Eating in ancient Greece

Oregano and meat was a staple, so what’s changed? Dora Kitinas-Gogos walks in the shoes of the ancient Greeks to see what, why and how they ate.

What the ancient Greek ate

The ancient Greek diet was predominantly made up of the Mediterranean triad: wheat, olive oil and wine. It was a frugal diet that was solely dependent on the land. From Homer’s time we learn that the meals were three – ariston, deipnon and dorpon or breakfast, lunch and evening meal. What Greeks ate depended on their social standing. Bread and wine played the main role in the predominant diet, as did seafood. For the rich, meat was cooked often, grilled on skewers or in saucepans. Meat was always the central ingredient during feasts of the wealthy.

The rest of the population were limited to products made from barley and wheat. In all social standings in ancient Greece, there was an abundance of fruit and vegetables that was solely dependent on the season and area of Greece they lived in. The oldest finds we have on Greek soil are seeds that date between 11,000 BC and 7,300 BC, that show us the use of wild plants prior to their cultivation – barley, oats, lentils and peas.

At the same time, wild animals like goat, bovine animals, rabbits and others would have been utilised. Indications of farming endeavours in Greece occur between 6,000 and 5,300 BC where by now the ancient Greeks were cultivating barley, millet, lentils, peas and acorns. As well as this, they were harvesting the wild plants around them: olives, almonds, peanuts, grapes, cherries, plums, and pears. Later we find indications that the ancient Greeks were cultivating or picking wild, figs, apples, blackberries, wild strawberries, pomegranate, dill, capers, oregano and coriander. The taming of wild animals plays a big part in the Neolithic era. Historical research (evidence from bone findings) shows us that goats, sheep, pigs and cows were tamed in Crete about 6,000 BC. During the Neolithic era in other parts of Greece, animals were tamed for their meat and milk.

During the Mycenaean era – classified as the historical period – the ancient Greek diet was most likely based on wheat and barley and animal product consumption was limited for the mainstream population as the height of the average man was 167 centimetres showing a poor diet of protein. There are texts bearing witness to a diet that was very frugal during the Mycenaean period. Vases found west of the Mycenaean palace – in an area called Mideas – reveal that meat was cooked with vegetables and legumes as we do today. The findings on a vase found in Mideas dating about 1,340 to 1,185 BC shows us that the food cooked in that was a combination of meat with olive oil.

During the Neolith period wine was made with pine resin as they had discovered that the resin was a powerful preservative – the very early stages of Retsina, a word derived from resin. When it comes to spices, there are Bronze age tablets going back to the 14th and 15th century BC, from sites like Knossos on Crete, Mycenae and Pylos on the Pelopponese that tell us a lot. They describe how the spices and aromatic herbs were planted in these periods and how the herbs and spices began to make their way into food preparation. In the 4th century BC, Hypocrates of Kos added the therapeutic use of spices and herbs into gastronomy. Hypocrates used a variety of spices and herbs in his medicines.

At the same time, Theophrastus of Lesbos wrote about spices aiding the digestion of food. While studying under Plato and Aristotle, he methodically created a ‘text book’ to guide the ancient Greeks on where to find these plants and how to use them. Today, we still base our classification of these plants on Theophrastus system.

Mythology and the ancient diet

Mythology tells us that the gods sent the son of Apollo, Aristeo, to show the Greeks the art of making cheese. Homer tells us Odysseus’ adventure with the shepherd Polyphimo, and the description of the cheese he kept on shelves, except the little he kept for himself. Of particular interest in Greek mythology is the myth of Hephaestus – god of the crafts, industry and manufacture – who had created a tool that made laces out of dough. It is well known that the Greeks use to prepare dried dough strips and leave them on the graves along with olive oil and wine for the dead. Ton makaron became today’s word for pasta in Greek, makaronia. The first mention of the existence of pasta is about 1,000 BC in ancient Greece where a word laganon describes a flat piece of dough cut into wide strips. This dough was spread all over the Greek world taking in southern Italy about 8th century BC, which was Greek at the time and later became lazania or lasagne as we know it today.

Outside influences in the ancient Greek diet

Thousands of amphoras have been found under the sea belonging to ancient Greeks. Amphoras were the storage vessels used for food for transportation by sea so the food could be traded with nearby countries. It has always been assumed that the only thing the ancient Greek states traded were olive oil and wine but DNA analysis shows that they traded so much more. One example of this was 2400-year-old amphora, found between Chios and Oinousses, showed traces of mastic, oregano, walnuts, legumes and even ginger. This is long before the Dutch, Portuguese, British and Spaniards colonised Indonesia, India and other parts of south east Asia, and the advent of trade in spices. In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great inherited not only vast information about spices from India but also the spice trade.

With this information came knowledge about the science behind the spices and herbs as well. When Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BC, he created the major trading centre, Alexandria on the coast of Egypt, for spices coming from the Orient and bound for Europe. It was in Egypt that western spice traders met with Africans and Asian spice merchants and traded with Greeks. The Arabs traded with Greeks for centuries in this Mediterranean Port.

Ancient Greek recipes explained

The writing of the Greek chefs was not passed down to us in full, only in fragments, but later the Roman Marcus Gavius Apicius, recorded them and today we know them as Roman and Greek recipes. The ancient Greeks flavoured foods with many of the ingredients we use today to enhance dishes. They added garlic and onion, herbs and spices as a basis for most recipes. They had a root very similar to celery to use as a foundation to a dish. They used pomegranates, berries and honey to sweeten food.

Also, citrus flavours, and they even had a fish sauce called garum, very much like the fish sauce used in south east Asia today. In 327 BC Alexander the Great spread the culture of the sugar cane through Persia and introduced it in the Mediterranean from India, it was thought to be “a sweetener without bees”. Sugar cane was grown, and exported to Europe, in the time of the Caesars. The cane juice was used much like honey, as a sweetener for food and drinks.

Glossary of ingredients you may find in ancient Greek recipes

If you manage to come across an ancient Greek recipe, here is a glossary for some ingredients that were used and an adaptation of how to find them in today’s grocery stores.
Caroenum – New wine that has been made by boiling the until only half the quantity is left.
Petimezi – Made from wine, it was used as a sweetener along with honey. Petimezi is still available at Greek or middle-eastern grocers.
Levisticum officinale – A bulb, which is likened to today’s celery, that was dried and used as a spice. Try using dried fennel seeds or dried celery if you can find it.
Garum – Fish sauce available in all Asian grocers Passum – A very sweet sauce made from wine. Replace it with honey mixed with a little wine and cooked till thickened.
Saturei / Thimvra – A herb likened to using rosemary and thyme together.
Silphium – Similar to garlic or onion, used very sparingly as it has a very strong odour.