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Ancient Greeks were Gourmands with a Preference for Fish

Fish ancient greek
An ancient Greek plate featuring fish. Credit: Public Domain

Ancient Greeks were gourmands and particularly fond of large fresh fish and eel, according to research headed by zooarchaeologist Dr. Demetra Mylona.

The zooarchaeologist, who does research for the Institute of Aegean Prehistory Study Center for East Crete, is collecting data from written sources, scientific texts, and from the study of ancient remains of fish, such as bones.

“We can also learn a lot from ancient bones of fish brought to light by the archaeologist’s hoe and by the pots in which they were cooked, conducting chemical analysis of food residues,” Mylona told the Athens News Agency.

“At the same time,” Mylona said, “there are references in many ancient texts where, for example, in Classical Era Athens, the purchase of all fish by a wealthy citizen was considered an undemocratic act since he left nothing for the rest of the people.”

A stone fish price list from the 2nd century BC found in Akraifnio of Boeotia, which at the time was on the shores of Lake Copais, includes prices of both sea fish and lake fish.

Ancient Greeks loved fish from the Aegean

At the time, being a fisherman was considered one of the most difficult professions, especially for those fishing at sea.

Ancient inscriptions speak of wealthy fishing guilds near rich fishing waters. Particularly profitable, however, appears to be the profession of fish merchant.

According to Mylona, the ancient Greeks had a special preference for Aegean fish living in rocks, but also liked fish from the open seas, such as tuna, a sought-after fish. They also liked mackerel, bonito and anchovy, which were abundant during their season and were easy to catch with nets.

“Of course, we do not have the names for all fish found in ancient sources, except where details of the characteristics of the fish are given,” she explained to the Athens News Agency.

As for processed fish, such as preserved tuna and anchovies, they were widely consumed by all social classes and were the product of a very flourishing trade throughout the Mediterranean and the adjacent seas.

Mylona also pointed out that in antiquity and through the Middle Ages, garos was a basic element of Mediterranean diet.

“Garos was a sort of sauce, made from fatty fish with salt, equivalent to the fish sauce of the cuisine of South Eastern Asia. High quality garos, made of tuna offal and blood, was expensive,” she stated.

There were cities around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea that lived from the production and trade of garos and other fish products. Today, we find the amphorae in which they were transported, which, in addition to their characteristic shape, often contain the remains of processed fish,” Mylona said.

The ancient Romans also acquired a taste for the the Greek fish sauce, and called it “garum.”

The average diet in ancient Greece

The diet of the ancient Greeks is fascinating for so many reasons. They had impressively varied eating habits by any measure, but they naturally contrasted in many ways to ours— with the most characteristic difference being that they ate much less than we do today.

In ancient Greece, people would begin their day with a very lean breakfast, which included a little barley bread, dipped in lukewarm wine and figs.

Another common breakfast food was actually a drink, called “Kykeonas,” a libation made of boiled barley, flavored with mint or thyme, which was believed to have healing properties.

Greeks of that time were very fond of fish, perhaps even more than we are today. For lunch, they would routinely dine on any fresh fish that was available, including sea bream, mullet, sardines, and eels.

There was always an assortment of legumes from which to choose, including lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas and broad beans to accompany the fish.

The eternal European staple of bread was always part of the midday meal, accompanied by cheese, olives, eggs, nuts, and fruit.

Ancient Greeks considered dinner to be the most important and enjoyable meal of the day.

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