Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
Kylix and symposium fresco images courtesy of British Museum and Nikolaos Demitriou
Archeon Gefsis menu descriptions courtesy of Kostas Veloudakis
“The root of all pleasures is the satisfaction of the stomach”
Epicouros 341 - 270 BC
I recently did some historical research about the diet of the ancient Athenians and some of their most popular dishes.
During classical times (beginning of 5th to 4th century BCE), daily meals of Athenians 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, walnuts 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 day’s dinner i.e. roast or stewed meat, fish, chicken or feathered game, eggs, beans or legumes drizzled with olive oil and fresh fruits were served.
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 the male members of the family plus friends and honored guests.
Named “symposion”, from the Greek word that means “drinking together” the banquet featured charcoal-roasted goat, lamb or pigs, plus feathered game or chickens, together with salads, roasted or stewed vegetables, pulses and legumes. White bread and wine diluted with water and/or 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 tuna - stewed vegetables, and very diluted wine. Servants and slaves were fed the leftovers, vegetables and beans or legumes, and very occasionally, offal from the master's roasts. Beef was very rarely consumed. In reality, even the aristocracy only consumed red meat once or twice a month, mostly during the banquets. 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 teaching by, amongst other ways, allowing them to drink strong, undiluted wine.
Banquet participants, who ate reclining, usually included friends and guests, in addition to the male members of the 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 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 of them 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.
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 teaching the young men of Athens how to think “properly”. In this particular case, we have the description of many country dishes – vegetable and meat stews, pig’s bellies, bitter herbs, honey cakes. In Plutus, a political satire, we find that the most indigent of the Athenians ate well once a month “lupines and Hecate’s Deipnon”. 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 raw eggs, a small honey cake, garlic, leeks and/or green onions, and fish, were deposited at shrines located in front of each home, to placate Hecate, the Queen of the Underworld and the 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 we consume today. The main reason is that many of today’s produce were introduced to the European diet after the “discovery” of the Americas. Tomatoes, potatoes, and corn did not grow in Europe and neither did mandarins, bananas or other tropical fruit.
Currently, in Athens there is a restaurant, called Archeon Gefsis (Ancient Tastes), 22, Kodratou, Athens 10436, where a number of the ancient dishes are being replicated and served.
Thalassea (sea-food salad). It contains spinach or romain lettuce, fresh onions (scallions), capers, octopus tentacles or grilled squid or shrimp and mussels, drizzled with olive oil and red-wine vinegar.
“Orea” consists of lettuce, cucumber, pears and apples with dried plums, raisins and spearmint, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice.
“Prassea” (from the Greek word “prassa” i.e. leeks) Cabbage, sliced leeks (white part only), celery, asparagus, and eggs with pine nuts, pickled wild onion bulbs, raisins and pomegranate seeds drizzled with a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and herbs.
For a starter, chickpeas with beets and silphium or black creased olives -- pickled in brine with olive oil and vinegar, sprinkled with oregano.
Pickled pimiento with goat cheese.
For a more “solid” starter, smoked eel with asparagus, coriander and oregano or salted pork with cheese.
Skewers of pork; fillet of veal in dark sauce with pea puree and fried bread dice (croutons).
Steamed sea bass with vegetables; fresh and dry coriander, cumin, baby wild onions and spices.
“Creokakkavos”. Smoked pork cheeks with sweet and sour sauce made from honey, thyme, vinegar and mashed chickpeas.
Stuffed piglet. Piglet stuffed with game, eggs, cheese, fried liver, apples, chestnuts, pine nuts, raisins and spices.
Smoked pork cheeks with fava. Smoked pork chops with stewed cabbage.
There is a variety of deserts, all unique in the sense that they do 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 Athenian children of all ages.
The wine is all locally produced, carefully selected, and comes in dry or demi-sec varieties, red or white. The difference from the way the ancient Greeks served their wines is that it now consumed full strength, while the ancients always watered theirs down. As a matter of fact, it was considered very uncouth to be drunk.
© January 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.