It has been over a week since I posted on my new blog. This is because I was wondering over the requests I have received. So I decided to digress for a while from the recipes and talk about history, traditions, influences and the like and I feel that will give a clear picture of what Greek food today. I will keep it simple and those of you who want to follow up on anything I write there are a few good books written that are not recipe driven. This first short chapter is just a little bout Ancient Greece and I will try and follow the thread to today if that is possible as many things get lost on the way and often in my weekly NEOS KOSMOS column I try to find origins and history and it is impossible. Sometimes the myth itself can be interesting without knowing if it is the real story but at least we know the old saying "where there's smoke ther's fire.... "
I will stress I am not a historian on food, I have though studied Art History and I have an inclination of how things can start and evolve without being always certain as any history is only "right" for those who write it.
ANCIENT GREECE IN BRIEF
To be a chef in ancient Greece was considered of high social standing. Chefs were regarded as artists and were honoured, given money and lands as well as titles if they invented a new dish.
Greece had colonized the Iberian Peninsular, Southern Italy which was known as “Magna Gracia” (Greater Greece), where there are villages and towns in Sicily and Calabria with Greek names and where the people retain a Greek dialect to this day. They founded the city of Marseilles, France, colonized North Africa, and further east in what we know today as Georgia and other parts of the Black Sea. For thousands of years they lived on the coast of Asia Minor and only left the Black Sea area and Asia Minor in 1922 with the formation of Turkey that came about from the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. They planted vines, olive trees in these areas making these colonies very rich becoming the centers of commerce and Greek culture and according to some historians the ancient Greeks were first to recognize and record the excellence of local food and this unique concept eventually led to the appellation of origin regulations for European wine and cheese and other products.
A Sicilian Greek from Gela, Archestratus, wrote in verse on food. “The Luxury of Life” dated 330 BC, which reveals a great deal about Greek food in antiquity. Through his verse we discover much about food all over the then known Greek world.
Later, in 200 AD Athenaeus in his famous book, “The Deipnosophists” (Wise Men at Dinner), we seem to have the major source on ancient culinary habits and it is through him we learn of Archestratus who was a cook as well as a poet and who wondered all over the Greek world recording natural products and recipes. Unfortunately, modern scholars have neglected texts on cookery, as they were not considered literature. We don’t have the book on bread making by Chrysippus of Tyanna or on salt fish by Euthydemus of Athens what we do have though is detailed references to food via the great classical comedies of Menander and the writings of Aristophanes.
When the Romans came to power they made sure that the kitchen had a Greek chef and their children Greek tutors. Over the centuries not only have Greeks influenced but were also influenced by neighbors, conquests and immigration. There are many similarities between Southern Italian, Spanish food and Middle Eastern influence is obvious.
Greek food is produce driven, it is hearty and wholesome, it is simple in content and the spices and herbs are segregated and are not mixed in a way that aroma and taste becomes confused.
Spreads, dips and snacks are commonly called MEZE a word on loan from the Arabic who in turn borrowed it form the Persians, which means "to savor".
Changes in food habits came over the centuries, sometimes fast other times gradual. In the 20th century the French trained chef, Nicholas Tselemendes tried to change Greek eating habits; in 1908 he wrote the first Modern Greek cookbook with content that was far from Greek as he considered Greek food “barbaric”. I am happy to say that he did not succeed; on the whole Greek food has retained its authenticity with changes that have enhanced and not ruined Greek food. In the later part of the 20th century with more affluence many things were added to the Greek diet from the French influence, the Besemel on moussaka, the patisseries have become more French then Greek although these days there are ZAHAROPLASTIA that only make Eastern influence sweets as well as others that make the Middle Eastern version of Baklava which I must admit I prefer.