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.

Cheese and Other Updates

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I’ve had a busy summer. Aside from my earlier vacation, I worked at an amazing culinary camp through CampusNYC, where I got to teach groups of teens about the history and science of food. Now I’m off on my last major event of the season: Burning Man 2017. This is my first time going to Burning Man, and while I’m not exactly certain what I’ll encounter out there, I know it will delay my next blog post. Expect a new ancient recipe in early September.

For now, I wanted to provide some updates about a recipe from the Medieval Islamic world that I posted some time ago: kamakh rijal, the remarkably simple recipe that uses salt and natural probiotic cultures to ferment milk into spreadable cheese. Last time, I wrote about the first six weeks. For the cheese to reach its final stage, I had to wait a total of 15 weeks before adding seasonings and transferring it from its original container. I am happy to say I am now the proud owner of several quarts of kamakh rijal.

Now that the cheese is officially ready to serve, I moved it from the counter to the fridge to slow down the fermentation process. Following the instructions of the original recipe in the Medieval Book of Dishes, I mixed in equal amounts of garlic and mint leaves (minced) and nigella seeds (one and a half tablespoons of each for the large amount of cheese I had–about 6 cups. That’s almost exactly the amount of milk and yogurt that went into the cheese in the first place). Nigella, also called black cumin or black caraway, is a spice that was widely-used in the ancient world, even being found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The seeds are similar in appearance to black sesame seeds, but the flavor is unique and powerful, like onion mixed with anise. In Armenia and Syria, nigella is still used to flavor cheese today (especially string cheese), while modern-day South Asians use the spice in naan and other breads.

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This is what the cheese looked like immediately after being transferred to a larger bowl for mixing. Less solid than it looks.

Kamakh rijal was likely intended to be served on flatbread, ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisines to this day. I’ve been experimenting with different ways to use it beyond its original context. It’s good on crackers and raw vegetable sticks or in a sandwich. Because the flavor is so strong, it is best-used sparingly and pairs well with milder ingredients like celery, tomato or lettuce. I could imagine using it in tuna salad, or anywhere you might use an herb cream cheese or goat cheese.

I used some of the kamakh rijal with milk, flour, butter and spinach to make a cheese sauce. I also made chicken rollatini using it as filling. The flavor of the cheese was a little overpowering in the chicken, but I really liked the cheese sauce on pasta or baked potatoes.

If the garlic/nigella/mint combination doesn’t appeal to you, you could try mixing it with dried rose and cinnamon (another suggestion from the Book of Dishes) or other flavorings of your choice. VII out of X.

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Kamakh rijal-stuffed chicken cutlet, topped with dried mint and onions and served with asparagus on the side.