FOOD IN ANCIENT GREECE

FOOD IN ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME

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fish plate
Foods consumed in ancient Greece included vegetables, legumes, fruits, meat and fish. Meats were roasted on spits, cooked in ovens, and boiled. The fish was often cooked with cheese. Evidence of thin phyllo dough has been dated to the 4th century B.C. Food was sweetened with honey or products made from naturally sweet grapes. Wine, cereals, and olives formed the cornerstone of traditional Greek agriculture and diet. The Greco-Romans ate porridge, honeycombs, puddings, irises, and lamb. Ancient people largely ate with their hands. Sometimes they used knives and spoons. Athenians reportedly didn't have breakfast but ate a single meal each day of porridge.

The oldest known pies were made in the 5th century B.C. Greece. Known as artocreas , they were hash meat pies with only a bottom crust. Top crusts and fruit and sweet fillings were developed by the Romans. One of the most popular pies, placenta , had a wheat-rye flour crust and had a filling made of honey, spices and sheep milk cheese. One of the greatest delicacy was foie gras made by force feeding figs to enlarge the goose’s liver. The Roman are sometimes credited with invented foie gras but the Greeks also ate it. In 1st century A.D. the Roman Emperor Nero ate desserts made from snow brought in from the mountains.

The Greeks ate insects. Aristotle wrote that he liked cicadas best when they were in the nymph stage, adding that “first males were better to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs.” Aristophanes called grasshoppers “four winged fowl.”

The first known cookbook appeared in Sicily in the 5th century B.C. In work the 3rd century B.C. entitled Glossary Of Cooking Terms Artemidorus wrote: "Let the meat includes organs and intestines and be chopped fine; add as condiments vinegar, toasted cheese, cumin, fresh and dried thyme, fresh and dried coriander, two kinds of onion of which one is to be roasted, poppy-head or raisins or honey, seeds or an acid pomegranate; fish may be substituted for meat." Renaissance Italians looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration on food. Renaissance cooks brought back foods such as artichokes, asparagus shoots, garum (salted fish), capers, olives. and foie gras were all eaten by the ancients and resurrected by Renaissance and incorporated into Renaissance dishes.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea showgate.com/medea ; Greek History Course from Reed web.archive.org; Classics FAQ MIT rtfm.mit.edu; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu

Book: Courtesans and Fishcakes: the Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson (St. Martins Press, 1998)

Diet of the Ancient Greeks

“Scientists have been able to figure out a great deal about what ancient people ate by doing various kinds of analysis of amphorae, jars and cooking pots sitting in museum storerooms around the world and examining the teeth of skeletons.

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fish plate
Vegetarianism was practiced and promoted by the Pythagoreans. The Pythagoreans believed in a general prohibition against eating animals on the grounds of “having a right to live in common with mankind.” It was said that Pythagoras was one of the first people to become a vegetarian for health and philosophical reasons. He ate bread and honey for his meals, with vegetables for desert, and he even abstained from eating eggs and beans. He didn’t eat meat because he believed that animals had souls. His belief about beans had nothing to do with farts. Instead it based on the belief that beans were the first offspring of the Earth. See Pythagoreans Under Philosophy

According to researchers at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki,pre-Mycenaean-age ancient Greeks fed mostly on acorns. Later, in the Mycenaean Age, bread became part daily meals and grain was the most important source of proteins and carbohydrates for both people and animals. Homer wrote that the main food sources in his time were bread, meat and wine. He mentions nothing about vegetables, despite the fact he often included details of the ancient Greek nutrition in his writings. Olive oil was known in Homer’s Greece. It was used in ancient Greek rituals and by Olympic Games athletes to anoint their body before entering the arena. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus reports that Athens was a center of olive cultivation. Scientists estimate that every adult Athenian consumed, on average, 55 litres of olive oil per year. [Source: greekreporter.com, Ancientfoods, May 11, 2012]

Excavations of a 1st century B.C. Ptolemaic sites at Tell Timai in Egypt, revealed an unusually large number of baker’s ovens, indicating the building they were found in may have been an industrial-scale bakery or perhaps a tavern. In rubbish pits archaeologists found mammal, bird, fish and mollusc remains and determined that people there ate oysters that made their up the Nile from the Mediterranean. Shellfish assemblage from the former Red Sea port of Berenike, in contrast, indicate the people there ate mollusk species that came from the Red Sea.

