Outside of Asia Minor and the Balkans, it is rare to hear about this ancient concoction, precisely because it is so very characteristic of these countries.
By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani
This is the sixth in a series of stories on the history of Greek foods. In this second article in a series of three, we continue to retrace the journey that built the foundations of the cultural identity of the Greek people.
Salepi is both the name for the powder obtained from the roots of certain species of orchids, and the drink that goes by the same name.
As an ancient preparation, this historical analysis should be divided in two parts, not periodical but etymological: I will describe both the origin of the myth of the orchid and the birth of the drink Salepi, which is strongly connected to mythological and ancient beliefs.
The Orchid and the figure of the Satyr
The mythological tradition that links the figure of the Satyr to the sexual sphere has led to indicate a mythological figure with the same name as the male reproductive system. Ορχις (Orchis), in fact, besides the scientific term to identify the testicles, was a character in the ancient myth, a son of a nymph and a Satyr.
During a banquet in honor of the god Bacchus, he raped a priestess who served at the temple hosting the festivities — a great crime.
As a punishment, the gods transformed the young man into a weak plant that was at the time considered of little value.
This was of course the plant today commonly called the orchid, but the nominative attribution was created later.
Thanks to the particular shape of the roots of the orchid, in fact, Theophrastus united myth and botany, attributing to the plant the name of Ορχιδεα (orchid).
Roots Once Considered Miraculous
With the advancement of botanical applications, the orchid was considered more and more curative and symbolically powerful over time.
The use of this plant was also described by the fathers of medicine: first of all Hippocrates, in the following centuries Galen praised its curative properties, and finally Asclepius, worshipped as a divinity thanks to his incredible medical skills, used the plant as a powerful curative in disorders related to the intestinal tract.
In ancient times orchids were referred to as “Σατειριον” (satirion), derived from the legends of the satyr, to indicate the aphrodisiac qualities that at that time were connected to this plant.
Remaining on the same subject, a common name still used today in Greece for the orchid and its roots is that of “Σερνικοβότανο” (sernicovotano): this name was born thanks to the belief, with Hellenistic roots, that the consumption of products derived from orchids by the father of the family helped to produce male children.
The Ancient Preparation of Salepi
Salepi is the drink derived from the powdered tubers of orchids. The name actually has Arabic roots, where “Sahlab” literally means “the fox’s testicles;” however, in this case it recalls the roots of the orchid plant, especially of the species which in ancient times were used for the production of this product.
Therefore thanks to an etymological and mythological basis we can reconstruct a geographical birth of the main product: the ancient Eastern Mediterranean.
As previously explained, the use of orchid tubers was characteristic both of ancient Greece, in ancient times, and of the countries of Asia Minor. Later on, thanks to the Greek influence on Romans, Salepi made an export journey that brought its use all the way to Britannia, modern-day Great Britain, in the north.
Along the streets of the ancient Roman empire it was called “Satyrion” (again with reference to the mythological satyr) or “Priapiscus” (with reference to the God Priapus, the symbol of the male sexual and procreative instinct.
In medieval England, witches were known to use infusions of the bulbs and flowers of orchids as a pain relieving treatment and in some cases as powerful aphrodisiacs.
As opposed to today’s preparation, where sweetened milk is used, going back in time water was the most common base for the drink Salepi. The use of sweeteners, however, remains unchanged: honey had, and has, the function of increasing both the flavor and the nutritious properties of the drink.
True properties of Salepi
Is there really any truth behind the many ancient beliefs and myths connected to this preparation?
Thanks to scientific progress, in the course of the years many ancient medical beliefs, linked to mythology, were debunked: this is also the case of Salepi and its connection with any aphrodisiac effects.
Although its curative and aphrodisiac properties have been praised for centuries, the reality is very different. In fact, the only medicinal qualities of Salepi are actually connected to its anti-diarrheal effects, thanks to the presence of various polysaccharides and the high presence of starches.
The characteristics that made it an integral part of life in ancient times remain linked to a purely symbolic and mythological discourse.
EU makes Salepi illegal due to environmental concerns
The consumption of the drink is certainly less common than in ancient times; however, in countries such as Greece and Turkey it is still possible to sip hot Salepi that is sold on city streets, especially during the Winter.
We cannot define only one type of orchid that is used today for the production of Salepi powder; however we identify those used most commonly.
Theoretically any type of orchid can be used, but today, unlike in ancient times, tubers that are used in Salepi powder are those that have not been divided, such as those of the lesser orchid, the male orchid, the military orchid and the pyramidal orchid.
To make the beverage we use 5 or 6 grams of Salep flour for every half liter of milk used; flower honey and aromatic elements such as spices (cinnamon, cloves, cardamom) and rose water are then added.
Nothing here seems to be unusual at all, certainly nothing that would make its preparation illegal; however, the great number of orchids needed to make the flour is the issue.
The powder from these tubers is obtained through a long process that involves four basic steps: the washing of the tubers, in order to eliminate the organic components more bitter to the taste; the peeling away of the outer layers; roasting the tubers at medium-high temperatures; and finally drying them at artificially-controlled temperatures.
Sounds good so far- but the problem is that this is hardly one of the ore ecologically sustainable processes since about one thousand orchids are needed for the production of 1 kg of Salepi powder.
This unfortunate fact has led to an International agreement, called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, an agreement meant to protect plants and animals from the potential harm posed by international trade.
Thanks to various e-commerce platforms, the purchase of such flours, and therefore the production of the drink, is still accessible to all, although it is much harder to come by these days because of the restrictions on orchid harvesting.
Protecting the natural environment and its fruits is of course paramount, but being able to sip this historic drink made from a thousand flowers in the streets of Athens of a Winter evening is an experience all its own.
Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here.