Posts Tagged ‘Reay Tannahill’

Reay Tannahill (1929- November 2, 2007)




















Although by 3000 B.C., the peoples of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys had adapted their diet to fit their farming, in Greece – according to Homer – animal husbandry was still the decisive factor two thousand years later. Antiphanes might afterward complain that Homer’s idea of a good meal was woefully dull, and Athenaeus that the epic heroes knew nothing of even such commonplace delicacies as “entrees served in vine leaves,” but Homer drew on a sound tradition, not only for his characters’ exploits but for their food. The warriors of Greece in the twelfth century B.C. had ancestral ties with the nomad pastoralists of Central Asia and, in all probability, still lived a life not too far removed from theirs. When Achilles played host to Odysseus outside the walls of llium, he gave him a meal which might have been offered by any nomad chief for a thousand years before, or two thousand years after, the Trojan wars.

Patroclus “put down a big bench in the firelight, and laid on it the backs of a sheep and a fat goat and the chine of a great (wild) hog rich in lard. Automedon held these for him, while Achilles jointed them, and then carved up the joints and spitted the slices. Meanwhile, Patroclus, the royal son of Menoetius, made the fire blaze up. When it had burned down again and the flames disappeared, he scattered the embers and laid the spits above them, resting them on logs, after he had sprinkled the meat with holy salt. When he had roasted it and heaped it up on platters, Patroclus fetched some bread and set it out on the table in handsome baskets; and Achilles divided the meat into portions.” This heroic predilection for roast meat was not to survive the problems set by the landscape of Greece. In the early days, wild boar were still there for the hunting, and a few settled communities were able to feed the domestic pig on acorns and  beechmast  from the trees which clothed the lower levels of the mountain ranges. But the long narrow valleys of the interior and the slender ribbons of fertile plain around the coasts set an irrevocable limit to stock-raising. Only in a few areas, such as Boeotia – whose name, in fact, means “cow land” – were there plains wide enough for pasturing cattle.

While the human population was small, the farmer and his family lived off the land in modest comfort. They grew a little wheat or barley, tended their olive and fig trees and a few vines, reared pigs, and kept a goat to provide milk and cheese. If they were rich, they might have a small flock of sheep, or a pair of oxen or mules.

By about 650 B.C., however, many peasants in such areas as Attica were leading a marginal existence on marginal land. As the population increased, good land became scarce. The hillsides had been denuded of many of their trees to provide the timber needed for houses, for the ships on which the Greek states depended for trade and transport, for the charcoal which was being swallowed up in ever-increasing quantities by the demands of metalworking. Tree-felling at first seemed beneficial. Not only did it provide valuable timber; it also cleared new land for cultivation. But the light soil of Greece, no longer fed by dead leaves or held together by living tree roots, began to be washed away in the torrential rains of winter. Formerly, the rains had been valuable. Filtered through the branches, they had soaked slowly and gently into the soil and then down to the limestone below; from the limestone they drained gradually to the plains. Now, instead, the rains became destructive, pouring down on the naked hills too heavily to be absorbed, and then thundering on to flood the plains. Gradually, the hills lost their soil and the valleys their fertility.

The peasants who attempted to carry on traditional, self-sufficient farming on the increasingly barren lower levels of the hill-sides plunged deep into debt. In the old days, a family short of grain in the lean period before the harvest had been able to borrow a sack or two from a neighbor. But after money was introduced into Greece in 625 B.C., things changed. Instead of borrowing grain, the peasant had to borrow enough money to buy it at high pre-harvest prices. When the time came to repay, he either had to raise the cash by selling his own produce at low post-harvest prices, or hold on until the market began to improve, paying punitive rates of interest in the meantime.


At the beginning of the sixth century B.C., Solon forbade the export of any agricultural produce other than olive oil. It was a well-meant gesture, but it struck the fatal blow at the Greek landscape. Such fibrous-rooted trees as remained were felled for the sake of the olive, whose deep-striking tap root soaked up the moisture far down in the limestone and did nothing to knit, conserve or feed the topsoil. By the fourth century B.C., Plato was gloomily contrasting the bare white limestone of the Attic countryside he knew with the green meadows, woods and springs of the past. The pure and brilliant light which is so startling a characteristic of Greece today had been bought at the expense of the trees which had once kept the land fertile. It took thousands of years for the neolithic revolution to desiccate the flat countryside of Mesopotamia, but only a few hundred in the topographical context of Greece.