Homer’s Odyssey and Other Ancient Greek Sources on Food

Homer's “Odyssey”, believed to have been written around 750 B.C. about events that are supposed to have occurred around 1250 B.C., contains many references to food, particularly wine, cereals, olive oil, meat, fruits, and dairy products (milk and cheese). There is archaeological evidence that these food were consumed by the Ancient Greeks. [Source: Matthew Maher, University of Western Ontario, The Odyssey of Ancient Greek Diet, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 3, June 19, 2011]

On grains and bread, Homer wrote in the “Odyssey,” the "housekeeper brought in the bread" and "there is wheat and millet here and white barley, wide grown." One olive oil, he wrote: in the “Odyssey,” "oozes the limpid olive' oil" and "the flourishing olive". On meat; "and sacrifIce our oxen and our sheep and our fat goats" and "where his herds of swine were penned in sacrificed them." On fruits and vegetables: "pear trees and pomegranate trees and apple trees" and "rows of greens, all kinds, and these are lush". On milk and dairy products: "baskets were there, heavy with cheeses" and “he sat down and milked his sheep". (Lattimore 1965:175, 604, 107, 116, 73-74, 115, 128, 219, 244).

Grains in Ancient Greece


woman grinding wheat

In the “Odyssey,” Homer wrote: the "housekeeper brought in the bread" and "there is wheat and millet here and white barley, wide grown" (Lattimore 1965:175, 604).

Matthew Maher of the University of Western Ontario wrote: “The ancient Greeks used cereals not only as domesticate food, but also and more importantly, for bread. There is a significant amount of archaeological evidence to show the importance of cereals. At Knossos there are a number of indications that the ancient Greeks were heavy cereal eaters. In a small room later discovered to be a stable, archaeologists found stores of wheat, and it is interesting to note that it was not kept in a container (Vickery 1936). Vickery also claims that "wheat and barley certainly were the principle grains of the Aegean world". In the north, in Thessaly and Olynthus, samples of millet have been found as well as what might be rye. Moreover, German archaeologists working near Melos have discovered what they believe to be a model of a granary (Pedley 1993). [Source: Matthew Maher, University of Western Ontario, The Odyssey of Ancient Greek Diet, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 3, June 19, 2011 ><]

“The cereals used in ancient Greece are a reflection of the variable Greek climate and soil quality; for example, barley is tolerant to poorer soils and a range of climactic conditions and was, therefore, probably grown in Greece; while the more intolerant wheat was most likely imported (Craik 1997). Bread was a staple commodity to the ancient Greeks. Archaeological discoveries of certain pottery covers suggest that they had been used in ovens. Bread could be placed on a slab of stone or pottery ware, covered with a lid of the sort referred to, and placed in an oven or over coals. There is an ongoing argument to whether these ovens were known in Homeric times because mention of them is absent in his work (Vickery 1936). According to archaeological and historical data, Garnsey (1999) believes that over the years barley lost ground to wheat, husked grains lost ground to naked grains, and eventually bread was preferred over porridge. Nonetheless, it is clear that cereals played an important role in ancient Greek diet. “ ><

Rice arrived in Egypt in the 4th century B.C. Around that time India was exporting it to Greece. [Source: Ancientfoods, November 10, 2009]

Bread in Ancient Greece

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baking bread
Bread was the staple of the Greek diet. People often ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wheat and rye were grown domestically and imported from North Africa (fertile and rain-drenched in Greek and Roman times). After these grains were crushed in washing-machine-size mortars and baseball bat-size pestles they were baked into bread and boiled into a porridge-like gruel. The wheat used to make round loaves of bread in Greece today is a similar to wheat used 3,300 years ago in the Copper Age and in ancient Greek times.

Charles King wrote in his website “A History of Bread”: “The Greeks and Romans liked their bread white; colour was one of the main tests for quality at the time of Pliny (A.D. 70). Those who think the craze for white bread is a modern fad should note this. Pliny wrote: ‘The wheat of Cyprus is swarthy and produces a dark bread, for which reason it is generally mixed with the white wheat of Alexandria’.[Source: Charles King, “A History of Bread” botham.co.uk/bread|~|]

“Plato (c. 400 B.C.) pictured the ideal state where men lived to a healthy old age on wholemeal bread ground from a local wheat. Socrates, however, suggested that this proposal meant the whole population would be living on pig-food. In those days, there were certain mean bakers who kneaded the meal with sea-water to save the price of salt. Pliny did not approve of this. |~|

