Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
“The root of all pleasures is the satisfaction of the stomach”
Epicurus 341 - 270 BC
I recently did some historical research about the diet of the ancient Athenians and some of their dishes.
During classical times (beginning of 5th to 4th century BCE), daily meals in Athens were limited to two; a very hearty breakfast, consisting of bread (barley bread for ordinary citizens and ártos i.e. white wheat bread, for the aristocracy) dipped in undiluted wine; dry figs, almonds, raisins, walnuts, chestnuts and other dry fruit; honey, goat milk and cheese or a beverage known as kykeón (a drink mentioned by Homer in both the Odyssey and the Iliad) made from wine, grated cheese, barley flour and, in later times, honey.
Together with the above, leftovers from the previous evening's dinner i.e. roast meat, fish, chicken or feathered game, eggs and beans or legumes drizzled with olive oil.
The second daily meal was dinner (deípnon), the major and largest meal of the day, which was usually a communal meal with all the members of a family present, or, for the aristocracy, a banquet for only the male members of an extended family, plus friends and honored guests.
Named “symposion”, a Greek word that means “drinking together,” the banquet featured charcoal-roasted goat, lamb or pig, plus feathered game or chickens, together with salads, roasted or stewed vegetables, pulses and legumes. White bread and wine diluted with water and honey were served at upper class Athenian banquets, while the lower classes served for dinner mostly legumes and cereals, fatty fish - such as mackerel, sardines and bonito - stewed tubers including turnips and carrots, fresh or cooked vegetables including artichokes, asparagus, fennel, cabbage, leeks and lettuce and very diluted wine. Servants and slaves were fed the leftover vegetables and beans or legumes, and very occasionally, offal from the master's roasts. Beef was extremely rarely consumed. In reality, even the aristocracy only consumed red meat once or twice a month, mostly during a banquet or at a feast following a sacrifice. With the exception of breakfast, drinking undiluted wine was considered crass, and one of the accusations against Socrates was that he was corrupting the Athenian youth he was supposed to be teaching by, amongst other ways, allowing them to drink strong, undiluted wine.
Food, then as now, was an identifying mark of the sub-cultures within Athenian society, mostly defined by economic and social rank.
Banquet participants, who ate reclining on couches, usually included friends and honored guests in addition to the male members of a family. To provide interesting discourse, philosophers and artists were invited and, for entertainment, singers, dancers and musicians; during later times jugglers, mimes and comedians were also employed. Women were mostly excluded from the symposia, with the exception of the hetaerae (courtesans) of Ancient Greece.
While Athenian wives stayed in their quarters with the children and dined there, the hetaerae were welcomed at the symposia, because most were not only beautiful to look at, but were also well informed and witty. Many of them were politically influential through their relationships with prominent politicians – for example Aspasia and Pericles. Aspasia is mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon and many other ancient chroniclers.
Others, such as Phryne, were considered so beautiful and excellent in the art of witty repartee that they were many times the honored guests at a banquet. Athenaeus, a Greek rhetorician provides many anecdotes about Phryne and her time in Athens.
We have a lot of information about the foods the Athenians consumed from numerous sources, including theatrical scripts, such as Aristophanes’ Nefeles (Clouds) and Plutus (Wealth).
Clouds, was a satire about the Sophist philosophers, who in the 5th century BCE presented themselves as “enlighteners” and earned a living supposedly teaching the young men of Athens how to “think properly”. In this particular case, we have the description of many countryside dishes – vegetable and meat stews, pig's bellies, boiled bitter herbs, pomegranate seeds and honey cakes. In Plutus, another political satire, we find that the most indigent of the Athenians ate well once a month “lupines and Hecate’s Dinner”.
During the last evening of the lunar month, before a sliver of a new moon appeared, Athenians would thoroughly clean their homes collecting any leftover food. They fumigated their homes using a clay censer. These leftovers, the censer, and an offering of eggs, a small honey cake, garlic, leeks and/or green onions, and cooked fish, were deposited at shrines located in front of each home to placate Hecate, the Queen of the Underworld and goddess of the un-avenged or wrongfully killed. On that night, the indigent would congregate at these shrines and snatch the food as is was placed on the shrine.
The fruits and vegetables consumed by the ancient Greeks were not the same as what is consumed in Athens today. The main reason is that many of today's produce were introduced to the European diet after the “discovery” of the Americas. Tomatoes, hot peppers, potatoes, and corn did not grow in Europe and neither did mandarins, bananas or other tropical fruit. However, pomegranates, figs and prickly pears were common on Athenian tables because they grew wild on the hillsides surrounding Athens.
There was a variety of deserts, all unique in the sense that they did not conform to any modern Greek “sweet” except for Kourkouti, a flour-paste crêpe stuffed with cheese, fried and covered with honey and toasted sesame seeds. (the image above is a modern interpretation, using phylo leaves instead of a crêpe). This is one of the original ancient dishes that has survived through the ages and is still popular with Athenians of all ages.
The wine was mostly locally produced and came as black i.e. what today we would call red, mostly demi-sec or sweet, and very occasionally a dry white. Wine in amphorae was imported to Athens from the Peloponnese, Crete and the Aegean Islands as well as Northeastern Greece. The difference from the way the ancient Greeks served their wines compared to today is that while the wine is now consumed full strength, the ancients always watered theirs down. As a matter of fact, it was considered very vulgar to be seen drunk and many Athenian young men were denied marriage to eligible young women, if the girl's family found that the youth appeared drunk on some occasion.
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