Ancient Recipe: Maza (Ancient Greek, ca. 2nd millennium BCE)

“My maza comes to me from my spear, from my spear comes my Ismarian wine, and I drink while leaning on my spear.” ~ the Greek warrior-poet Archilochus explains how he earns his keep

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Balls of maza.

Barley is one of the most ancient crops known to humanity. It was the staple crop of Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as Greece, where it is referenced in some of the earliest written inscriptions. An example of the centrality of barley to the Greek diet can be found in the name of the Greek goddess of the harvest: Demeter, from dēa métēr, “Barley Mother”.

While various ancient cultures venerated barley, they differed in how they made use of it. Porridge is perhaps the simplest preparation, since it requires nothing more than whole grains, water and fire. There are numerous accounts of porridge throughout the ancient world, made from barley as well as other grains, and it likely dates back to humanity’s earliest farming days. Bread and beer are comparatively more complicated to produce and are therefore more recent innovations. While barley beer was cherished in Egypt and Mesopotamia, barley bread often had a lesser reputation. Barley is harder to refine into flour than other grains such as wheat, and barley bread (especially with the pre-Industrial technology of ancient times) arguably inferior to wheat bread, being more dense and less chewy. In Egypt and Mesopotamia alike, everyone drank barley beer and those who could afford it enjoyed wheat bread, while barley bread and porridge were staples of the lower classes.

The Greeks disdained beer as a drink for barbarians. They did make porridge and bread, and agreed with other ancient peoples that barley bread wasn’t really worth the trouble. But their preference was to serve barley in a unique form somewhere between porridge and bread; an intermediate recipe called maza (μᾶζα in Greek letters, and originally pronounced like “mahsdah”)

Maza begins as álphita: barley flour that has been toasted over a fire, giving it a dark brown color and a nutty aroma and flavor. This rich flour is mixed into a dough with hot water and a little bit of oil (and perhaps salt). No baking is required, as the flour has already been cooked. The maza is then shaped into balls or pancakes. Sometimes small maza dumplings were added to broth to create an ancient matzoh ball soup.

Maza is believed to date back to well before the emergence of a recognizable Greek civilization, and is referenced by very early Greek authors such as Archilochus above, who lived in the 600s BCE. Maza requires very little effort or technology to produce and is both nourishing and versatile. It should come as no surprise, then, that of the many ancient cultures who made use of barley, the Greeks were not the only ones who came up with this particular recipe. In Tibet, a very similar dish is called tsampa, and is such an important part of local culture even today that Tibetans sometimes refer to themselves as “tsampa-eaters”.

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Your barley flour should look something like this when it’s ready to be mixed with water, salt and oil. Make sure you stir thoroughly to distribute the heat.

 

The Ancient Greeks prided themselves on a simple, hearty diet, believing it the source of their strength and, to some degree, their superiority. The varied cuisines of other peoples like the Persians were looked down upon as decadent, diet seen as evidence of moral character (“you are what you eat”). Maza has few ingredients, does not require much preparation, and is quite filling: thus, it checks off all the criteria of an ideal Greek staple.

In Greek dining, food was divided into two broad categories. Sitos was the grain–the bread, porridge or maza that formed the basis of the meal. In hard times sitos could be a meal on its own; in the play Eirēnē (“Peace”), Aristophanes describes a prisoner as “eating nothing but barley”, a Greek equivalent of our phrase “bread and water.” But most of the time, you would want your sitos with something tastier to go on top of it. This is where the other broad food category, opson, comes in. Opson was formerly translated into English as “relish“, but it covers a broad range of dishes, from vegetables and cheese to fish and meat. Containing ingredients that were more costly and less common overall, opson dishes were cherished and celebrated. The balance between richly flavored opson and bland sitos in the Ancient Greek meal calls to mind a similar concept in Japanese and Korean cuisines, where a varied assortment of dishes (called okazu and banchan, respectively) is served in small portions with rice.

THE RECIPE*

First, make your álphita. Pour 1 and 1/4 cups of barley flour into a skillet over medium-high heat.  Stir it thoroughly with a wooden spoon until it gives off a toasted aroma and turns a rich brown color. Then, remove from the heat and add 1/2 a cup of water, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Continue stirring until you have an even, thick dough.

