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Ancient Greek Food

Goethe once said

Das Land der Griechen mit der Seele suchen

- search for the land of the Greeks with the soul

What he meant by this was that the essence of ancient Greek culture could not be captured through banal and passive appreciation but rather through active and personal engagement. One of these active and personal engagements is most certainly eating ancient Greek food; much as one might implement precepts of philosophy in one’s life, or witness a Greek tragedy, eating Greek food allows one to become fully immersed in an aspect of Greek culture. What is particularly special about exploring this through the medium of food is that eating is one of the few actions performed regularly by all people, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity. Therefore, it is one of the most representative, and revealing, aspects of any culture as well as being the most immersive. Greek food largely consisted of legumes (chickpeas, lentils, fava beans), bread (made usually of wheat or barley), cheese (soft and hard), nuts (almonds, walnuts), seeds (sesame seeds, poppy seeds) and fruits (grapes, plums, apricots, etc). The meat was consumed more rarely as it was more worthwhile to keep animals for their products rather than eating them; the meat was usually eaten on festivals days after the animals had been sacrificed. Indeed, eating unsacraficed meat was frowned upon and seen as somewhat unclean. However, the type of meat eaten was certainly a marker of class since the poor would usually only be able to afford the sacrifice of a chicken, rather than the more costly cattle or goats. The consumption of fish was also a signifier of class since only the rich could afford to transport fish inland quickly; for coastal towns such as Athens, however, this was not the case as fish was already widely available there. The bread that was most commonly consumed was a flatbread that could be used to eat the rest of the meal with, as though it were a sort of soft plate. The Greeks, of course, did not have yeast or baking powder at their disposal. The raising agent that they did have access to was something called wine must; a particularly disgusting substance created after the remains of crushed grapes have been fermented. The taste, however, would largely be indistinguishable once the loaf, or cake, had been baked. Cakes and biscuits were the food of festival days (of which there were many) and honey and crushed sesame seeds were often used to sweeten them. One of the more common sweet treats to be eaten as a sort of pancake, drenched in honey and sesame seeds, which was sold in the Athenian marketplace. Otherwise, most of what we consider to be ‘desserts’ would simply be ripe fruit served with honey. The wealthy could afford to have their meals made by a mageiros, a sort of sous-chef; even then, the meals would remain fairly simple, unlike their later Roman counterpart. Almost all of the gastronomic information that we have about ancient Greece comes from Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, Archestratus’ Life of Luxury (which remains only because it was quoted in the Deipnosophists) and Galen’s On Foodstuffs. Archestratus’ Life of Luxury is a great indicator of the relationship between class and food in the ancient world since it advises the reader where to purchase the best of each type of food from. For example, he recommends barley flour from Lesbos, bread rolls from Thessaly and tuna from Samos, Byzantium and Sicily. Archestratus’ focus was solely on where the best quality, best-tasting food came from; Galen’s focus was on the food with the greatest medical properties. As he famously wrote, ‘let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food’. This crossover between medicine and food means that, among his tinctures and cures, there are a few recipes, including yet another for bread (indicating how widely consumed it was). Through the murk of 2000 years of history, food remains one of the ways we can both learn about the ancient Greeks, and feel a kinship with them; one that has been found through searching with the soul. By Juliana

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