The History of Ancient Greek Food
Article source: The Hoplite Association
The foods of ancient Greece were similar to foods we eat today, but did not include many that have become important parts of modern Greek cooking. For example, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and bananas didn’t arrive in Greece until after the discovery of the Americas in the 15th century, because that’s where those foods originated. Lemons, oranges, eggplant, and rice also arrived later. But the ancient Greeks enjoyed a varied diet. Vegetables, legumes, and fruit were the mainstay, and fish was a favorite. Hunting brought game to the menu.
The Greek diet consisted of foods that were easily raised in the rocky terrain of Greece’s landscape. Breakfast was eaten just after sunrise and consisted of bread dipped in wine. Lunch was again bread dipped in wine along with some olives, figs, cheese or dried fish.
Supper was the main meal of each day. It was eaten near sunset. It consisted of vegetables, fruit, fish, and possibly honey cakes. Sugar was unknown to ancient Greeks, so natural honey was used as a sweetener.
Fish was the main source of protein in the Greek diet. Beef was very expensive, so it was rarely eaten. Beef and pork were only available to poor people during religious festivals. It was during the festivals that cows or pigs were sacrificed to the gods, and the meat was cooked and handed out to the public.
Wine was the main drink in ancient Greece. It was watered down; to drink it straight was considered barbaric. Milk was rarely drunk, because again, it was considered barbaric. Milk was used for cheese production. Water was another possible choice as a drink.
The Greeks did not have any eating utensils, so they ate with their hands. Bread was often used to scoop out thick soups. Bread was also used as a napkin to clean hands. After being used as a napkin, the bread was then thrown on the floor for the dogs or slaves to clean up at a later time.
Men often gathered for dinner parties called symposiums. Having guests in the house was a “male-only” affair. Women of the house were not permitted to attend. After giving a wine offering to the gods, the men drank and talked about politics or morals. Often young girls and boys would be employed to entertain guests with music and dance.
Food of the Ancient Greeks
By 500BCE the population of the Greek homelands stood at about 2,000,000 and the Greek appetite for food had altered and broadened from the earlier, hunting-dependant, meat based diet. All sorts of changes had taken place, particularly in the growing & improvement of vegetables & fruit. Meat became a much less important part of the diet and a whole range of vegetables, salads, fruits, nuts, dried fruit and sweet cakes became available. With such a climate and rich soil as Greece had, almost anything would grow as long as water could be found at the right time.
The early rains were of first importance, but when they ended, irrigation and the use of storage systems upplemented the natural springs & fountains. Crops of wheat & barley grew we ll, as did vine & fig trees.
Bread in the form of barley-cakes was served with meals or eaten separately. Bread made from wheat was also eaten, and flour was sold in the markets of Athens and elsewhere. Grain from the Greek colonies in southern Italy was shipped to Athens through the port of Piraeus and ground in to particularly soft white flour.
The Greek mainland & the Greek islands all have long coastline and the sea provided plenty for everyone, both cheap small fish and expensive treats for those able to pay the price. The types of fish brought ashore everywhere were extraordinarily varied and Greeks enjoyed their lightness & delicacy. The fish markets were well-supplied and a bell was sounded in the markets at opening times. Flat fish such as plaice were caught in the shallow waters and “winged” flat fish such as ray & skate were caught. The “wings” were cooked with wine, vinegar, olive oil & capers.
Mullet, sea bream, flying fish, sardines, tunny & turbot were all caught in large quantities. Shell-fish of all kinds, such as mussels, cockles, limpets, periwinkles, scallops were eaten as were conches, oysters, barnacles and sea-urchins. Shrimps, squid & octopus were also firm favourites.
Meat was generally thought best when boiled or baked, although grilled cuts, chops & sausages were common with the poorer citizens. Cooked sausages were sold in the markets of Athens and other cities. Pork was the most popular type of meat. The wild pig was leaner and tastier, but pigs were farmed throughout Greece. Lamb & beef were also eat en, although beef much less so. Various foul were kept and often eaten.
Vegetables were very important in Greek diets, to the point where the people were almost vegetarians by choice. The green vegetable, horta (dandelion), was gathered, boiled and eaten hot or cold. Asparagus, fennel, celery, cucumbers, gourds, pumpkins, cabbage, chick-peas, onions, raddish & lettuce were also very popular. Stinging nettles, picked young, made an excellent nutritious food. Various bulbs were regarded as edible, as were the roots of the wild Iris and artichoke. Mushrooms and truffles were wildly available.
Of all the foods of the ancient world, honey was one of the most magical and important. Zeus, king of the Gods, was believed to have been fed as a child, on goat’s milk & honey. Bee-hives were kept at most farmsteads and bees were much admired and well cared for. Honey was used for all types of sweet ening, much like modern sugar, as well as flavouring for biscuits, cakes, breads and sauces. It was also used in medicines and for dressing wounds or stemming blood-loss. Honeycomb was eaten in its natural form.
Fruit & Nuts
Both fresh & dried fruits were enjoyed by the Greeks. Trees of pears, mulberries, cherries and apples grew wild. There were plums, and their cousins, the damsons, so called because they first came from Damascus. Bull aces, a type of wild plum, were eaten and blackberries and other wild berries grew in profusion. Figs, both fresh & dried were common and so were raisins and dates. Pomegranates were imported from Cyprus and many other Greek islands and varieties of grapes came from all over Greece. The beautiful Arbutus – the strawberry tree – had red berries that were delicious when they were ripe. Peaches were very popular as were all types of melons. Quinces were wildly available and the best were said to come from the island of Cos. Walnuts – called the Royal Nut by ancient Greeks – were widely grown in both Greece and their colonies & islands. Beech nuts were also eaten as were chestnuts, pine-kernels and almonds.
The olive should have a special mention. It was the main contribution in Greek cookery. Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, Protector of Cities, was believed to have given the olive tree to Athens, from where it spread to all of Greece. Apart from serving as a foodstuff, olives were also crushed for their oil. This oil was the only fuel available for the lamps of clay or metal – it gives a soft clear flame.