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E - 65 : What Did Ordinary Greek Eat?

It occurred to me today that in two months’ time we will set sail in Malta. Better hurry up with my blogs as there are still so many topics to cover.

Have covered over the last few weeks the cuisine in Sicily (D – 48, D + 22), Calabria (E – 160), Puglia (E – 154) and Greece (E - 85). But what did the ancient Greek who lived in Magna Graecia and Mainland Greece actually eat? The same food?

Greek symposium where men eat, drank, socialised & philosophised - wives were excluded


Ancient Greek loved to decorate their pottery with lively pictures. We thus know from the vases made in Athens and Corinth about the lavish banquets of the male elite (3% of people). In “the Deipnosophist”, a cookbook from around 200 AD, there are many ancient recipes. It was written by Athenaeus of Naucratis, a Greco-Egyptian writer. Some people call his book “the gourmet magazine of antient times”. The Deipnosophist compiles references from 2’500 sources – sadly most of the original books have not survived. Athenaeus commented also on the quality of wine (apparently Thurii has the best – we are going to visit in week 2) and food (the Greek island of Chios has the best cooks – we visit next year). He also shared his views on luxury, music, sexual habits, literary gossip, and art.

A renaissance copy of Athenaeus book "Deipnosophist"


The cornerstones of any ancient Greek cuisine were cereals, olives, and wine. During their banquets, the Greek elite consumed also large quantities of fresh meat and fish plus a lot of vegetables and fruits. Meat was barbecued, roasted, or boiled; cheese and spices used lavishly to condition. When dishes were sweetened honey or raisins were used. Wine was consumed so lavishly that the Greek writer Aeschylus noted “Greek to be so drunk as to break their vessels about one another’s head”. Maybe that is the origin of breaking plates at weddings? Who knows!

All ancient shipwrecks found so far were filled with hundreds of amphorae for trading wine


But what and how did ordinary people eat? Definitely far less glamourous and much closer to subsistence level. There is an excellent series on YouTube called “Journey of Greek Food” – in 5 episodes. Very well done and worth the five hours it takes to watch.



The staple food for ordinary Greek people were cereals – barley and wheat. Barley was mostly used for stews and soups. Wheat for making bread. But bread was not eaten fresh as today. Nobody could afford to bake more than once a month. Hard and dried, it was added to soups and stews to thicken them.

Contemporary vegan stew with barley and lentils


Life in ancient times was challenging. One out of four cereal harvests failed and half the time the planted vegetables did not grow to the size expected. Food had to be carefully rationed. during summertime to build reserves for the winter months; during wintertime to wait for the first harvest in May. Thus, nothing was ever thrown away. What we call “leftover food” was the daily meal for everybody – all the time. Year in, year out. For centuries.

The meat of the piglet sacrified was distributed to all the participants of the religious ritual


Most of what we know about the food of ordinary people is the result of recent archeology. Modern scientific methods allow us today to analyze the leftovers in cooking pits, hearths, and ovens. From these digs we know that ordinary Greeks had no access to meat. They got maybe 1 – 2 kilo per year – mostly from animals sacrificed during religious festivals. The ceremonial slaughter of goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle took place in public, religious spaces and not at homes. I thus believe that the large religious centres smelled a lot like barbecue places today. When visiting temples this summer, we need to find the alters where the animals were slaughters – sorry sacrificed. There must be many.


One of the reasons ordinary Greek did not touch their goats and sheep except for sacrifice was their capacity to produce milk. Archeologists found milk residue in cooking pottery - apparently the remainders of stews or soups made with barley and milk. There is a very similar dish in Switzerland, still eaten in the mountains: Barley Soup from Grison – made this way.


Of course, most people were also eating vegetables – but not the ones we are used to in today’s supermarkets. The dominant vegetables in Greece were beans, peas, cabbage, and onions. They made good ingredients for the daily stews and provided variety.

We should not forget the omnipresent olives which made it into every meal – stews. Greek people at the time did not eat raw salad – eating non-cooked food was far too dangerous. But as anybody travelling to the Provence knows, olive oil makes good shampoo, body lotion, soap, and light for the hours after dark. Olive oil had so many purposes in antiquity.


Given the frequent occurrence of failing harvests, there was often not enough food to last to the next harvest. On people’s menu plan we thus find acorns and cycads, the noisy crickets that keep us up at night. Apparently, they are a good source of protein and delicious when dried. Have never tasted one and cannot comment.


Life was harsh and challenging in the millennium before our time. Our romanticized view of ancient Greek cuisine is colored by the reports from the rich elite. Ordinary people more often faced starvation. It is thus no wonder why Greeks were eager to emigrate and establish new colonies. There was a better life beyond the horizon. The numbers tell it all. During its peak time in the 5th century BC, Athens had 200’000 citizens – made possible by large silver mines at the tip of Attica. The colonial towns of Syracuse and Taranto in Magna Graecia had 250’000 respectively 300’000 citizens – and no silver.









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