Italian cuisine and Greek cuisine: the history, differences and common traits in the cuisines we all love is a fascinating journey into the past, showing that there was a fusion of Greek-Italian cuisine in historical times that comes down to the present day.
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.
By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani
When, after years of war, tempers finally calmed down and the ancient Greek territory became a province of the Roman Empire in 27 BC, there grew to be a strong cultural fusion between the two cultures, especially in the field of habits and customs of daily life.
It was then that a unique gastronomic stamp which constitutes the ancestor of the first common identity of Mediterranean diet was created.
The integration of Greek cooking, and of the way it was lived, despite the great admiration and curiosity aroused in Romans of the time, was not immediately viewed favorably by all.
This is especially true of politicians, who feared the loss of Roman identity, such as Cato the Censor (the politician and general) who pointed out the gastronomic and convivial Greek culture as too primitive and “impure.”
More earthy nature of Greek foodways combined with Roman refinements
Once all skepticisms were overcome, the introduction of Greek recipes and customs began, however, including the introduction of the culture of using the fruits of the olive tree, which incredibly had only been used by the Romans for religious purposes until that time.
Greek wine was preferred at the time, however; already in the pre-Hellenistic era the Greeks had used sea water as an additive to fermented grape juice.
Moreover, wine yeast was also introduced in the culture of Roman bread making.
Various sauces accompanying legumes and vegetables soon conquered the palate of Romans, such as gàron (γαρον), a sauce based on salted fish and their entrails.
Another meaningful import by the Romans at this time of Greek-Roman culinary fusion was the custom of a personal chef inside the more aristocratic homes, as a symbol of great wealth and attention to all things good and beautiful.
At the same time the Greek culture of food was positively influenced by the introduction of the Romans’ elegance and grace, which already at that time characterized the ideal of conviviality.
Greek people of the time, it must be said, had more crude attitudes toward the experience of dining: in fact, food was a pleasure and a spiritual enrichment only for the highest social classes, while for the rest of the population it was only sustenance, much needed for those who engaged in physical work.
A great example of this concept would be the μελανας ζωμος (mèlanas zomòs) or
black broth, with a base of meat, vinegar and pig blood, used by the Spartans in war in order to give the necessary energy for combat.
With the arrival of Roman culture into their lands, Greeks learned the importance of giving an air of refinement to the dishes they consumed, lending importance to the presentation, even including outdoor banquets.
End of Byzantine Empire marked enormous cultural division in Europe
Greco-Roman cuisine remained the main foldaway in these lands for the following centuries, until the end of the Byzantine empire in 1453: that marked the first large historical division of European gastronomic culture.
With the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, Greece was suddenly deprived of its own culinary identity by accepting and incorporating the Osmanic world for 400 years.
Meanwhile, the Italian lands began a journey which allowed them to have cultural exchanges and experience periods of artistic and culinary development, which led to the base of today’s traditional and regional cuisine in Italy.
The difference between the two culinary realities, Greek and Italian, in fact is due to this historically imposed detachment that began centuries ago.
Greek cuisine still today has many similarities with Turkish cuisine, not only in recipes and in common traditional dishes, but above all in the processes of preparation and in the condiments used. This shows itself in the strong presence of frying meat and a great use of spices (such as pimento and cumin), typical of Anatolian cuisine and of the countries of the old Ottoman empire.
Greek cuisine is a cultural crossroads
Nowadays, Greek gastronomy represents a very important cultural crossroads which strongly binds Mediterranean ingredients with the ancient culinary spirit of the area and the most recent cultural infiltrations of Asia Minor and the Balkan peninsula.
The Italian territory, on the other hand, has managed over the centuries to strongly impose itself as an artistic homeland on its own, consequently reinforcing its own culinary identity, leaving just enough space for evolution.
This is seen both in techniques used, which have many Spanish and French influences, and in its philosophical relationship with food, always putting it at the forefront of its own identity.
Italy is a unique country, but it has many cultural variations, which over the centuries have accepted various gastronomic influences, thus arriving at a unique culinary identity in its many regional facets.
Many similarities have been recovered between Greece and Italy in recent decades, thanks to a path of culinary rapprochement between the two countries — mainly from Greece, which has always been fascinated by the Italian gastronomy of today.
Greece’s lighter pastries of today part of more Italian influences
In today’s Greek family life, in fact, one can find more and more elements taken from the Italian footprint: the use of pasta and rice as main dishes and no longer as a side dish; the increase in the presence of beef as a substitute to sheep and pork; and in the habit of consuming lighter pastry products, no longer limited to Oriental influences (the best known example of this being baklava, made of pastry, syrup, honey, dried fruit and nuts).
Even in terms of organization, Greek cuisine is increasingly trying to align itself with Italian habits: the subdivision into starter, first and second course is becoming increasingly popular, replacing the concept of a banquet, which is still very present in the way of interpreting a meal even today in Greece.
The new generations are now accustomed to the ritual of the aperitif, replacing the more classic ouzo (a dry distillate with a strong alcoholic content) with mezedes (various selections of small samples such as olives, tzatziki and feta), with italian Spritz and finger foods.
As far as the world of catering is concerned, the Italian trend of recent years in create a conscious and much more productive economic system is becoming a valid example for the Greek tourist industry, which is perhaps still not adapted to an innovative and fast-moving market such as today’s.
The two realities still remain linked by the Mediterranean identity and character, a common spirit that has never been lost that unites both countries and both cultures.
The attitude and the way of living the cuisine, makes these two countries examples of gastronomy, conviviality and spirituality, even in a culinary world which is increasingly modern and less and less traditional.
Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here.