Mediterranean Diet in Ancient Greece

The Mediterranean diet in ancient Greece was quite consistent with its description in our time. The ancient Greeks had a diet that was rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and olive oil, with moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and dairy, and very little red meat. 

In ancient Greece, there was the so-called Mediterranean triad: olive oil, bread and wine, three traditional staples of Mediterranean cuisine. If you had these three products in your home, you had nothing to worry about. Given this, and also the fact that we will not be able to describe the entire culinary life of the ancient civilization in one article, let’s talk about these three main Mediterranean food products.  

Olive Oil in the Ancient Greek Mediterranean Diet

Wild olives have been growing in the Peloponnese and the Greek islands since the Neolithic. The first cultivated olives for pressing olive oil appeared in Crete about 3500 BC and were supposedly brought there by the Phoenicians.

Thus, the Greeks became the first Europeans to grow the olive tree in the Mediterranean.

Very quickly, the olive gained popularity throughout Greece. Olive oil has become a staple agricultural product and a major source of export earnings. And of course, olive oil became one of the fundamental components of the ancient Mediterranean Greek diet.

Interest in the cultivation of olives and the production of olive oil was high throughout the long ancient history of Greece. Therefore, it is quite understandable that even Aristotle considered this occupation important enough, studied the properties of the olive tree and turned its cultivation into a science. 

Olive mill in ancient Greece

It is worth noting that the methods of growing olive trees and producing olive oil, which appeared in ancient times, did not change over time and were used until the middle of the 19th century. For example, even then a horizontal rotating shaft was invented, with which olives were crushed, and a wooden screw, designed to press raw materials. 

Olive oil has been used for cooking, for frying, as a dressing for dishes, and for making sauces and marinades.

Although the culinary side of ancient Greece is more important to us now, it is worth mentioning that olive oil was also used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. Hippocrates described in his writings more than sixty uses of olive oil for pharmaceutical and medical purposes.

Olive oil has been used to treat dermatological diseases and muscle pain, as well as ulcers, cholera, gum disease, insomnia, nausea, fever, and abdominal pain.

In general, the importance of olive oil production was enormous, especially for the economy of many Greek islands, since the olive tree could be grown on land unsuitable for cultivating grain.

Thus, the very limited resources of the islands could have increased, making the olive an even more important food product than cereals.

It is not surprising that the olive tree was considered a sacred tree and was protected not only by the state, but also by the goddess Athena. 

Chop down an olive tree? This thought could have occurred only to a madman who decided to subject himself to endless humiliation or even painful death.  

Wine in the Ancient Greek Mediterranean Diet 

The ancient Greeks started growing grapes around 2000 BC. As with olive oil, it all started in Crete, and of course, it couldn’t have happened without the ubiquitous Phoenicians.

At first there were few vineyards, they were small and belonged to rich aristocratic families.

Everything changed during the reforms of Solon, who encouraged the peasants to plant vines. This ensured the widespread of viticulture throughout Greece. The grape harvest took place in early autumn. The harvested grapes were poured into huge vats and trampled underfoot.  

In the sixth century BC, mechanical grape presses first appeared in Greece, which made it possible to squeeze juice more efficiently. And of course, in terms of hygiene, it was a significant step forward.

The fermented juice was poured into clay amphoras, where it turned into wine. Simple wines were consumed fresh, while the best ones were left to mature to create truly great brands.

Wine merchants carefully selected the wines of the best producers and put their signatures on the amphoras, and often the signatures of officials who controlled trade in their region. This served as the highest guarantee of the quality of the wine.

The wines of ancient Greece differed significantly from those known to us: most of the wines were sweet, made from overripe or dried grapes.

Different regions of Greece produced a wide variety of wines. In some regions sea water was added to the wine, in others honey, herbs or spices. Accordingly, the taste of wines varied from region to region. The wines were sweet, bitter, sour, salty, savoury… 

Naturally, throughout the long ancient history, the preferences of the Greeks changed. At one time, sweet wines from the island of Thassos were considered the best, later wines from Lesvos, Lemnos and Rhodes came into fashion.

When drinking wine, the Greeks, like the Romans, diluted it with warm or cold water, depending on the season. The Greeks believed that only barbarians, such as the Cyclops Polyphemus, drink undiluted wine. Odysseus managed to get this monster drunk because Polyphemus never diluted wine with water.

As a result of Solon’s reforms, the wine trade very quickly turned into a huge industry and became as important a source of national income as the export of olive oil. And this went on for almost half a thousand years, until the Roman invasion of Greece in the 2nd century BC.

Settling along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Greeks brought to new lands the culture of wine drinking. This is how Greek wines got to Sicily and southern Italy, which were part of Greece until the 3rd century BC.

The Romans learned winemaking from the Greeks and even gave Greek names to some grape varieties: Grechetto, Grecanico, Greco di Tufo, Greco di Bianco, and so on, although these were no longer Greek wines. 

However, in ancient Rome, everything Greek was considered a symbol of high quality, so it was beneficial to give products Greek names.  

Bread in the Ancient Greek Mediterranean Diet 

“One wandering Spartan, having gone to the inn to spend the night, gave the host the fish that he had brought with him and asked him to cook it for dinner. The host agreed, but said that dinner would still require at least olive oil and bread, to which the Spartan objected: “If I had olive oil and bread, would I mess with this fish?!”
– An old Greek joke. 

