Many studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet features an abundance of health benefits. In particular, Greece’s food culture is famous today for its proven ability to help protect against some cancers and heart disease.

But how old and how traditional is it? What did Greeks eat before the introduction of potatoes, tomatoes and other “foreign” foods? How did the rich eat differently from the poor? What was the role of wine in people’s diet?

All of the above questions and more will be answered in Dr Vincent’s lecture at the Australian Archaeological Institute of Athens at the University of Sydney.

Dr Vincent’s interest in food and drink from early modern Greece was inspired while editing an early modern Cretan comedy, and he more recently returned to the topic while editing and translating the memoirs of everyday life in 17th century Crete by Zuanne Papadopoli (Ioannis Papadopoulos).

During his work with archival documents from areas including Crete, Cyprus and the Ionian Islands, Dr Vincent discovered that today’s Greek diet differs from the one people had many centuries ago.

“The modern Mediterranean diet has much more variety than the rural diet of 1,500-1,700 CE and in that sense it is probably healthier,” Dr Vincent explains.

“On the other hand, foodstuffs were produced without potentially harmful herbicides or insecticides, and without chemical fertilisers.”

But the most obvious changes in the diet are the foods originating from North and South America such as potatoes, tomatoes, and capsicums, which were not cultivated in Greece until much later.

Aside from food, Dr Vincent’s research also looks at wine, which was seen as far more than a tool for inebriation.

“Wine was not simply a recreational beverage; it had an important nutritional role,” he says.

“Like olive oil, it was one product that could be kept over a long period without refrigeration. As for other alcoholic drinks, like raki or tsikoudia, we’ll leave them for the talk.”

Grapes were not limited to local consumption, with large quantities exported abroad.

While today the Mediterranean diet is celebrated for its health benefits, it is surprising to know that Dr Vincent’s research has uncovered that the Greek diet was not devised for its health-giving qualities at all, but rather what was practical for the time.

“It was simply people’s way of using the resources of the land,” he says.

“Red meat, for example, was not avoided; meat products of many kinds were widely consumed – except of course on fasting days – by those who could afford them. Those who were less wealthy would probably have liked to have more.
“In general, people were not concerned with weight loss, any more than they were aware of the healthy properties of olive oil as opposed to animal fats; they were more worried about having enough supplies to tide them over from harvest to harvest.”

Dr Alfred Vincent will present his free lecture ‘Food and Drink in Early Modern Greece’ on Wednesday 28 February at the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens (Room 480, Madsen Building, University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW) at 6.00 pm. Refreshments will be served. For bookings call (02) 9351 4759 or email [email protected]