The Greeks had three to four meals a day. Breakfast, ακροτισμός (akrotismós), eaten at dawn, consisted of barley bread dipped in wine and sometimes accompanied by figs or olives. They also made pancakes τηγανίτης (tiganítis) where the word frypan is derived from. These pancakes were made from wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and curdled milk. A quick lunch άριστον (ariston) about midday and the main meal was in the evening δείπνον (dipnon), ‘dinner’ or sometimes a late afternoon meal would be served called Αριστόδειπνον (aristódipnon) – lunch-dinner instead of dinner.
Men and women ate separately and if the house was small the men ate first and then the women. The slaves waited at dinner and Aristotle notes “the poor, having no slaves, must use their wives and children as servants”.
They ate while seated on chairs; benches were used for banquets, the tables high for normal meals and low for banquets and were initially rectangular. By the fourth century BC the usual table was round, loaves of bread would be used as plates as well as terra cotta bowls. Cutlery was not used except spoons for soup and knives, people ate with their fingers and pieces of bread were used to scoop the food and wipe their hands. A while back I wrote an article on the fork – here is the link: www.neoskosmos.com/news/en/what-the-fork
Like our modern dinner parties, they too had theirs. There were two types, the symposium and the syssítia. The symposium was more like a gathering of drinkers. It consisted of two parts: the first dedicated to food and the second to drinking. However, wine was consumed with the food, and beverages accompanied with τραγήματα (tragímata) such as chestnuts, beans, toasted wheat or honey cakes; all intended to soak up the alcohol and thus extend the drinking spree. The drinking part was in honour of Dionysus followed by conversation and table games.
With the exception of courtesans the banquet was strictly for men and naturally only the rich could afford these banquets. Most Greek homes had much more modest festive dinners.
The syssítia (τα συσσίτια) meals were religious and social gatherings of men and boys. They were an upper-class club of males and were also a military mess. Syssítia gatherings were marked for their simplicity unlike the symposium. There are some references of all-female syssitia.
Bread was unleavened until later when Greeks discovered a leavening agent – a wine yeast – and were baked in clay pots and in clay ovens or on open fires – the brick oven came about with the Romans. By the end of the fifth century BC loaves were sold at the market.
The common vegetables were cabbage, onions, lentils, sweet peas, broad beans, garden peas, and other such greens. They were mainly made into soup, boiled or mashed with olive oil and herbs. Acorns were eaten and raw or preserved olives. In the cities fresh vegetables were expensive and the poorer city dwellers ate mostly the dried version of these such as lentil soup, as it was typically a workman’s dish. I have in the past written on the athletes’ diet, as they were a pampered part of society being fed on honey cakes with cheese very similar to a mini-cheesecake today.
Meat and fish consumption varied depending on the geography of Greece. In the country, birds and hares were trapped and there were also farmyards for the provision of chickens and wealthier landowners raised goats, pigs and sheep. Quails and hens were bred for their eggs as were geese, but their eggs were more expensive, and we also have information on the use of pheasants and their eggs in the diet. The islands had an abundance of seafood that was consumed locally and also sent to the mainland, often salted for preservation.
The Greeks made cheese and yoghurt and butter, although the latter was mainly confined to the north-east of the country where the Thracians dwelled and were called ‘butter eaters’ by the south. Ewe and goat’s milk were the staple dairy products for the making of cheese and other milk products. Cheese was often eaten alone with honey.
The most widely consumed drink was water. Wells were common but spring water was preferred and was recognised as having nutritional value, described the same way we describe wine today; robust, heavy, light, dry, acidic, pungent, etc.
They cultivated grapes and made red, rosé and white wine. Different qualities were available, from common wine to vintage qualities, and at the time the opinion was that the best came from Thasos, Lesbos and Chios. Wine was often sweetened with honey and they made medical wines by adding different herbs. By the first century they were familiar with wine flavoured with pine resin, what we know as retsina today. Wine was as a rule diluted with water – ‘unmixed wine’ was drunk by the ‘Northern Barbarians’ and was thought to lead to madness and maybe death.
Wine kept for personal consumption was stored in animal skins but wine destined for export was stored in terra cotta pithoi (large jugs). Sealed, the jars carried stamps from the producers and the city magistrates as a guarantee of origin. Greeks were the first to indicate geographical or qualitative provenance of a product, making it the basis of modern ‘appellations d’origine controlees’ certification.
It was not approved for women to drink wine and they only drank water but the Spartan women routinely drank wine.
Food played an important part in the Greek culture as it does today. In The Odyssey Homer tells us “good men are distinguished from bad men and Greeks from foreigners by what they ate”. The Greeks did not ignore the value of the pleasures of eating but valued simplicity. It is known though that chefs were awarded with high honours, including land if they invented a new dish.
Today’s famous British chef and traveller Rick Stein was impressed when filming in Greece that so many dishes can be created with only a few ingredients.