loaves were served in baskets, followed by the courses, one after the other: tasteful starters, fresh fruits, seashells, roast birds, salted sturgeons and tuna fish, meat relishes accompanied by fragrant sauces. The meal continued with the day’s catch of fish and culminated with lamb or goat roasted in the pot or on spits.
Pieces of flatbread could be used instead of plates, however shallow terracotta bowls were the most common utensil; in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods though, the most luxurious were made of silver or glass. Cutlery was not often used: the fork was unknown at the time and people ate with their fingers; knives were used though, to cut meat, also small spoons for soups and broths. The apomagdalia, the soft crumb of breads, was used to spoon food or as a napkin to wipe the fingers.
When the meal was over, the tables with the leftovers were removed and replaced by clean ones with the tragimata, the after-dinner snacks: dried chestnuts, walnuts and broad beans or toasted wheat, fresh or dried fruits were served to accompany wine; sweets and honey-cakes to absorb the alcohol and extend the drinking spree.
Wine would flow in abundance; it was cut with water in proportions determined by the host who had to control the desirable progression of the entertainment and the guests’ dizziness so that everybody would have the clarity to participate in what would follow. This is when the dinner became a symposium, a time for wine-drinking, conversation, and merriment. It usually begun with a libation to honour god Dionysus; then the guests started discussing or playing table games, lying all the time on the couches, while the low tables were now also used to place games. Professional dancers, acrobats and musicians would complete the night’s entertainment.
The symposium was a significant socializing event of Ancient Greece organized privately by a host to entertain his friends or family, exactly as done today with dinner parties. However, it could also be a gathering of members of a community, the so called koinon, of social or religious groups.
The most popular beverage to accompany meals and symposiums was wine, white, red or rosé. The literary testimonies on ancient wine are many and refer to all the different cultivations relevant to those consumed daily or to valuable vintages. Renowned vineyards were on the islands of Naxos and Ikaria, and to the north on Chios, Lesbos, and Thasos. Inferior quality wines were produced from water mixed with grape-must and its residues, consumed mainly by country people. Some enhanced its sweetness with honey, while wine was made medicinal when mixed with cinnamon, thyme and other herbs. Reported famous wine-producing areas were also the coasts of Asia Minor across the islands of the North Aegean. Those from Lesbos, Ikaria (the so-called Pramnios wine) and the amber-coloured variety had a natural aroma of the sea: they were favourites already from the classical era (5th cent. BC).
Akratos (unmixed wine) was unsuitable for daily consumption; it had to be mixed in a vessel, the krater from which the slaves filed the cups with the help of a jug. According to Aelian, the wine from Heraia in Arcadia rendered men foolish and women fertile; conversely, Achaean wine was thought to cause miscarriage. Wine reserved for local use was kept in skins; those to be sold were poured into pithoi (large terracotta jugs) then transferred into amphorae, sealed, and sold one by one domestically or transported to other regions by ship. Vintage wines carried stamps from the producers or the city magistrates who guaranteed their origin, this being the first example in history of a practice continued until now.
Also belonging to the wines category was passum mentioned by Roman poet Martial; sweet, made from sun-dried grapes (as the sweetener stafiditis) with a deep colour. The most famous was found in Crete while today’s equivalent is the Vin de Paille produced in Italy and France. Pliny describes how it was made in Crete:
‘Some persons make this wine of the sweet and early white grape: they leave the grapes to dry in the sun, until they have lost pretty nearly half their weight, after which they crush them and subject them to a gentle pressure. They then draw off the juice…The more careful makers not only do this, but take care also after drying the grapes to remove the stalks, and then steep the raisins in wine of good quality until they swell, after which they press them. This kind of raisin-wine is preferred to all others…’
The Latin writer on agriculture Columella offers detailed instructions on manufacturing passum in which it’s clear that one of its variations based on red wine was suitable for cooking; it can be reproduced on a smaller scale for use in modern cuisine.
Vegetables and condiments covered the largest part of the daily fare. Literary sources name many vegetables: chard, dandelion and amaranth greens, endives, cabbage, leek, capers, wild artichoke, lettuce, mountain spinach, purslane, asparagus, watercress, sorrel. Condiments and spices used were mainly sesame, poppy, and flax seeds; moreover, almonds, oregano, thyme, raisins, onions, wormwood, aniseed, sumac, lovage, cumin and mustard seeds.
