Mediterranean Diet in the Ancient Mediterranean

In 2013, UNESCO included the Mediterranean diet in its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Here is what is said about this on the organisation’s official website“The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food. Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity. The Mediterranean diet emphasises values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity. It plays a vital role in cultural spaces, festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes. It includes the craftsmanship and production of traditional receptacles for the transport, preservation and consumption of food, including ceramic plates and glasses. Women play an important role in transmitting knowledge of the Mediterranean diet: they safeguard its techniques, respect seasonal rhythms and festive events, and transmit the values of the element to new generations. Markets also play a key role as spaces for cultivating and transmitting the Mediterranean diet during the daily practice of exchange, agreement and mutual respect.” 

What Was the Mediterranean Diet Before It Was Invented in America?

The world heard about the Mediterranean diet from a study by the American physiologist Ancel Keys. From this study, we learned that the basis of the diet is plant foods: fresh vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, and of course, olive oil.

Olive oil occupies a very important place as a rich source of vitamins E and K, as well as polyphenols (unique antioxidants that lower cholesterol and neutralise cancer cells). The Mediterranean diet also includes some fish, a moderate consumption of wine and very little milk, dairy products and red meat.

Keyes’ research was done in the 1950s, but what was before, say two thousand years ago? Do we know how their food habits have changed since they settled in the Mediterranean? Yes, it is known, and quite a lot.

What did the ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean eat, and can it be called the Mediterranean diet? In short, the answer is yes. 

Yes, it was the same Mediterranean diet and absolutely nothing has changed since then. But you know, there are always some details. 

Nowadays, the Mediterranean includes 22 countries with a population of about 500 million people and is located in various parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Two thousand years ago, the region included only one country: the Roman Empire. Therefore, most of the examples in this story will refer specifically to Rome, as the cultural center of the Mediterranean region at the beginning of the first century AD. 

What Was the Diet of the Ancient Mediterranean?

The basis of the ancient Mediterranean diet was the same food as now: grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, wine and extra virgin olive oil.

Bread, wine and olive oil were in every home and a rare meal was without these products. Moreover, at one time in Rome there was even a law that guaranteed the availability of these products to all citizens of the empire.

Meat dishes appeared on the tables of the inhabitants of the Mediterranean much less often than other products. It’s not that people consider meat unhealthy, it’s just that it was too expensive.

In those days, cattle were not bred on an industrial scale, as they are now. There were only sheep, goats and pigs raised on small farms, with sheep and goats raised mainly for the production of milk, cheese and wool. The main source of meat was poultry and game, which was found in abundance in almost all parts of the Mediterranean region.

People with average incomes could afford to buy meat no more than once a week.
In wealthy homes, meat dishes were prepared more often, with much attention paid to the originality and sophistication of these dishes. Such as for example, ostrich brains or crocodile sausages. Thus, the hosts tried to impress noble and influential guests.

Fish and seafood in the Mediterranean were the main and relatively inexpensive sources of animal proteins. The variety of fish products was in no way inferior to modern fish markets in coastal cities. The fish was fried, salted, smoked and dried. And fish soups were cooked long before the appearance of the famous Marseille bouillabaisse. 

In Rome they also made the famous gourmet fish sauce Garum. This seasoning left few people indifferent: some adored it, others simply felt sick. The latter included the author of Natural History, Pliny the Elder, who called the sauce “poison made from decaying fish”. 

Vegetables, Fruits, Cereals and Beans in the Ancient Mediterranean Diet

Grain crops, mainly wheat, barley and oats, were distributed throughout almost the entire territory of the region. From them, they made porridge (usually oatmeal in the morning) and baked bread.

The bread was very different from the one we buy in bakeries and supermarkets. It was made from very coarse flour, what we now call “whole grain”.

The variety of fruits and vegetables varied according to regions and climate. The most popular fruits were apples, pears, plums, peaches and cherries. Figs and persimmons grew almost everywhere, and dates were very common in northern Africa.

There were also plenty of vegetables: cabbage, green salads, carrots, onions and garlic, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, celery, artichokes, and asparagus. All this was grown and eaten throughout the Mediterranean. So, we can say there was everything, except maybe only potatoes and tomatoes. Well, there was also no corn then, so popcorn was not sold in ancient theatres.

Instead of popcorn, the audience bought sweet roasted beans (fava) in clay pots.
This allowed them not to starve to death while watching gladiator fights, which often lasted five or more hours. 

In general, beans were very popular in ancient Greece and Rome, and even more so in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. In poor families, lentil or pea soup was one of the main daily meals.

The inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean knew all the necessary technologies for food preservation. They canned everything: vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and seafood. Marinades based on wine and wine vinegar were used to preserve vegetables. The fruits were dried and this made it possible to eat them almost all year round. Dried fruits with honey were also used as a dessert.

Speaking of food preservation, it’s hard not to think about spices. Cardamom, thyme, nutmeg, basil, ginger, cinnamon, sage, cloves, turmeric, rosemary, cassia, pepper, dill, fennel…

Now we cannot imagine Mediterranean cuisine without these condiments. And you know, they also could not. Herbs and spices were an integral part of the usual cooking in the houses of the ancient Mediterranean. 

With only one caveat: in rich houses. Yes, spices were very expensive, even in the southern countries of the region. And yes, guys, actually we are now having a pretty good life, to be honest.

Farm Market or Supermarket? Where Did They Buy Food in the Ancient Mediterranean?

Food was sold in city markets, which were no different from our modern ones. We can say that absolutely nothing has changed in 2000 years.

Markets were open at least one day a week. The trading rows were located in the center, on the main city square, or next to it. Farmers and merchants brought their goods, put them on the shelves, and sold them to the townspeople. 

Vegetables, fruit, meat, game, fish and seafood, sausages, cheeses, olives, mushrooms, nuts, wine, olive oil, herbs, and spices… Everything was there. 

The larger the city, the wider the choice of products and the geography of their origin. In Rome, for example, you could buy not only the products of local farmers, but also spices from India, fruits from Asia Minor, honey, and olive oil from Spain.

Many products were produced in Rome, but there were always certain quality standards. For example, it was believed that the best onions grow in Egypt, the best pears are in Syria, and the best oysters live in the North Sea.

In the market, you could not only buy food and wine for your home or tavern kitchen. Here you could also use the communal brazier or bakery to cook your own food or bake your own bread from the freshly bought dough. For many city residents, the market was a great place to meet friends, have lunch and discuss the latest news. 

Wine in the Ancient Mediterranean Diet 

The wine was the most popular drink. It was drunk mainly in Rome, Greece, Spain, and also in the Middle East, in particular in Judea and Phoenicia. The wine was not only drunk, it was used to stew meat and vegetables, to make vinegar, marinades and sauces. The wine was considered an important accompaniment to most meals, and few would think of drinking wine without food. It was as strange as eating without wine.

Depending on the weather, wine could be served chilled or hot, with honey and spices. In Greece (with the exception of the northern provinces) it was customary to dilute wine with water. Undiluted wine was considered the drink of barbarians and drunkards.

And of course, wine like no other product, had a rich mythology and played a major role in the most important rituals of ancient society. In general, a lot is known about the role of wine in the Ancient Mediterranean and one can talk endlessly.

Therefore, it’s time to stop, otherwise, the next paragraph will begin with How Dionysus came to Greece and taught them all to drink wine and dance with beautiful girls. And this is a topic for a completely different story. 

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