Ancient Eater: Archestratus, the OG (Original Gourmand) (Greek, 4th century BCE)

“Now the best [flour] to get ahold of and the finest of all, cleanly bolted from barley with a good grain, is in Lesbos…it is whiter than snow from the sky. If the gods eat barley groats, then Hermes must come and buy it for them there. In seven-gated Thebes too it is reasonably good, and in Thasos and some other cities, but it is like grape pips compared with that of Lesbos.” ~Archilochus, Hedypatheia
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The cryptic, idealized “Archaic smile” was a trademark of early Greek sculpture. This particular woman is clearly smiling because she read Archestratus and knows where to find the best food in Greece (or maybe she just got Sappho’s number). Photo by Xuan Che (2011)

Ancient Greek history is divided into a number of different periods, which represent a cultural flowering between periods of shift and disruption. The Greeks as a recognizable culture emerge around 1600 BCE, the Mycenaean Period. After the unknown catastrophes of the Greek Dark Ages, the Greeks reemerge in the Archaic Period. Another great disruption (the Persian Wars) at the dawn of the fifth century BCE brings about the Classical Age.

Every period of Greek history has its famous writers: Homer, Sappho, Aristotle, etc, etc. Yet alongside these poets and philosophers is another writer whose work is less well-known, but whose influence is no less great: Archestratus. Contemporaries nicknamed him “Daedalus” after the mythological figure, but Archestratus was no genius inventor; he was a food critic. In fact, he is the earliest known.

THE FACTS

Archestratus was from Syracuse in modern Sicily, part of a region that has long been famous for its cuisine. The food of the Greek cities of southern Italy was so well-known that they are credited with establishing the first patents, protecting the recipes of master chefs as intellectual property. We don’t know whether Archestratus ever trained as a chef, but he certainly would have grown up in an environment that cherished and celebrated the power of good food.

Archestratus’ greatest work is the Hedypatheia or “Life of Luxury”, a poem that tells readers where to find the best food in Greece. The surviving fragments of his work reveal Archestratus as a highly educated, somewhat cantankerous man; someone with a love for hyperbole and strong opinions about everything. Just take the quote above about comparative flour-shopping, or the recipe below:

“Now the kitharos [a type of fish], provided it is white and firm, I order you to stew in clean salt water with a few green leaves. If it has a reddish/yellow appearance and is not too big, then you must bake it, having pricked its body with a straight and newly sharpened knife. And anoint it with plenty of cheese and oil, for it takes pleasure in big spenders and is unchecked in extravagance.”

Like many Greek writers, we don’t actually know much about Archestratus’s life, but his unique sensibilities ensured him a great but not entirely flattering legacy. To the Ancient Greeks, especially those of the mainland, diet was viewed as a signifier of character. Decent, honest Greeks ate simple, hearty meals. The Greeks of southern Italy, with their highly-developed culinary traditions, developed a reputation among other Greeks for being “soft” and unmanly. A famous joke has a native of the Italian city of Sybaris gagging at the plainness of Spartan cuisine and remarking, “now I know why the Spartans do not fear death.”

THE FOOD

Archestratus, with his love of comparing different foods and reveling in “unchecked extravagance”, was often regarded as a morally suspect glutton, on par with the worst stereotypes of his native city and even foreign “barbarians” like the Carthaginians or the Persians, who were also mocked by the Greeks for their obsession with food. A stock character in Greek comic theater–the snooty professional chef whose opinions on food are as elitist as they are unshakeable–is almost certainly meant to lampoon him. Critics compared Life of Luxury with a controversial sex manual written by the courtesan Philaenis. The connection? Both texts that might corrupt readers into naughty, indulgent behavior (the Greeks were, after all, the people who invented the saying “everything in moderation“).

That Archestratus should even be interested in the “best food in Greece” hints at the great diversity surrounding him. Not least among the differences between Greek cities was their taste in food. In the fish recipe quoted above, Archestratus alludes to the fact that he and other Greeks of the western colonies put melted cheese on fish; a custom which mainland Greeks lamented as ruining the flavor. These cultural divisions within Greece go back a long time, to the development of Greek cities as independent nations back in the Mycenaean Period. The constant battle for resources in the harsh environment of Bronze Age Greece led the first Greeks to turn inwards. Each city bristled against its neighbors and worked to bind its own population together, encouraging communal rituals like dining that helped the people work as a unit and support one another. From a basic need for stability grew elaborate ritualized meals, like the lively entertainments of the symposium, or the syssitia, the mandatory shared “military mess” of Spartan men. And the more the people of a Greek city ate together, the more they developed a shared culture unique to themselves.

By Archestratus’ lifetime, the encroaching predations of the Persian Empire had long-since forced the Greeks to band together politically, but the old differences were still there. Well beyond the Classical Period, they are a prominent source of comedic material in a text called the Deipnosophistae (“The Philosopher’s Dinner”). In this culinary text dating some seven hundred years after Archestratus’ death, many jokes are made about the differing vocabulary across dialects and the varied culinary tastes of the Greeks. When one Greek proclaims ray the tastiest fish, another replies “yes, if you like eating a boiled cloak.”  Through the lens of food culture, Archestratus captured the cultural spirit of his time.

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)