The basis of the peasant diet was cereals. It was believed that every home should have flour made from wheat, barley or millet. Dough was kneaded from this flour, to which herbs (usually mint and thyme) were added, and bread was baked. Sometimes beans were also added to bread and cakes.

Wheat was a fairly expensive product and was often in short supply. In these cases, prohibitions and limits on the use of wheat flour were established. Wheat prices were regulated by the state, and in order to prevent food riots, the export of wheat was banned. The main export product of ancient Greece was olive oil, which was always in abundance.

The heyday of cereal cultivation came during the reign of Pericles, between the first and second Peloponnesian wars, when Athens experienced stable economic growth.

Simply put, there was a lot of food, primarily wheat.
There were bakeries on every corner where you could always buy Cappadocian bread, which was considered the best in those days. Many Phoenician bakeries appeared, baking yeast bread which quickly became popular.

Also very popular were barley cakes maza and wheat bread artos, made in the shape of animals or human figures, which were used in feasts of sacrifice.

The cult of bread was absolute. Bread was considered a completely independent food, it could be eaten separately from other dishes, just enjoying its taste.
Among the rich Greeks of that period, it was considered prestigious to have a bakery and a skilled baker at home.

Bread of inexpensive varieties was prepared from wholemeal flour, with a large amount of bran and impurities from beans and herbs. Such bread served as the main food for the common people.

Pericles also made sure that every house had an opson. An opson is anything you can dip bread into. It can range from plain olive oil to a complex sauce made from olive oil, onions, garlic, beans, sheep’s cheese, eggs, and many other ingredients. 

Not by Bread Alone: Mediterranean Food in Ancient Greece. 

Of course, in addition to bread, wine and olive oil, the ancient Mediterranean diet included many other foods.

A significant part of the ancient Greek Mediterranean diet consisted of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Cabbage, carrots, artichokes, chicory, watercress, lettuce, leeks, celery, beets, turnips, onions and garlic were very popular among vegetables.

Fruits, especially dried ones, were used mainly as a dessert or a source for making syrup. The most common types of fruits were grapes, figs, pomegranates, quinces, apples, plums and pears.

In addition to fruits, the role of a natural dessert was performed by honey. Beekeeping was a very common occupation. Greek thyme honey and pine honey were valued in Greece and far beyond its borders. Honey spread on wheat and barley cakes was a common sweet.

In ancient times, the Greeks already had almost all the spices and herbs that we now use in our Mediterranean diet: mint, sideritis, coriander, saffron, thyme, sage, basil, dill and oregano. 

Greece has always had enough fish, shellfish and other seafood, and most of it was relatively cheap. Large quantities of tuna, grey mullet, eel and sea bream were caught in the Aegean and Ionian Seas. Some types of fish, such as mackerel and sturgeon, were imported from the Black Sea, were considered a delicacy and were very expensive.

Small and salted fish were not in demand, the inhabitants of Athens preferred large and fresh. By the way, many sources indicate that the famous Roman fish sauce garum was invented by the Greeks as a way to get rid of small fish that no one wanted to cook and eat. However, in Greece this sauce has never enjoyed such success as in Rome.

In most regions of Greece, sheep, goats and cattle were bred. Beef was more rare because bulls were sacrificial animals. The Greeks rarely ate the meat of these animals, as they served as a source of dairy products and wool. As a rule, this happened during the sacrifices on holidays, when the meat of slaughtered animals was distributed.

Meat was also obtained by hunting. Wild goats, deer, hares, wild boars and even bears were game. Various species of wild birds were very popular, from huge partridges and pheasants to small finches and hazel grouses. As a rule, the meat of wild animals and birds was fried on a skewer, sprinkled with salt and poured with oil sauces.

Cattle breeding made it possible to diversify the diet by adding dairy products. Cheese and butter were made from sheep’s and goat’s milk. Cow’s milk was not particularly valued and was rarely eaten, it was mainly used to make butter.

Animal fats, including butter, were more popular in Macedonia, Thrace, and other northern regions of Greece, where there were fewer olive trees and, as a result, less olive oil. Somewhere in those places, apparently, Trahanas soup was invented. It was made from milk and cereals. And judging by the fact that this dish still exists, many people liked it very much.

Speaking about the gastronomic habits of the ancient Greeks, it is worth remembering Sparta. Probably many people know that it would be difficult to call this region the gourmet capital of ancient Greece.

In Sparta, there was a system of barracks public catering, which had as its goal the retention of citizens from effeminacy and excesses. According to a common joke, the courage of the Spartan warriors is rooted in their special Black Stew: a person forced to eat this every day will not value his life too much.

Plutarch mentions the Brutal Warriors’ signature dish made from lentils, pig’s blood and vinegar:
“A thing that met with special approval among them was their so-called black stew, so much that the older men did not require a bit of meat, but gave up all of it to the young men. It is said that Dionysius, the tyrant of Sicily, for the sake of this bought a slave who had been a Spartan cook, and ordered him to prepare the stew for him, sparing no expense. But when the king tasted it, he spat it out in disgust, whereupon the cook said, ‘O King, it is necessary to have exercised in the Spartan manner, and to have bathed in the Eurotas, in order to relish this stew.”

Yes, this was also part of the ancient Greek Mediterranean diet. 

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