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Archestratus: The Ancient Greek Gourmand on the Secrets of Gastronomy

Archestratus ancient gastronomy
Fresh fish, one of the favorite dishes of the Greeks, platter with red figures, c. 350–325 BC, Louvre. Public Domain

The father of gastronomy is regarded as Archestratus, an ancient Greek poet and philosopher in the mid-4th century BC from Gela or Syracuse in Sicily.

In his humorous didactic poem “Hedypatheia” (“Life of Luxury”) written in the 4th century BC, he advises a gastronomic reader on where to find the best food in the Mediterranean world and reveals the secrets of ancient Greek cuisine.

The poem has long since been lost, but we have access to 62 fragments of it, about 300 lines in total. In 228 AD, the writer Athenaeus still had access to the poem, and had his dinner table guests quote it in his book, Philosophers at Dinner. These are the 62 fragments that we now have.

Archestratus was the first to approach cooking as an art and made extensive references on consuming fish and pulses and drinking wine, which were highly appreciated by the ancient Greeks and remain to date among the typical ingredients of a healthy modern Greek diet.

The origin of the modern-day word gastronomy (meaning Rules of the Stomach) is attributed to Archestratus, Europe’s first gourmet writer, and his later readers who knew his poem by the name “Gastronomia.”

According to Greek archaeologist Georgia Karamitrou-Mentesidi, Archestratus presented five golden rules about cooking and eating that prove equally valuable today as they did in his time.

1. Use raw food materials of good quality
2. Combine them harmoniously
3. Avoid hot sauces and spices
4. Prefer lighter sauces to enjoy the meal
5. Use spices moderately, so as not to interfere with natural flavors

Archestratus was probably not a full-time cook himself because cooks would generally not have been educated enough to write, let alone write poetry. He must, though, have been a lover of good food, and must have interacted with his cooks and servants a good deal because of the knowledge that comes through in his poem.

Archestratus’ gastronomy advice includes the notion that fish should be cooked and flavored with simple ingredients with the use of stronger flavors reserved only for lesser quality fish. He disliked the habit people in Syracuse had of adding cheese to fish dishes.

A sample of Archestratus gastronomy advice

Archestratus says of gastronomy:

But I say to hell with saperde, a Pontic dish, And those who praise it. For few people Know which food is wretched and which is excellent. But get a mackerel on the third day, before it goes into salt water within a transport jar as a piece of recently cured, half-salted fish.
And if you come to the holy city of famous Byzantion, I urge you again to eat a steak of peak-season tuna; for it is very good and soft.

Do not allow anyone come near you when you bake sea wolf neither Syracusan nor Italiote, for they do not know how to prepare them decently. But they ruin them and make a mess out of them with cheeses and sprinklings of the liquid vinegar and the silphion brine.

First I shall recall the gifts to humankind and fair-haired Demeter, friend Moschus: take them to your heart. The best one can get, the finest of all, cleanly hulled from good ripe ears, is the barley from the sea-washed breast of famous Eresus in Lesbos—whiter than airborne snow. If the gods eat barley, this is where Hermes goes shopping for it.

But if you go to the prosperous land of Ambracia and happen to see the boar-fish, buy it! Even if it costs its weight in gold, don’t leave without it, lest the dread vengeance of the deathless ones breathe down on you; for this fish is the flower of nectar…

Gastronomy in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, people would start off their day by eating something plain as a breakfast, which was called akratisma and included bread dipped in a bit of wine.

Around noon or even in the early evening, they would have a quick meal called ariston, which included bread and olive oil, perhaps with fresh or dried fruit and red wine.

Before dinner, which was the most important meal of the day, ancient Greeks would have a snack called esperisma. Dinner or deipnon was usually a feast where everyone could enjoy the food after their day was over.

Ancient Greeks are known for their simple meals and eating habits. They usually enjoyed cereals and wheat and barley, and that’s why Homer called them bread eaters. They accompanied their bread with onions, olives, fruits, herbs, and sweets.

Another favorite meal was etnos, a fava of broad beans and lentils. Garlic and cheese were also regularly included in their dishes while fresh and salted fish topped the list of their nutrition.

Meat consumption, on the other hand, was perceived as barbaric, and thus, was rarely found on the table.

At the end of each dinner, ancient Greeks would enjoy a dessert with fresh or dried fruits, honey, and nuts. Wine was the basic drink, and it would be diluted with water to avoid dizziness so that conversations could still be followed.

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