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Ancient Greek Food

Ancient Greek Food

Apart from their wisdom and the ways of political governance and warfare, the ancient Greeks have also left behind, a rich culinary legacy of varied foods that the world savors to the day. Let's take a culinary journey through ancient Greece.
Scholasticus K
Last Updated: Apr 19, 2018
French food has a lot of ancient Greek influence...
...bouillabaisse, a French fish stew, was first prepared by the Greeks in the 6th century B.C. Similarly, the French aioli is a modified version of a garlic-flavored mayonnaise, first prepared by the Greeks.
Ancient Greece has a long history of over a thousand years - not just the history of wars, plagues, rulers and tyrants, and great philosophers, but also that of common masses and their struggles to make the most of their lives. We find a lot of references to the daily life of the ancient Greeks in their literature, art, etc. These sources tell us numerous interesting things about the way they lived, the clothes they wore, the way they thought, and so on. But, apart from all this, the ancient Greek sources also speak volumes about their food and dining habits, and it includes everything from their etiquette to recipes to menu planning.
greek kitchen
Food of the ancient Greeks
The food that the ancient Greeks consumed was primarily characterized by its simplicity and economicalness. The point to be noted is that despite the culinary history of lavish banquets and symposiums, ancient Greece was predominantly an agrarian economy, and hence, not all the people could afford expensive and luxurious meals. However, three basic items formed an inevitable part of a classical meal, no matter who was supposed to consume it. These were wheat, olive oil, and wine. In other words, the ancient Greek meal was deemed to be incomplete without these three items/ingredients on the platter.
Bread formed a basic food item of the ancient Greeks. Wheat grains were often soaked in water overnight for softening. Once they had softened enough, they were reduced to flour, which was then kneaded in order to make bread loaves or flatbreads. More often than not, ingredients such as cheese, honey or certain herbs were added to the bread dough to make it tastier. Some leavening agents such as wine yeast were also added to the dough, so that the bread became soft and light. Though we do not have evidences of stone ovens till the Roman era, we have definite sources telling us about its primitive precursor, wherein lighted charcoals were heaped on the floor for some time. When the floor became hot enough, the coal was swept aside and the dough loaves were placed on the hot floor. They were then covered, and the lighted coals were placed on the side of the cover, so that the floor remained consistently warm, and the bread baked at a slow pace. By the beginning of the 6th century B.C., bread, which was till then always prepared at home, began to be sold in markets.

Apart from wheat, bread was also made from barley. Though this bread was heavy and rather coarse, it was highly nutritious. Maza was one of the basic Greek dishes of those days, the core ingredient of which, was barley. Literary sources have provided us with numerous different recipes of maza, which could be served both, raw as well as cooked.
Vegetables and Fruits
Vegetables and Fruits
The breads that the ancient Greeks ate, were more often than not, accompanied by a variety of fruits and vegetables. These preparations were commonly known as relish, and common vegetables which were used included peas, cabbage, broad beans, lentils, chickpeas, onions, and so on. The vegetables were cooked in numerous different ways, for instance, they were consumed in the form of soups or were boiled and mashed. Seasonings such as herbs, vinegar, and different sauces were used. Olives were important, in that they were not only a source of oil, but were also relished as appetizers.

Literary sources tell us that fresh fruits and vegetables were often expensive, especially in the cities, and so the poor had to depend on the dried ones. Oak nuts were considered to be the food of the poor. Lentil soup was popular among the working classes, which was usually complemented by cheese, garlic, and onions. Bitter vetch was considered as famine food, simply because of its ready availability.

Fruits such as pomegranates, figs, and raisins and nuts such as chestnuts, and beechnuts, formed parts of ancient Greek desserts. They were either consumed fresh or dried.
Meat, Poultry, Fish, and Eggs
Meat and Eggs
Whether the people consumed fish and meat and in what quantities, depended largely, apart from their financial status, on the region that they stayed in. For instance, in the rural areas, birds and hares were hunted for consumption. Farmers also domesticated chickens, geese, pigs, sheep, and goats. According to Aristophanes, a 5th century B.C. Greek playwright, meat was rather expensive in the urban areas, but pork was quite affordable. Moreover, sausages were readily available, and were consumed by the rich and the poor alike. Homer, in the Iliad, describes about the religious ritual that was performed, especially by the soldiers, before they ate meat. The cattle was sacrificed, as prescribed by the ritual, and its thigh bones were offered to the gods, meaning that they were put into the sacrificial fire. The remainder of the meat was cooked and shared in equal proportions. However, there are also references to unritualistic consumption of meat.

In Sparta, pork was more popular than any other kind of meat. The main item in every meal was primarily pork stew or what was popularly known as the black broth. Its basic ingredients were pork, salt, vinegar, and blood, and was served with bread and cheese. According to Claudius Aelianus, a 2nd century B.C. Roman author, the Spartan cooks were not allowed to cook anything else, except meat.
On the Greek islands and on the coast, fish and seafood formed a staple diet, obviously because of its ready and abundant availability. Octopuses, squids, and shellfish were popular sea foods. Both salt water as well as freshwater fish were consumed. Among the most popular ones were sardines, anchovies, skaren, Atlantic bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, red mullet, ray, swordfish, eel, pike-fish, carp, and catfish.