Cultivation of the olive seems to have originated six thousand years ago at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The straggly, spiny wild plant, poor in oil, was widely distributed even before this time, but it needed the agricultural and mercantile genius of the Syrians and Palestinians to develop the thornless, compact, oil-rich variety which was to spread all along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Oil was everywhere in demand in the ancient world, for food, lighting and medicine, as well as for the lustrations of Egypt and the perfumed unguents with which the early Mediterranean peoples anointed their bodies. The olive was by no means the only provider, though it was the richest known during the Western bronze age. In Greece, oil was also extracted from the walnut and the opium poppy; in Mesopotamia and Africa, from sesame; from almonds in Anatolia; flax and radish seeds in Egypt; flax and cameline in northern Europe. South, Central and western North America had, respectively, groundnut, maize, and sunflower-seed oil, while in Asia the soybean and the coconut palm were probably the richest early sources.

In Crete, the olive was under cultivation at least as early as 2500 B.C., and the island soon waxed fat on exporting oil as well as the timber that had to be felled to make way for the new groves. The palace of Nestor at Knossos has yielded to archeologists great numbers of stirrup jars which once contained expensive and much-prized oil perfumed with aromatic herbs from the hill-sides. But dependence on the olive in a small country brought, as a natural sequel, dependence on external trade for the necessities of life and a resultant defenselessness in wartime. Crete discovered this, and Athens was to do so too.

During the century and a half after Solon, Athens grew rich on silver from the mines of Laurium and the smooth green-gold oil of the olive. But as first the olive and then the vine – supplemented by fig and nut trees – took over the Attic landscape, livestock became few and wheat and barley virtually disappeared. The trade of Greece, and the Greek empire itself, expanded to meet the country’s urgent need for basic food supplies.


The olive was the first great export crop of Greece, but it was closely followed by the product of the vine. From about the fifth until the latter part of the first century B.C., Greece and the islands were, to the Mediterranean world, the home of fine wines. There are many picturesque tales about the origins of wine, but what almost certainly happened was that at some time in prehistory a containerful of grapes was left neglected in a corner; that they fermented; and that some inquisitive person tasted the fermented juice – and found it good. The wild vine flourished in the Caucasus, and it was probably there that the plant was first brought under cultivation. By 3000 B.C. it had reached Mesopotamia – whose rulers seem from then on to have taken a very personal interest in it – and Egypt, where wine was first used almost entirely for temple rituals. It was not, apparently, until Greek influence began to be felt in Egypt in the first millennium B.C. that private vineyards became common and wine found its place as a popular drink. But Egyptian temple vintners had become expert long before then, and it is possible that the Greeks simply re-exported to secular Egypt the knowledge that they had earlier imported from priestly Egypt.

In the Mediterranean during the Greek golden age, many countries produced their own ordinaires, but the rich insisted on importing the scarce and expensive vintages of Lesbos and Chios. The great growths appear to have been sweet, and it has been suggested that the most famous wine of antiquity – the Pramnian so frequently mentioned by Homer – may have been as rich as Tokay. Since both Greeks and Romans followed the Egyptian custom of drinking their wines well diluted with water, the finer vintages were often kept until they were as thick and sticky as honey.

The wine was fermented in vats smeared inside and out with resin, which gave it a characteristic tang, and then filtered into goatskins or pigskins if it were intended for local consumption, or into clay amphoræ for export. Fermentation was not a scientifically controlled process, and the wines of the ancient world did not keep well unless special mixtures were added. Each region had its own formula. One consisted of adding a brew of herbs and spices which had been mixed with condensed sea water and matured for some years, while a later Roman recipe favored the addition of liquid resin mixed with vine ash to the grape juice before fermentation. Filled wine jars were often kept to mature in the loft where wood was seasoned and meat smoked, but although reasonable smoking was thought to improve a wine, all Romans with pretensions to good taste were united in vilifying those French vintners who over-smoked their wines in order to make them appear older than they were.

Greek wines were to go out of international fashion after the first of the great Italian vintages, the Opimian, appeared in 121 B.C. In the centuries that followed many other Italian wines, including Falernian, became household names and the competition turned out to be too stiff for Greece. Italian vineyards were able to produce 1600 Imperial, or 2000 American, gallons an acre – far more than those of Greece, which were never very productive and always old-fashioned in their methods. Also, as the power of Rome expanded, the taste for Italian wine – even the vine itself – was carried to many new lands.


The Greek peasant never saw much of the profit from his olives or his vines, but while there was peace he and his family could rely on a solid, if monotonous, sufficiency of food. Sir Alfred Zimmern’s frequently quoted definition of the Attic dinner as consisting of two courses, “the first a kind of porridge, and the second a kind of porridge,” was unduly severe. The Greek word maza, like the Latin puls, is usually translated – rather indiscriminately – as “cakes” or “porridge,” but in fact both maza and puls were terms which almost certainly included unbaked grain-pastes in the neolithic tradition. The word maza, for example, implies kneaded things other than bread, while puls seems to have been a more general term which included pastes made from lentils and beans as well as from grain. From the elder Pliny’s recipes for Greek and Italian barley puls, it is clear that the result must have been an oily, highly seasoned paste rather than a porridge.