“In ancient Greece, keen rivalry existed between cities as to which produced the best bread. Athens claimed the laurel wreath, and the name of its greatest baker, Thearion, has been handed down through the ages in the writings of various authors. During the friendly rivalry between the towns, Lynceus sings the praises of Rhodian rolls. ‘The Athenians’, he says, ‘talk a great deal about their bread, which can be got in the market, but the Rhodians put loaves on the table which are not inferior to all of them. When our guests are given over to eating and are satisfied, a most agreeable dish is produced called the “hearth loaf”, which is made of sweet things and compounded so as to be very soft, and it is made up with such an admirable harmony of all the ingredients as to have a most excellent effect, so that often a man who is drunk becomes sober again, and in the same way, a man who has just eaten is made hungry by eating of it.’ |~|

“The island of Cyprus had a reputation for good bread. Another old writer, Eubulus, says, “Tis a hard thing, beholding Cyprian loaves, to ride carelessly by, for like a magnet, they do attract the hungry passengers.’”

Meat in Ancient Greece


Meat was rarely eaten. When it was it often came from animals sacrificed during festivals. Eating meat was closely associated with ritual sacrifice although goats, pigs, sheep and cattle had all been domesticated by this time. Fish was the main source of protein. Fish were often eaten in fish cakes. Raw oysters were considered a delicacy. In the “Odyssey,” Homer wrote: "and sacrifIce our oxen and our sheep and our fat goats" and "where his herds of swine were penned in sacrificed them." (Lattimore 1965:55, 73-74).

Sausages made by stuffing spiced meat into animal intestines were made by the Babylonians around 1500 B.C. The Greeks also ate them and the Romans called hem salsus , the source of the word sausage. In the Odyssey , Homer wrote "when a man beside a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted."

Matthew Maher of the University of Western Ontario wrote: “Small domestic animals such as fowl were most likely prepared and cooked privately in the home while the larger animals, like the ones listed above, were most commonly cooked publicly and eaten at festivals (Craik 1997). In The Odyssey, there are countless numbers of detailed descriptions of sacrifIcial arrangements, and they usually involved the blood letting of the animal followed by the consumption of the meat. Some of these sacrifIcial elements are hard to trace in the archaeological record, but the actual consumption itself is easier to distinguish. [Source: Matthew Maher, University of Western Ontario, The Odyssey of Ancient Greek Diet, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 3, June 19, 2011 ><]

“Bones of domestic animals have been found in such great quantities it is easy to assume that the ancient Greeks lived largely on meat, but this would be a mistake. Meat in the Aegean area was in relatively short supply (Vickery 1936). There is evidence that the Greeks domesticated and ate the flesh of sheep, goats, swine, and cattle. The three archaeological clues pointing to the fact they practiced domestication are "representations of men capturing cattle alive; evidence of the long-homed oxen being kept in captivity; and direct evidence of domestication". ><

An example of one of the numerous sites found that contain animal remains is Thebes. Here archaeologists have discovered the processed remains of sheep, swine, cattle, wild boars, rabbits, and even small amounts of fish vertebra (Vickery 1936). These vertebrae represent a rare find because, to the ancient Greeks, fish was more of a delicacy than a regular part of the diet (Craik 1997). Other forms of archaeological evidence can be found by examining reliefs found on both walls and pottery. A beautiful fresco from Corinth dated 500 B.C. shows a procession approaching an altar with a sheep for sacrifIce (Pedley 1993). Another good example is the Dionysus amphora mentioned above, which also shows two maenads holding up a slaughtered hare to their wine god. Meat and other foods of animal origin in the Greek world were in relatively short supply and, therefore, were probably of minor importance in the diets of the population. Meat was never a staple to the ancient Greeks and although its dietary importance was relatively small, its cultural significance was much greater” ><

Milk and Cheese in Ancient Greece


Hellenistic era cow

The fish was often cooked with cheese. In the “Odyssey,” Homer wrote: "baskets were there, heavy with cheeses" and “he sat down and milked his sheep"(Lattimore 1965:219, 244).