Quails, hens, pheasants, and Egyptian geese were domesticated, mainly for their eggs. They were either boiled and eaten directly or were used in desserts. They were also often served as appetizers. Egg yolks and egg whites were also used separately in the preparation of various dishes.
Dairy Products
Poor people, especially those residing in the rural areas, drank milk. But, it was considered to be barbaric in ancient Greece, and so, milk consumption was not very widespread. Butter was also not used. However, yogurt and cottage cheese were items which were used as cooking ingredients as well as consumed individually. Goat's and eve's cheese was preferred more.
Drink in Ancient Greece
Water was obviously the most important drink. Spring water was preferred more than well water, simply because of its nutritious qualities. This is the reason why, it was also a popular beverage, especially among the vegetarians. Milk, as mentioned above, was never preferred.
dionysus drinking wine
Wine, which had its roots in the cult of Dionysus, occupied a rather prominent place. The ancient Greeks made white, red as well as rosé wine. The quality of wine production differed from common table wine to vintage wine, which was more expensive and required legal provenance. Thus, the amphorae carrying vintage wines would be stamped either by the producers or by the magistrates of the cities, where these vintage wines were produced. This guaranteed their origin and proved their authenticity. Wines were generally mixed with water and then consumed. It was thought that drinking them unmixed led to madness and could sometimes also be fatal.

Apart from its luxurious usage, wine was also valued for its medicinal properties. According to some sources, wine that came from the Greek city of Heraia had contrasting effects on men and women. While men were maddened by its consumption, women were bestowed with fertility. On the other hand, the Achaean wine was often used for abortions. Except Sparta, where women could openly drink wine, they were only allowed to drink water in all other parts of ancient Greece. Large quantities of wines were also exported outside the Greek empire, and it was traded for other commodities such as gold and silver, slaves, spices, perfumes, etc.
Kykeon was another popular beverage that the ancient Greeks drank. It was actually a barley gruel, mixed with different herbs and water. So, at times, it also served as a wholesome meal. According to Homer, the beverage also had some amount grated goat cheese, and in Odyssey, Circe, the Greek goddess of magic, puts a magic potion and some honey into it. Also, some sources mention that Demeter, the goddess of bountiful harvest dislikes wine, but loves kykeon. The drink was also supposed to have digestive properties.
Vegetarianism in Ancient Greece
demeter and persephone gifting corn
Ancient Greek vegetarianism is somehow rooted in the myth of Demeter. She is the goddess of harvest who taught the art of agriculture to the mythical prince, Triptolemus. Triptolemus, in turn, taught agriculture to the entire Greece. This myth may have been the source of vegetarianism in ancient Greece.

Orphicism and Pythagoreanism promoted the idea of ethical vegetarianism. While the former spoke about the rights of animals and thus, prohibited their killing, the latter postulated the concepts of purity and purification through a vegetarian diet. A number of ancient Greek noblemen and philosophers are known to be purely vegetarian.
The Greek Banquet
Social dining was an important tradition in ancient Greece. People were invited for dinner parties at home, during festive and other important occasions. But, there were two other important kinds of social dining occasions, which are worthy of a mention.
The first was the Symposium or more literally, 'a drinking party'. A symposium basically refers to communal drinking of wine that took place after the dinner was over and the tables were cleared. It was essentially an all men's gathering, except for the courtesans, who were brought in for the purpose of entertainment. Garlands were distributed among to the people present, libations were performed, a hymn was sung in honor of Dionysus, and only after all this, the drinking began. A common custom was to recline on the couches while drinking, and not sitting upright. According to Plutarch, a 1st century B.C. Greek historian, a symposium was a way of spending time over wine and making new friends. More often than not, the symposiums provided appropriate settings for putting forth one's views on different issues, and also for a creative exchange of thoughts and ideas.
The second one was a regimental banquet known as the Syssitia. Such banquets were more popular in Crete and Sparta. These were also all men's gatherings (some extremely rare references of all women's syssitia also exist) like the symposiums, but these were compulsory to attend, especially for religious and social groups. Also, unlike symposiums, the meals provided at the syssitia were much simpler and moderate in nature. The main purpose of the syssitia was to bring together, fighting kins and to restore peace. Perhaps, this was the reason why, these meals were mandatory in nature.
For the ancient Greeks, cooking was an art. Whether it was a lavish banquet or just a family dinner, the Greeks always ate to satisfy their body, mind, and soul. The first ever Greek cookbook was compiled around 350 B.C. Around 2nd century B.C., the Roman writer Athenaeus wrote his 15-volume masterpiece Deipnosophistae, meaning 'a learned banquet'. The treatise not only contains detailed notes regarding the ancient Greek foods and cooking techniques, but it also informs us about the dining etiquette and banquet menus throughout the Mediterranean coast. Even today, ancient Greek cooking has its influence on the entire Mediterranean world.
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