Aromatic herbs as fennel, basil, dill, rocket, nettles, cilantro, oregano, garlic, caraway, pennyroyal, spearmint, rue, salep, and savory were added mostly to appetizers. But the herb with a special place in Greek and Roman cuisine was silphion, imported from Cyrene (nowadays Libya) in the form of dried sap or sprouts. It was grated and mixed with cheese, vinegar, and olive oil to flavour meat before roasting, or sprinkled over fish to give them a special aroma. Over-consumption and unsuccessful efforts to grow it elsewhere lead to its disappearance. Similar to silphion was a resin from Persia made from asafoetida of the fennel family found in central Asia; also lovage that had a strong bitter taste and was used mainly in fish and pulses dishes.
Cereals and legumes were the staple foods, usually dried and stored to be consumed after soaked in water. Dried beans and peas were made into a thick soup called etnos but also cooked raw either alone or with chickpeas or boiled meat. Lentils were among the most popular and considered a wholesome daily meal. Dried chickpeas were served as a main dish and a dessert and raw only when fresh and tender. Unripen black-eyed peas were also edible, while more rare pulses were vetch, bitter vetch, yellow split peas, and wild lentils. Especially the lower classes ate a lot of beans, chickpeas, lentils, and broad beans.
Their breads were either unleavened or leavened and backed in ovens or hearths; together with barley gruel, they were the most simple and basic forms of cereals. Flours of two or six-row barley, semidalis (the finest wheat flour), alphiton (roasted barley and cracked wheat groats), chondros (coarse emmer), and krimnon (coarsely ground barley) were made into porridges or soups as ami or amitisko; also into milk-cakes and amylo, a dried pasta similar to the produced to date trahanas and specifically its ‘sweet’ kind.
Top quality flour was used to make plakountes i.e. sweet or savoury pies or cakes. The process followed was the same with kneading bread but with the addition of more ingredients in the dough as milk, cheese, eggs, olive oil, fat, dill, fennel, cumin, pepper, and more; sometimes walnuts, almonds, and raisins. Renowned were those made in Attica, Samos, Crete, Rhodes, Cappadocia, and Paros.
For the city folk, fresh vegetables and fruits were very pricey and thus, consumed rarely. The poor had to eat them dried. The average workman ate an excess of lentils and the usual soldier’s fare was cheese, garlic, and onions. Aristophanes often links the consumption of onions to soldiers as in his comedy Peace, when the Chorus celebrates the end of war singing ‘No more helmet, no more cheese, nor onions.’
The sine qua non ingredients of the dishes in Greek and Roman cuisine were honey, eggs, and dairy products. Honey was considered important especially in pastry-making since it was the main sweetener along with dry dates, dry figs and grape molasses.
Quails, ducks, geese and hens were bred for their eggs; they were served boiled either hard or soft, as hors d’oeuvres or desserts. Pheasant, peacock and Egyptian goose eggs were a highly esteemed rarity. In addition, both yolks and egg whites where used as ingredients in many dishes.
Milk was quite popular but seldom used in cooking. Butter was known but not widely consumed either; it was considered a culinary trait of the people of Thrace whom the comic poet Anaxandrides called ‘butter-eaters’. Yet, other dairy products were widely appreciated as pyriati, the curdled milk often mistaken for yogurt.
Cheese was included regularly in the Greek diet, produced either from goat or sheep milk. A distinction was made between soft, fresh cheeses and hard ones which were sold in different shops while the former cost about two thirds of the latter’s price. Cheese was eaten alone or with honey or vegetables. It was also used as an ingredient in the preparation of many recipes, including fish dishes.
Juicy fruits as apples, quinces, watermelons, melons, peaches, apricots, citrus, lemons, plums, cherries, cucumbers and pumpkins were offered as appetizers or desserts. Sweet dried fruits such as figs, raisins, pears, grapes, dates, berries and pomegranates but also nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, roasted chestnuts and beechnuts, pine-nuts) were served in the symposiums as the main snacks.
The appreciation of the Greeks for fish varies depending on the era. In Homer’s Iliad there is no mention of eating fish, only of roasted meat. The philosopher Plato ascribes this to the strict customs of the time, but it seems that fish were considered a poor man’s meal. In the Odyssey, the companions of Ulysses ate fish but only because they were suffering from starvation after passing the Scylla and Charybdis strait. Conversely, in the classical period, fish is transmuted into a luxury foodstuff highly prized by gourmets. Indeed, literary accounts of the Hellenistic period confirm this, as Lynkeus of Samos who focuses on the art of buying fish in low prices.