Matthew Maher of the University of Western Ontario wrote: “As mentioned earlier, the people of classical Greece kept sheep, goats, and cattle. It is certain that the goats and sheep yielded milk, and it is probable that besides being drunk as sweet or soured milk it was also used for making cheese (Vickery 1936). Certain seals have been found that have illustrations depicting milk jars but there is no direct evidence of the milk's source. Although it is likely that some cow's milk was used, the fact that there was a significantly larger quantity of goats, has lead archaeologists to believe that goat's milk was more common (Vickery 1936). Furthermore, because milk and cheese are perishable and not easily transported, it was probably not kept in a regular supply (Craik 1997). [Source: Matthew Maher, University of Western Ontario, The Odyssey of Ancient Greek Diet, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 3, June 19, 2011 ><]

“German archaeologists discovered a late classic relief showing a peasant driving a goat to market with what appears to be a jar of milk and a sack of cheese (Pedley 1993). Moreover, there are countless reliefs showing the milking of sheep and goats. Because of the short life and the perishable nature of milk and cheese, it will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to ever find hard evidence in the archaeological record. In this situation, like that of the fruits and vegetables, proof must be sought in other media like art and literature.” ><

Fruits in Ancient Greece

The Greco-Romans grew olives, tangerines, oranges and lemons often in poor soils.They ate figs, grapes, pears, and apples. Lemons, apricots and cherries were introduced to Rome around the A.D. 1st century. In the “Odyssey,” Homer wrote: "pear trees and pomegranate trees and apple trees "and "rows of greens, all kinds, and these are lush."

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fruit in Pompeii fresco
The fruits named in The Odyssey including apples, pears, grapes, pomegranates and figs. Grapes, dates, plums and figs were usually dried for preservation because they are better adapted to this process than apples or pears. Grapes were commonly made into wine. Other fruit juices were consumed. Matthew Maher of the University of Western Ontario wrote: Among vegetables, the ancient Greeks made the distinction between root vegetables and leafy greens and it appears that onions and garlic were the most popular. Herbs and spices were also present, and were not only used for food preparation, but were also often used for medicinal purposes. “At the ancient site of Dimini, there is a deposit that yielded the remains of wild pears and a large quantity of figs. Similarly, a site in Olynthus also yielded a significant quantity of figs (Vickery 1936)...The presence of grapes (for wine or other) has been identified in Tiryns and Sparta. [Source: Matthew Maher, University of Western Ontario, The Odyssey of Ancient Greek Diet, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 3, June 19, 2011 ><]

“There exists a portrait of a priestess from Thera in which it appears that she is holding a vessel bearing fruit of some sort (grapes or berries) (Pedley 1993). Additionally, a painting from Andriuolo dated 350 B.C. shows a woman carrying an offering that contains pomegranates. Ultimately it is easy to assume that the presence of the fruits and vegetables in the archaeological record is proof that the Greeks consumed them but this would be a precarious assumption. Only through careful excavation, taking into account the context of the food and through cross-referencing with art and literature can it be said with any degree of certainty that these fruits and vegetables were actually eaten."

Apples were mentioned in the Bible, Greek myths and the Viking sagas. The earliest apples were versions of crab apples. Pictures of apples have been found in caves used by prehistoric men. All trees which produce eating apples are believed to originate from the Malu sieversii tree, which grows in the high altitude forests of Kazakhstan. Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, means “father of apples.” Apple tree orchards are found in and around Almaty. “Aport” is a famous variety of apple with links to ancient apples. [Source: Natural History, October 2001]

Scientists believe that Malu sieversii was hybridized with crab apples native to Central Asia. Most likely these hybrids not Malu sieversii itself became the ancestors of the apples that people eat today. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were being cultivated over a wide area around the Tien Shan. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were common place around the Mediterranean. The Romans spread apple cultivation throughout their empire.

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strawberries in Pompeii fresco
Melons are one the earliest crops. Native to Iran, Turkey and western Asia, they are depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting dated to 2400 B.C. Greek documents from the 3rd century B.C. refer to them. Pliny the Elder described them in the 1st century A.D. Watermelon originated in Africa. Domesticated watermelon seeds dated to 4000 B.C. were found in the 1980s in southern Libya. Dorian Fuller of University College London told the New York Times, “The wild watermelon is a horrible, dry little gourd that grows in wadis of the northern savannahs but it has seeds you can roast up and eat.” The watermelon we eat was not developed until Roman times.

Pomegranates are ancient fruit. They are mentioned in the Bible, the Koran and the Odyssey . According to one of the most famous Greek legends, Persephone was condemned to the underworld for eating a seed from a pomegranate. The Assyrians made necklaces of gold pomegranates. Pomegranates are thought have originated in Southeast Asia. They were found in much of the ancient world and are thought to have introduced to several places by the Phoenicians. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used the fruit in their medicines.

