The preservation of food can be traced well into prehistory and has played a pivotal role in the evolution of mankind. It has helped man take to the high seas, from ancient times to the discovery of the new world. Primarily, it was used so that man could maintain a reserve of food supplies out of season, and in times of drought and other natural phenomenon.
It was, and still is, a way for armies to move. Today, food is preserved industrially, whereas in the past, it was predominantly preserved in the home. Preservation of food has permeated every culture throughout history. Ancient man had to harness the power of nature to preserve their food according to the climate. In geographical areas where it was cold and icy half of the year, this became a way to freeze meat, whereas in hotter climates, drying food was the preferred method. Ancient Chinese, Greeks and Romans also found ways to cool their food by storing it in mountain snow, in cellars or icehouses.
In ancient times, the drying of food using the sun and the wind was the most natural way to preserve. Evidence of this has been found in digs in the Middle East dating back to at least 12,000 BC. Dried fruits were particularly popular with ancient Greeks and Romans. In the Middle Ages, purpose-built ‘still houses’ were created to dry fruit, vegetables and herbs in areas that did not have strong sunlight for drying. A fire was used to create the heat needed to dry produce, and also made the method of smoking food possible.
Curing – using salt, smoking and drying – were the preferred methods of preserving food in the past. Today, these methods have become big industries. While food preservation was done at home in the past, it is now done by big commercial companies, as the demand is higher and people have limited time. In Greece, fruit was also preserved with honey until the onset of sugar many centuries later.
Fermenting was one of the preferred methods of preservation in the hot climates. For example, in Egypt, Greece and other Mediterranean countries, fermentation was also used to produce cheese and yogurt. Salted food had become the staple food of the poor in the Middle Ages (400 AD – 1450 AD), especially herring. In the mid-1700s, as the modern era approached, the Dutch navy developed a way to preserve beef in iron cans, packing the produce in hot fat before the cans were sealed.
By the late 1700s, they were preserving smoked salmon by packing it in butter or olive oil in sealed cans. Today, food preservation includes canning, mechanical refrigeration and freezing with the addition of chemicals and irradiation. When shopping for preserved food, always look at the labels. Here is a list of words to know when reading labels.
Additive: A chemical compound that is added to foods to maintain their quality – for example, by preventing them from spoiling.
Antioxidant: A chemical compound that has the ability to prevent the oxidation of substances with which it is associated. Dehydration: The removal of water.
Fermentation: A chemical reaction in which sugars are converted to organic acids.
Irradiation: The process by which a substance, such as food, is exposed to some form of radiation, such as gamma rays or x-rays.
Oxidation: A chemical reaction in which oxygen reacts with another substance. Frenchman Nicolas Francois Appert (1750-1841) invented sophisticated methods of canning and operated the first commercial cannery. He first used bottles and the canning method was greatly improved by the invention of the tin can in 1810 in England. Due to the climate in Greece, drying is a preferred method for legumes, fruit and vegetables.
Greece has wonderful cured meats of every kind. In downtown Athens, opposite the market in a side street off Athinas Street, there is a string of shops that specialise in cold meats called allantika (αλλαντικά). In the same street, one can find shops that sell herbs by the kilo, dried fruit and vegetables. I have come across dried eggplant, oranges, roses, and many other exotic flavours.
In Greece, home made preserve meats usually consist of pork. In Crete, they make what is called apaki with pork that is often both salted and smoked. It is sometimes cured in salt and vinegar.