Ancient Recipe: Ptisane [Barley Water] (Greek, at least 5th century BCE)

“[Barley] groats belong to the wheat family. They have juice that is quite nourishing and tenacious.”
~ Aelius Galenus (Galen), De alimentorum facultatibus (On the Properties of Foodstuffs), early 2nd century CE

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Continuing my tradition of posting every ancient beverage I make in this glass…

Even after wheat bread became the favorite of the Mediterranean world, barley retained special significance as the first grain eaten by mankind, the primordial source of sustenance. The Greeks ingested their precious barley in many forms: as bread, as roasted flour or maza (a recipe I reconstructed here), and in beverages like kykeon and ptisane (πτισάνη, ptee-sah-nay).

While the peoples of the Ancient Near East made barley into beer, Greek kykeon and ptisane were not fermented, although both could be mixed with wine. The two are often confused with one another, equated as the same in a grammar lexicon of the fourth century. And both seem to have blurred the lines between our modern categories of food versus drink. In Homer’s Iliad, goat cheese is grated over a kykeon before serving, and later writers like the 12th-century Eustathius describe it as a thick barley soup. Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE mentions ptisane variations containing whole barley grains and warns that these must be cooked to their maximum softness, lest they expand in the stomach and cause indigestion (this perfectly reasonable warning is repeated centuries later by the physician Galen, quoted above).

So what was the difference between kykeon and ptisane? One clue can be found in the etymology of their names. Kykeon literally means “mixture”; ptisane comes from the verb ptíssein, to peel or crush. The main ingredient in kykeon is alphita, ground barley meal or flour, while the word ptisane can refer to hulled (peeled) barley grains as well as the drink made from them. In surviving literature, ptisane exists in strained and unstrained forms; kykeon does not. So while kykeon resembled modern grits or polenta, ptisane consisted of whole grains cooked in water, or, if strained, barley water.

This red-figure vase from around 490 BCE, by an artist named Brygos, is believed by some to depict the kykeon scene in the Iliad, when an enslaved woman named Hecamede prepares a wine and cheese kykeon for the elderly King Nestor. Others identify these figures as the old warrior Phoenix with the enslaved Briseis (there are a lot of enslaved women in the Iliad…)

Aside from being nutritious and plentiful, water leftover from cooking grain would have been safer to drink than fresh water in ancient times, having been boiled. Even today, barley water is enjoyed wherever barley is grown, from sweet jau ka sattu in Pakistan and roasted barley tea in East Asia to the Robinson brand lemon barley water traditionally served to players at Wimbledon. Through Latin tisana, Greek ptisane gives rise to the archaic French and English word tisane (tee-zahn), which can refer to barley water or any type of herbal tea.

Hippocrates and Galen both write at length about the properties and variations of ptisane, though they are more concerned with its medicinal than its culinary value. Hippocrates recommended ptisane for the healthy and the sick alike; indeed, barley is rich in fiber, niacin, thiamine, and other valuable nutrients. Galen rightfully considers unstrained ptisane more nutritious than strained, but he acknowledges the popularity of strained barley water when he uses it as a generic example of a liquid people consume, along with soups (rofēma) and milk, in his treatise on the human digestive system.

Galen mentions many possibilities for flavoring barley water–olive oil, salt, cumin, honeyed wine, vinegar–but he himself recommends dill and leeks. My recipe includes honey and two of the most popular herbs in Ancient Greek cuisine: mint and oregano. As both kykeon and ptisane were general terms referring to a preparation technique, we can assume they varied based on personal taste, what else the chef had on hand, and whether the liquid food was meant to fortify or refresh.

THE RECIPE

1 cup barley
6 cups water
1 tablespoon honey
A few sprigs each of fresh mint and/or oregano

Bring the water to a boil over medium-low heat. Add the barley, cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the barley is cooked.

Remove from the heat and strain out the barley, reserving the water in a bowl. Save the cooked barley for another recipe (unless you wish to incur the wrath of Demeter, Greek goddess of grain).

While the water is still hot, add the honey and herbs. Remove the herbs after 20 minutes and stir thoroughly to ensure the honey dissolves.

Like other forms of tea, ptisane can be enjoyed hot or cold.

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THE VERDICT

The delicate, milky flavor of barley water takes on a light sweetness from the honey and a slight spiciness from the the oregano and mint. I find it really refreshing when served ice cold, although that’s not particularly Ancient Greek.

In my classes on Ancient Greek cuisine and the Eleusinian Mysteries (secret religious rites in which kykeon was ritually consumed) I’ve served this recipe in place of kykeon. My first attempts at recreating kykeon didn’t go over so well with a modern audience, but I’m determined to figure out an appetizing version of Homer’s cheesy grits with wine. Stay tuned for further barley experiments!

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)