A Taste of Ancient Greek Food
Three archaic recipes harken to Greece’s past.
For soulful visitors to Greece, landscape and ruins have always offered two ways to commune with the past. The remnants of the Parthenon, from 432 b.c., seem irresistibly to conjure up the goddess Athena, for whom it was built, and the statesman Pericles, who oversaw its construction. But could Greek cuisine ever channel thus? Do modern dishes preserve ancient recipes? Touring Greece, could you—authentically, conveniently, enjoyably—eat what Plato ate?
The answer is yes, but rarely. After all, today’s Greek cooking is known for borrowings rather than inertia. Signature dishes like dolmas and baklava and staples like coffee and yogurt came from Turkey, by-products of the Ottomans’ almost 400-year rule over Greece that ended in 1832. Similarly, Greek pasta derives from Venetian overlords in the Greek islands from the 1200s to the 1700s; tomatoes and potatoes arrived from the New World; and eggplant came west from Arab lands in the Middle Ages. Much has changed since antiquity: That potato moussaka would have stumped Sappho.
Still, three regional dishes do seem venerably old, using local produce in ways that preserve the past—at least so far as modern archaeology and textual scholarship can surmise.
Snails fried in the shell on a bed of salt
Some of us associate snails with snooty French haute cuisine, but nearly the opposite is true: In southern Europe, for millennia snails have supplied free, convenient meat for the poor and other social classes. “All the Greeks eat snails every day,” wrote the Greek medical author Galen in the second century a.d., and archaeology partly corroborates his observation, through shells found in ancient trash pits. His comment probably refers to cooked snails’ popularity as a topping for porridge or bread. The tradition continues on the large island of Crete—a heartland of Greek regional culture and home to the famously healthy “Cretan diet.” In the hilly countryside, after rain, Cretan children gather snails flushed into the open by rainwater; the creatures typically are kept alive a few days on a cleansing diet of thyme and flour, then served up stewed or fried.
Snail dishes aplenty (also rabbit baked in yogurt, another local specialty) can be found in the island’s busy main city, Iráklion, named originally for the hero Heracles, or Hercules, but the simply prepared Bourbouristi—pronounced Boor-boor-ee-stee, the word echoes the popping and hissing sounds of snails in the frying pan—is a hallmark of Cretan cuisine.
Recipe: Rinse 30 snails in cold water; cut away their covering at the shell’s mouth. Sprinkle salt into a large frying pan and place it over medium heat. Place snails in the pan with shell mouths down. Fry for 1 to 2 minutes, then add 1/2 cup of olive oil, reduce the heat to low and cook for 25 minutes. Stir in 1/3 cup of red-wine vinegar; sprinkle with rosemary. Serve in the shells.
Pork Braised in Wine
With prunes and chestnuts
While modern scholars disagree on whether pork was the classical Greeks’ main meat, it was a more usual Greek fare then than now. Domesticated pigs abounded, as archaeology and extant ancient writings show. Needing not much living space and happy to eat almost anything, pigs were reared in city settings as well as in the countryside. And because sows often delivered more young than they could easily nurse, some culling was necessary. In ancient Greek religion, pigs often supplied sacrifices to the gods (whereby normally the slain animals’ flesh would produce a banquet roast for the participating humans). Pigs, especially piglets, were the special sacrifice to Demeter, a goddess of the grain harvest.
Today pork cuisine thrives in northern Greece, including in the region called Central Macedonia and its major city, Thessaloníki, whose strategic importance in late antiquity is recalled in its Roman ruins and lovely Byzantine churches. This flavorful dish, with its use of local ingredients—chestnuts, prunes and xinomavro (sour black) red wine—is traditionally served in the fall and at Christmas, when pig herds were culled.
Recipe: Peel and boil 20 chestnuts. In a bowl, mix the chestnuts with 20 prunes, 1 cup of tea and 1 cup of port or any sweet wine. Leave overnight. Slice up 2 lbs of boneless pork and sauté until brown. Add to the saucepan 1 cup of xinomavro wine and 1 cup of water, then simmer covered for more than 2 hours, until pork is tender. Add the prepared mix and bring to a boil; the pork should be allowed to absorb most of the juice. Serve with rice.
Candy of roasted sesame seeds and honey
This delicious and not-unhealthy snack has links to the city of Kalamata, in the Messenia region in the southern Peloponnese. (Yet variants exist: for example, the similar melekouni candy on the Greek island of Rhodes.) Kalamata is a pleasant port town halfway between the ancient sites of Sparta and Pylos, about 35 miles each way, and best known for its olives. Here pasteli is produced commercially. Packaged snack bars from the Kalamata region are found in grocery stores and tobacco shops throughout Greece.
The recipe probably hasn’t changed in 3,000 years. While no ancient candy-making instructions survive for us, several texts—including by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes (around 421 b.c.) and the polymath Athenaeus (around a.d. 200)—do document the ancient Greek sweet tooth for sesame-honey cakes of various types, as well as a certain reverence toward the sesame seed. The Athenians ate flat cakes called itria, for example, and spherical ones, sesamides, which were customary at weddings and were intended, in their visible profusion of seeds, to create good omens for the young bride’s fertility. In a similar spirit were Sicilian Greek versions, made to be carried in religious processions for the goddess Demeter and shaped like a vulva.
So as you snack on homemade pasteli, feel free to ignore its primordial invocation of motherhood. But you might marvel briefly that you’re (probably) eating what Plato ate.
Recipe: In a heavy saucepan over moderate heat, boil 1 cup of honey, 1 cup of oven-roasted sesame seeds and 1/2 tsp of salt, stirring frequently. Allow to boil for 15 more minutes, until the mixture thickens. Pour it into an inch-deep baking ring lined with olive oil and positioned on a silicone baking mat. Let the mixture cool for about 35 minutes. Peel the mat from the ring; set the ring on a cutting board; with an oiled knife, separate the candy and cut into strips.