Figs have been around since ancient times, when they were associated with magic and medicine. The Egyptians buried entire basketfuls with dead and valued them as a digestive aid. The Greeks called them “the most useful of all the fruits which grows on trees.” In the Middle Age, fig syrup was a popular sweetener.

Vegetables in Ancient Greece

The Greco-Romans grew cabbage, leeks, barley and turnips.Cucumbers were known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years.

Matthew Maher of the University of Western Ontario wrote: ““Vegetable remains are much more abundant in the archaeological record than are fruits. On the mainland, the use of leguminous vegetables is proved to go back centuries before the onset of the classical period. Excavations near Sedes have produced jars containing these dried leguminous vegetables, specifically peas and beans. These and other similar vegetables were probably raised in the household gardens as they are grown today (Vickery 1936). Of the garden vegetables, only the legumes listed above could survive, so for the other types of vegetables we must rely on other forms of evidence. In a fresco found in Praeneste, there is an image of a vegetable garden in front of a house (Pedley 1993). [Source: Matthew Maher, University of Western Ontario, The Odyssey of Ancient Greek Diet, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 3, June 19, 2011 ><]

Cabbage is the world's most widely consumed vegetable and one of the first to be harvested. Native to the Mediterranean, it was eaten by Achilles in the Iliad and is believed to have introduced it to Europe and other parts of the world by the Romans. Asparagus was a favorite of the Romans. It was used mostly as a medicine in the Middle Ages before it became a popular food in the 17th century.

Onions originated in Egypt. Egyptians believed that onions symbolized the many-layered universe. They swore oaths on onions like a modern-time Bible. Radishes were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians at least 4,000 years ago. They were eaten with onions, and garlic by workers. Egyptians believed that radishes were aphrodisiacs. Leeks were also eaten in ancient Egypt. Ovid wrote that radishes were aphrodisiacs. Martial said onions were. In a popular epigram he wrote, "If you wife is old and your member is exhausted, eat onions in plenty."

Grapes, See Wine

Olive Oil in Ancient Greece

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Greek olive gathering
Olives and olive oil were staples in ancient Greece and Rome. Olives were used as food. fuel and a trade commodity. Sophocles called olives "our sweet silvered wet nurse.” Olives were valued more as a source of fuel for oil lamps than as a food. They were also used to make soap. Olives were regarded as so precious that killing an olive tree was sometimes punished by death. In the “Odyssey,” Homer wrote: "oozes the limpid olive' oil" and "the flourishing olive" (Lattimore 1965:107, 116).

Olives and olive oil have been staples of the Mediterranean diet for millennia. Their consumption is ancient Greece and Rome has been well documented. Italian archaeologists discovered that some of the world’s oldest perfumes, made in Cyprus, were olive oil based. The commodity was also used to fire copper furnaces and light lamps.

Olives were very important to the ancient Greeks. Olive production is best when there is a dry season for the olives to develop their oil content; a cool winter for the trees to rest; a climate with no frost; and elevations lower than 800 meters — conditions that exist in much of Greece. The cultivation of olive trees, and the use of olive oil dates back to the early part of the Bronze Age. Archaeological evidence of ancient olive cultivation includes traces of ancient orchards, olive mills and presses, and lots of amphorae used to transport and store oil. [Source: Matthew Maher, University of Western Ontario, The Odyssey of Ancient Greek Diet, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 3, June 19, 2011 ><]

Matthew Maher of the University of Western Ontario wrote: “ On the island of Naxos, the actual remains of olive oil were found in a jug discovered in a tomb. Interestingly, two lamps were found alongside the oil leaving archaeologists to wrestle with the idea that the oil was actually fuel. The discovery of great quantities of storage jars leads us to believe that the oil was probably a Greek export (Vickery 1936). It appears that the olives themselves were prepared for eating while the oil was used for cooking, salad oil, and applied to the skin for hygienic and cultural reasons.

“Olives and olive oil are represented in the art of the ancient Greeks. In Cretan art, olive trees (at fIrst questionable) are now being identifIed with confIdence due to the quantity of examples. One such example is found on a painted ceiling block entitled, The Diver, dated to 480 B.C., shows two distinct representations of olive trees (Pedley 1993). Because of the extensive archaeological evidence, it can be said with a fair deal of certainty that olives already existed for centuries prior to the classical period. The olive tree was Athena's gift to the Athenians after she defeated Poseidon for possession of Athens (Mavromataki 1997). It therefore represented the strength, peace, and continuity of the Greek state. Although it is of great nutritional importance, its cultural signifIcance must not be overlooked.