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Half-mixed maza dough.

 

You might need to add a little more water. Once your dough has cooled, you can shape it as desired. Note that it is not flexible enough to knead like bread dough.

Your maza is now ready to serve: make sure you have some opson ready!

THE VERDICT

Maza has a pleasant, nutty flavor, and I’ve especially enjoyed it with a simple spread of mashed olives, garlic, olive oil and minced herbs. I’m sure it would also be great with cheese or anything with a sauce that you might dip bread into. Just don’t overindulge in the delights of opson, lest you be branded a gluttonous opsophagos, literally “opson-eater.” Barley, the ancient mother that sustained the Greeks, is still pretty good on its own. VIII out of X.

*adapted from Cooking in Ancient Civilizations by Cathy Kaufman (2006)

Adventures in Spit-Roasting

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“Therefore death to us is nothing, nor concerns us in the least, since nature of mind is mortal evermore.” ~ Lucretius, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), Book III

Last week, I went back to my college (Bard) to help out with an Ancient Roman dinner party being hosted by the Classics Department. I jumped at the chance when one of my former professors invited me, not least because he told me that the student hosts of the party were planning to spit-roast a whole lamb. You just don’t get too many opportunities to do that when you live in Brooklyn.

The party was held at a large house off-campus, and my hosts were already well-prepared for their guests by the time I arrived. I was impressed and delighted to find a whole assortment of Roman delicacies: spiced wine, crepes with honey and sesame seeds, a nut omelette, asparagus patina (based on the same recipe I recently posted my own version of), and more. I brought a few ingredients and supplies they requested, such as the piney resin mastic, which went into the spiced wine. I also contributed three Roman dishes: posca or vinegar-water, savory biscuits called mustacei, and a bean mash flavored with honey, ginger and leeks. But the main event was out in the backyard, where a huge black rotisserie grill awaited: not to mention our 32-pound friend Lucretius the lamb, already skinned and cleaned.

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Mustacei, from Cato the Elder’s De agri cultura (On Farming), is one of the oldest known Roman recipes, dating to about 160 BCE. In addition to the grape juice (mustum) that gives them their name, they also contain spices and sheep cheese.

 

The hosts and I started on the lamb right away, which was definitely a 2-3 person job. We pressed cloves of garlic into the flesh and rubbed the lamb all over with lemon juice, oil, and the Roman spice long pepper, which I’ve been saving for just such an occasion. Eyes stinging from the increasingly smoky coals in the bottom of the grill, we stretched Lucretius out and secured his feet and head with twine. Handfuls of lemon rinds, garlic, herbs and bread went into the lamb’s body cavity before we sewed it shut, closed the lid of the grill and plugged it in.

While Lucretius turned over the flames, we went back to preparing the rest of the party. It wasn’t long before crowds of Bard students and faculty swooped in to taste the Roman table-spread laid out on the back porch. The excitement in the air was palpable; everyone knew what we were really there for. At last, after two or three hours, the outside of the lamb was crispy and black and the meat looked cooked through. With much assistance and not quite enough heat-proof gloves to go around, we managed to carefully lift our prize out of the grill and maneuver it to a nearby folding table.

From there, my hosts handed me a large knife and put me to work carving Lucretius, a task which naturally attracted a crowd of onlookers. One girl murmured “I can’t watch this” after a minute or two and walked away. On the other hand, one of my former professors jumped right in with a smaller knife and started cutting a portion for herself off the neck.

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One of the hosts readies Lucretius for the fire.

The end result was delicious! I even got to try an assortment of organs, which we cooked separately (eyeball, kidney, liver, heart, lungs, brain, in order from worst to best). The outside of the meat had that charred, smoky taste that you can only get from cooking over an open flame. So much food in the ancient world had that flavor, and as attached as I am to my bottle of liquid smoke, there’s just no substitute. For me, the taste of woodsmoke was the most authentically Roman detail of the whole party.

Now that I know what to expect from a full lamb, it makes me want to try boodog (the ancient Mongolian roasting method: cook the animal inside its own skin with scalding-hot rocks). Maybe next time I have a yard to work in….

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Bardians enjoying our Roman dinner.