Classical Greece—Wine, Olive Oil, and Trade

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 05

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In this episode, we’ll discover how the ancient Greeks’ need for arable land led to their imperial and mercantile system, and we’ll consider what we learn about their food culture from such sources as Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, and Plato. Then we’ll observe the role of food in the rituals of Greek festivals, religious cults, and symposia, and we study simple components of the classical Greek diet that later influenced the rest of the world.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Archestratus’s Shark Recipe

Shark steaks

Archestratus, who lived in about 330 B.C. near the Greek colony of Gela in Sicily, was renowned for his knowledge of where the best ingredients came from throughout the Greek world. He was a connoisseur, in both ancient and modern senses. Most of the surviving fragments from his cookbook are about fish. He doesn’t offer recipes per se, but, rather, gastronomic commentary about foods and how to prepare them. The following is a reconstructed recipe based on his commentary about karcharia, probably a kind of small shark.

Take two shark steaks and place them in a ceramic casserole with a handful of basil leaves, sprinkle them with ground cumin and salt, and drizzle on a generous amount of olive oil. Bake these in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes. Serve topped with a dollop of “pounded sauce,” which is an ancestor of pesto. Make the sauce by taking a handful of basil, a small garlic clove, a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of salt, and pound in a mortar until smooth and fine. Serve on top of the shark steak. Because the description only says to use “fragrant leaves,” feel free to substitute another herb such as parsley or sage, but because basil comes from the Greek word basileus, meaning “king,” it seems appropriate. If you are so inclined, eat this with your fingers while reclining on a couch. Serve with a fragrant retsina, a white wine flavored with mastic resin.

Suggested Reading:

Archestratus, The Life of Luxury.

Dalby, Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece.

Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Greece.

Images courtesy of:

• Map of Ancient Greece: Shutterstock
• Ancient Greek Coins: Shutterstock
• Mt Hymettus: FocalPoint assumed; GFDL
• Homer: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Hesiod: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Dionysian ritual: Claude Lorrain [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Pythagoras: By French early 16th century [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Plato’s Symposium: Anselm Feuerbach [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Plato: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
• Amia: By Duane Raver/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Puppy: Shutterstock

• Garum factory: Kolforn (Wikimedia) CC BY-SA 4.0