Olives

Olives are fruit that comes from a gnarled tree and are a staple of the Mediterranean diet. People eat them for meals and snacks, and use olive oil for cooking and even eat on bread. They come in host of colors and textures: salty, wrinkled and black; oily and green; and even massive and purple. Italy alone is home to 60 different types of olive tree. [Source: Dora Jane Hamblin, Smithsonian; Erla Zwingle, National Geographic, September 1999]

Through the ages, olives and olive oil have been used as food, fuel, light source, lubricant, soap, mediation, weapon and sacred oil. Among the historical figures who ate olives were Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Christ, the Apostles, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Columbus and Galileo.

A food critic who divided Europe into regions of butter, lard and olive oil and discovered the most passionate people lived in regions dominated by olive oil. It also the lifeblood for regions have difficulty producing other crops. "The olive tree looks like death, but to countries where it grows, it sometimes literally means life. The olive is as much a savior of man in semi-arid areas of poor soil as the date of the oases in the desert."

The olive is a drupe, or stone fruit, like a plum or cherry. Olives start out green and very bitter and turn black when they mature. A bitter olive eaten raw off a tree is like eating "a unplucked chicken or a an uncooked potato." Different varieties of olives are usually picked at different points in the development of the fruit. Green olives generally have more Vitamin E and less oil than black olives, which have a stronger flavor and more oil. Most green olives are eaten whole rather than made into oil. Only 10 percent the olive crop is eaten as olives. Most is made into oil.

Olive Agriculture and Olive Oil Production. See Agriculture

Websites and Resources: Olive Oil Source oliveoilsource.com ; Olive Oil articles in Global Gourmet globalgourmet.com/ ; Wikipedia article on Olive Oil Wikipedia ; An Ode to Olives: emeraldworld.net ; Making Olive Oil oliveoilsource ; Type of Olives foodsubs.com/Olivpick ;

Book: Olives, the Life and Love of a Noble Fruit by Mort Rosenblum (North Point/ Farrar Straus Giroux).

History of Olives


ancient olive tree in Pelion, Greece

Olives were one of the first processed foods. At a Stone Age site in Spain 8000-year-old olive seeds were found and archeologist speculate that the olives had to have been processed somehow, otherwise they would have been too bitter to eat.

The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all consumed olives and olive oil. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C. and spread to Syria and Turkey and reached the ancient Egypt around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptian were using olive purchased from Palestine long before that). The Phoenicians took olives to Carthage and Greece and the Greeks took them to Italy, southern Spain, and Sicily. The Romans brought them to southern France.

The Greeks and Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and fragrances, as a base for perfumes and treatment for heart ailments, hair loss, stomach aches and excessive perspiration. The Greeks rubbed cult statues with olive oil. Romans burned it in the alter of their gods. Greek athletes anointed their bodies with olive oil scented with flowers and roots when they worked out and competed.

Greeks believed that olive oil was a gift to humanity from Athena and Olympic champions were rewarded with a crown of olives. Zeus decreed that the city that would become Athens would given to the god who produced the most useful thing for mankind. Poseidon gave them a horse. Athena stamped on the ground with a spear: an olive tree sprung up. The people liked olives so much that Zeus gave the city that became named after her. The olive branch became a symbol of peace.

In the Roman Empire olive oil was a major cash crop. Consumption by individuals rose to as much as 50 liters a year and some families grew quite rich trading it. In many ways olive oil was valued as much in ancient times as petroleum is today, with governments going to great lengths to make sure there was a steady supply. Some emperors gave it out free to the masses as part of their bread and circuses policy.

Jesus was anointed with olive oil (Christ means the "anointed one") and olive trees that date back to Christian times can still be found on Israel. Olives were also important to Muslims. Islam's oldest university, in Tunisia is named al-Zitouna “the Olive Tree.

Attica fell to Sparta after the Spartans uprooted their rivals olive trees.

Olive Oil


olive oil extractor-juicer from Dion, Greece

Olive oil is a fruit juice (the only edible oil made from a fruit). It is prized for its rich flavor, purity and lack of greasiness. The oil content of an olive varies from 8 percent to more than 20 percent of the olive's weight, including the pit. Oil-rich varieties are generally used for making oil while less-rich strains are used for eating.

