What did the ancients eat?

By Christina Sanoudou

First published in ekathimerini.com Thursday May 5, 2011

What were the ancient Greeks’ favorite specialities? How has the diet in the region changed since Byzantine times?

These are among the many questions that will be addressed at a symposium on “Ancient Greek and Byzantine Gastronomy,” which is taking place on Saturday and Sunday 7-8 May at the new Lazaridi Estate Wine Museum in Kapandriti, eastern Attica.

Participants include food historians, critics and writers from Greece and elsewhere, who will deliver lectures, while there will also be ancient Greek and Byzantine recipe tastings, accompanied by live music.

Historians specializing in the dietary habits of ancient cultures have drawn their conclusions from finds at excavations and written sources, which, however, are rare, as well as from local lore passed down from one generation to the next.

As Johannes Koder, a professor of Byzantine Studies at the Austrian Academy, told Kathimerini, “writing down recipes or dietary rituals would only have made sense if the majority of the population was literate; which was not the case. Written sources from ancient Greece — mostly regarding medical journals and directions for fasting — are only partly reliable.”

Despite the shortage of tangible evidence, however, the subject does not fail to hold a certain fascination for a lot of people, as it illustrates daily rituals and a way of life that we can relate to more closely today. For example, it is known that in the Byzantine period what people ate differed greatly between the rich and the poor. The poor fared on bad-quality bread and onion soup with only a tiny bit of olive oil, while the rich were treated to a rich soup of cabbage, egg, cheese, cream and plenty of olive oil, which they would accompany with a dish of fish, meat or fresh vegetables and wine. The poor, according to Koder, were mocked because they couldn’t even afford the cheapest caviar on the market.

With the passage of time, dietary habits in the Greek region changed as a result of climate change and external influences. Spinach, for example, first made its appearance in the 12th century, when it was brought by the Turks from Persia and Mesopotamia.

Some flavors, however, remain unchanged, according to experts, such as fried dough and honey, or “kollyva,” a dish of grains, nuts, raisins and sugar that used to be eaten frequently as a dessert during antiquity and which today is part of the Greek Orthodox funeral ritual.

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About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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