Of course, all seafood did not cost the same: A stele of the 3rd cent. BC from the city Akraifnia in the Lake Copais region provides a price list probably to protect the buyers from speculators. The cheapest fish was scarus (sprat) while the belly of bluefin tuna was three times as expensive. Sardines, anchovies, and smelt were more affordable and consumed daily by the ancient Athenians. The same category includes yellow fin tuna, sea bream, ray, swordfish, and sturgeon, the latter being a delicacy eaten salted. Lake Copais was famous all over Greece for its eels, celebrated in the comedy The Acharnians by Aristophanes. References on fresh water fish include pike-fish, carp, and the less appreciated catfish.
The Greeks enjoyed other seafood, too: cuttlefish, octopuses, squids, roasted or fried, served as appetizers or side dishes and in symposiums. Seafood of a larger size was included in gourmet dishes. Poet Eriphos ascribes cuttlefish, tuna’s belly and conger eel as fit for the Gods, unattainable to those that could not afford them. Cuttlefish and octopuses were the customary gift offered in the Amphidromia, the celebration in which parents gave names to their children. As far as mollusks are concerned, ancient sources refer to eating conch, mussels, abalones, clams, limpets, pinnas and scallops, while Galen was the first to report the consumption of cooked oysters. Crabs were also appreciated, as lobsters, sea urchins, and crayfish.
The salty ingredients in the Greek and Roman diet were fish sauces and salt-cured fish. Essential in almost all recipes was garos or liquamen, a thin sauce with a very strong smell: fish entrails were placed in ceramic pots and fermented for three months in brine, then sieved and the liquid bottled in amphorae and other vessels to be sold. The comic Plato was the first to mention the characteristic pungent odour of garos when referring to the ‘rotten fish sauce’; its whiff during fermentation was so unpleasant that its production in cities was prohibited.
Crustaceans were preserved in brine with vinegar, while fish only in brine. Salted tuna from the city Byzantium, depending on its variety, ageing and recipe, was the most popular salted fish in the Hellenic world along with mackerel that was sold salted or smoked.
The throughout the ages fish-eating of the islanders of Lesbos and their persistence to breed and trade fish is confirmed by the many ancient fish farms found. A significant discovery was that of a Roman fish tank (6.50 x 5.50 m) in the city of Lesbos at the corner of Venizelos and Myroyannis streets in the area Makris Yalos, near to the ancient coastline. A system transferring sea water and vertical incisions for internal divisions depending on the fish cultivated, confirm its use for fish-breeding.
The consumption of roast or boiled meat in antiquity is related mainly to home bred animals and more rarely to wild animals and birds, i.e. game that was not adequate enough. Sheep, pigs, and goats were the basic animals providing meat; beef and veal was quite rare. Hare, boar, wild goat, onager, deer and roe deer were very sought after delicacies. Uncommon choices were dog, horse, bear, and lion.
The meat of tamed or wild birds was considered exquisite: cocks, woodcocks, moorhens, ducks, geese, pheasants, peacocks, blackbirds, jackdaws, larks, jays, but also sparrows, goldfinches and fig-peckers. Much sought after and ‘divine’ treats were bone marrow, cured meats, white innards, sow’s paunch after miscarriage, and mimarkys, a soup containing hare’s blood.
Consuming fish and meat was linked to the wealth and location of the household: farmers would hunt or place traps to catch birds and hares while they also bred chickens and geese since they had farmyards. The slightly wealthier could raise sheep, goats, and pigs. In the cities, meat was expensive except for pork: in the time of Aristophanes a piglet cost three drachmas, a sum equivalent to three day’s wages of a public servant. In Athens of the classical period most of the people ate meat only in celebrations, usually lamb or goat. Consuming meat was capital in the context of religious festivals: the portion of the Gods (fat and bones) was thrown into the fire, while that of the mortals (lean meat) was shared among those participating. At the same time, the heyday of a trade can be observed, that of roasted or cured meats, correlated also with religious rituals and sacrifices. It’s noteworthy that the typical technique of the Greek butcher was to cut the pieces of equal weight and not along the limbs.
The typical way to cook in ancient Greece and Rome was over the hearth and in ovens built with ceramic bricks and tiles usually located in the distant parts of the house but always near the peristyle in order to serve the family and guests directly from the cooking area. Besides, the ready dishes were placed on open shelves and kept warm close to the fire and the oven. Herbs, cheeses, poultry and smoked meats would hang from the ceiling’s beams; amphorae filled with garos or wine, pitchers with water and sweeteners, bowls with condiments, spices, and dried herbs would complement the necessary ingredients to cook in the ancient Greek and Roman style.