Most olives are made into olive oil. Oil-grade olives are usually 20 to 40 percent oil, not including the pit. The best grades of olive oil---virgin, sublime or 1st expressed oil---come from the pulp of olives picked in the brief time after they are ripened but before they turn black.

Olive oil is used to make salad dressings or to dip bread and can even be consumed by itself. Olive oil changes little at high temperatures, which makes ideal for cooking. It also an excellent preservative, used for keeping fish, cheese and even wine for years. Olive oil soaps don't produce much lather but they leave the skin feeling luxuriously smooth. Olive oil is also used in cosmetics; as a lubricant; to comb wool; and to polish diamonds.

Nuts and Spices in Ancient Greece and Rome

Almonds are one of the world's oldest cultivated crops. The ancient Mesopatamians used almond oil as a body moisturizer, perfume and hair conditioner. Almonds have been in the found in Minoan place in Knossos and were a favorite dessert food of the Greeks. They and pistachios are the only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.

Salt was highly valued. Both the Greeks and Romans salted their sacrifices before their throats were cut and salt was so valuable Roman soldiers were paid a salarium (salary) to buy salt and productive workers were said to be "worth their salt."

Garlic was consumed by the ancient Egyptians. The pyramid builders ate lot of it along with onions. . One of the first recorded strikes occurred when their garlic ration was reduced. A slave could be bought for seven kilograms of it. Garlic was also consumed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Romans regarded it as a food for the lower classes. Roman legions wore it on their bodies to ward off colds.An Ancient Greek spell on being able to eat garlic and not stink read:: Bake Beetroots and eat them. [Papyri Graecae Magicae VII.173] |+|

The Romans and Greeks regarded garlic and leeks as aphrodisiacs. Truffles, artichokes and oysters were also associated with sexuality. Anise-tasting fennel was popular with Greeks who thought it made a man strong. The Romans thought it improved eyesight.

Ginger was a popular spice in ancient Greece and Rome. Ginger shakers were often placed on the table along with ones for salt and pepper. The word "ginger" came to mean spices in general. Pliny believed that pepper was a stimulant. Ginger is one of the earliest spices known in Western Europe. It imported from India as far back as Greek times.

The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom as a teeth cleaner. The Greeks and Romans used as perfume. Vikings that traveled through Russia to Constantinople brought it back to Scandinavia, where it remains popular today. Arabs ascribed aphrodisiac qualities to it and was mentioned a number of times in Arabian Nights .

Cloves and nutmeg were seen by Romans as appetite stimulants. The ancient Greeks grew sage and used cumin, thyme, coriander and poppy seeds in their cooking. They considered parsley to be too sacred to eat and the Romans set the precedent of using it as garnish, so it could be used over and over. Cloves were delivered to the Romans from present-day Indonesia by Arab traders and prized as a medicament in medieval times.

Evidence of herb and tree resin-flavored foods and drinks have been found the ancient world. A 2,400-year-old Greek shipwreck yielded a retsina-type wine, flavored and preserved with tree resin, and a salad-dressing-type oil that contained so much antioxidant-promoting oregano it mixture remained relatively unchanged when it was discovered. [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, April 14,2009 ><]

There were few sweets however. Things like sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and chocolate were not introduced to Europe until much later. Nor was there any coffee or tea. Honey was the primary sweetener.

Mycenaeans Used Grills and Non-Stick Pans To Make Souvlaki and Bread


crockery display

In 2014, researchers reported that ancient Mycenaeans used ceramic portable grill pits to make souvlaki and non-stick pans and griddel made of clay to make bread more than 3,000 years ago, It wasn’t clear how these types of pans were used, said Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College, presenting her research at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting. “We don’t have any recipes,” she told LiveScience. “What we do have are tablets that talk about provisions for feasts, so we have some idea of what the ingredients might have been, but in terms of understanding how people cooked, the cooking pots are really our best bet.” [Source:Megan Gannon, Live Science, January 08, 2014 ~~]

Megan Gannon wrote in Live Science: “The souvlaki trays were rectangular ceramic pans that sat underneath skewers of meat. Scientists weren’t sure whether these trays would have been placed directly over a fire, catching fat drippings from the meat, or if the pans would have held hot coals like a portable barbeque pit. The round griddles, meanwhile, had one smooth side and one side covered with tiny holes, and archaeologists have debated which side would have been facing up during cooking. To solve these culinary mysteries, Hruby and ceramicist Connie Podleski, of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, mixed American clays to mimic Mycenaean clay and created two griddles and two souvlaki trays in the ancient style. With their replica coarsewares, they tried to cook meat and bread. ~~

“Hruby and Podleski found that the souvlaki trays were too thick to transfer heat when placed over a fire pit, resulting in a pretty raw meal; placing the coals inside the tray was a much more effective cooking method. “We should probably envision these as portable cooking devices — perhaps used during Mycenaean picnics,” Hruby said. As for the griddles, bread was more likely to stick when it was cooked on the smooth side of the pan. The holes, however, seemed to be an ancient non-sticking technology, ensuring that oil spread quite evenly over the griddle. ~~

“Lowly cooking pots were often overlooked, or even thrown out, during early excavations at Mycenaean sites in the 20th century, but researchers are starting to pay more attention to these vessels to glean a full picture of ancient lifestyles. As for who was using the souvlaki trays and griddles, Hruby says it was likely chefs cooking for the Mycenaean ruling class.“They’re coming from elite structures, but I doubt very much that the elites were doing their own cooking,” Hruby told LiveScience. “There are cooks mentioned in the Linear B [a Mycenaean syllabic script] record who have that as a profession — that’s their job — so we should envision professional cooks using these.” ~~

“Gourmet” Magazine circa A.D. 200

The eight-volume “The Deipnosophists,” written by Egyptian author Athenaeus around A.D. 200, is an invaluable source on food in the ancient world. Ancient-food expert Louis Grivetti called it a bonus edition of “Gourmet” magazine circa A.D. 200. [Source: Ancientfoods, October 27, 2009; UC Davis News and Information, January 2004]

According to Ancientfoods.com: “The Deipnosophists is an important source of cookery recipes in classical Greek. It quotes the original text of one recipe from the lost cookbook by Mithaecus, the oldest in Greek and the oldest recipe by a named author in any language. Other authors quoted for their recipes include Glaucus of Locri, Dionysius, Epaenetus, Hegesippus of Tarentum, Erasistratus, Diocles of Carystus, Timachidas of Rhodes, Philistion of Locri, Euthydemus of Athens, Chrysippus of Tyana and Paxamus.

“Grivetti discovered that the most sublime olive oil was produced in the southern Italian town of Thurii, the most superior milk goats were raised on the Greek island of Scyros and the cuisine on Chios, an Aegean island off the coast of Turkey, “was best known for its dainty dishes.” “Back then it was the guidebook to the known world, from Iberia to central Europe to India and North Africa,” Grivetti says. The tastiest water and most original breads in the shapes of animals came from the district of Attica, which included Athens, while Sicily boasted the choicest cheese and Cyprus the sweetest pomegranates.

First Chickens in the West


jungle fowl (chicken)

Some of the earliest evidence of chickens being consumed as food in the West comes from Maresha, an ancient, abandoned city in Israel that flourished in the Hellenistic period from 400 to 200 B.C.. “The site is located on a trade route between Jerusalem and Egypt,” says Lee Perry-Gal, a doctoral student in the department of archaeology at the University of Haifa. As a result, it was a meeting place of cultures, “like New York City,” she says. [Source: Daniel Charles, NPR, July 20, 2015]

Daniel Charles of NPR wrote: “The surprising thing was not that chickens lived here. There’s evidence that humans have kept chickens around for thousands of years, starting in Southeast Asia and China. But those older sites contained just a few scattered chicken bones. People were raising those chickens for cockfighting, or for special ceremonies. The birds apparently weren’t considered much of a food.

In Maresha, though, something changed. The site contained more than a thousand chicken bones. “They were very, very well-preserved,” says Perry-Gal, whose findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Perry-Gal could see knife marks on them from butchering. There were twice as many bones from female birds as male. These chickens apparently were being raised for their meat, not for cockfighting.

Perry-Gal says there could be a couple of reasons why the people of Maresha decided to eat chickens. Maybe, in the dry Mediterranean climate, people learned better how to raise large numbers of chickens in captivity. Maybe the chickens evolved, physically, and became more attractive as food. But Perry-Gal thinks that part of it must have been a shift in the way people thought about food. “This is a matter of culture,” she says. “You have to decide that you are eating chicken from now on.”

In the history of human cuisine, Maresha may mark a turning point. Barely a century later, the Romans starting spreading the chicken-eating habit across their empire. “From this point on, we see chicken everywhere in Europe,” Perry-Gal says. “We see a bigger and bigger percent of chicken. It’s like a new cellphone. We see it everywhere.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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