The Greeks, said Pliny, “soak some barley in water (probably for a few days) and then leave it for a night to dry. Next day they dry it by the fire and then grind it in a mill . . .  When it has been got ready, in the mill they mix three pounds of flax seed (which produces linseed oil when warmed and pounded), half a pound of coriander seed, and an eighth of a pint of salt, previously roasting them all.” Italians, on the other hand, first baked their barley without steeping it in water, and then ground it “into fine meal, with the addition of the same ingredients, and millet as well”

It was still one of the virtues of the grain-pastes, even in these late and sophisticated forms, that they remained palatable for a considerable time. For long-term storage, Pliny recommended packing the puls into a container and covering with a layer of flour and bran.

In Classical Greece, the peasant ate not only barley-pastes but barley gruel and barley bread. With this basic fare, he would have a handful of olives, a few figs, or some goat’s milk cheese. Occasionally there would be salt fish as a relish. The meal was washed down usually with water or goat’s milk, sometimes with wine.

Meat was a rarity except at times of religious sacrifice and feasting. On such occasions the officiating priest, after paying due heed to the portents indicated by the shape and condition of the sacrificial animal’s liver, would divide the carcass into three parts – one (not usually the best) for the god, one for the priest, and one for the donor or donors,  while the god’s portion reduced itself to cinders before the altar, the priest exercised his culinary skill in preparing and roasting the donors’ ration, watched by his audience in a silence compounded of equal piety and anticipation. None – it may be assumed, would have dared be as greedy as the later Roman emperor Vitellius, who, according to Suetonius, “thought nothing of snatching lumps of meat cake off the altar, almost out of the sacred fire, and bolting them down.

Until the middle of the fifth century B.C., the diet of rich and poor in Greece probably did not differ very radically. The rich would drink less water and more wine; they would eat goat, mutton or pork more frequently; and such game as deer, hare, partridge and thrushes might lend variety to the menu. But in country and city alike, early Greece was an outdoor society and its cuisine was correspondingly plain. Morning and midday snacks were taken outdoors, or at the corner of a table, and the more substantial evening meal was equally unceremonious. The symposium or banquet so dear to literary tradition was a type of dinner party at which the food was disposed of rapidly before the real business of the evening, – talking and drinking – began.

Some idea of the style of cooking in Greece in about 450 B.C. can be gathered from a passage in Telecleides’ The Amphictyons, in which the author reconstructs life in an imaginary golden age.
“Every torrent ran with wine, and barley-pastes fought with wheaten loaves to be first to men’s lips . . . Fish would come to the house and bake themselves, then serve themselves up at table. A river of broth, swirling along hot pieces of meat, would flow by the couches; conduits fuIl of piquant sauces for the meat were close at hand for the asking . . . On dishes there would be honey cakes ail sprinkled with spices, and roast thrushes served up with milk cakes flew down a man’s gullet.” Though it may sound appetizing, it was essentially a plain cuisine.

The average Greek was no great gourmet, but even he shuddered at the diet favored by the earnest Spartans, whose “black broth” – reputedly made of pork stock, vinegar and salt – was infamous throughout the civilized world. Indeed, Athenaeus reports that a sybarite who went to Sparta was invited out to dine. “As he lay on the wooden benches and ate with them he remarked that he had always before been astounded to hear of the Spartans’ courage; but now . . . he did not think they were in any respect superior to other peoples, “For, concluded Athenaeus gleefully, “the most cowardly man in the world would prefer to die rather than endure living that sort of life.”

The contrast between the food of the rich and poor became more pronounced in Athens during the period of Athenian greatness. The city became a center of magnificence, self-assured and very conscious of its intellectual eminence. It would have been strange if this state of mind had not struck an echo in the Greek kitchen. Although no recipe books remain, titles and extracts have been preserved in other works. There appear to have been at least a dozen culinary vade mecums with the title The Art of Cooking, and such authors as Glaucus of Locris, Mithæcus,Heraclidus, Hegesippus, Eristratus and Euthydemus wrote treatises on Gastronomy, Pickles, Vegetables, Sicilian Cooking, and similar subjects.

The father of all Greek writers on cooking, and self-styled inventor of “made dishes,” was Archestratus who, in the fourth century B.C, “diligently traversed all lands and seas in his desire . . . of testing carefully the delights of the belly.”  In the historical record, Archestratus was the first in that long line of gastronomic pedants, half ludicrous, half irritating, wholly familiar even in the twentieth century, whose pronouncements on haute cuisine have so successfully obscured the realities of everyday eating. While most Athenians who liked tunny fish had to put up with the dried or salted variety from the Black Sea, Archestratus busily insisted that none but the fresh kind from Byzantium would do, and that it should be eaten only “in the autumn, what time the P1eiad is setting.”

As the decades passed, Athenian tastes became more exotic. A pig which had died of over-eating was regarded as a great delicacy, and geese were painstakingly fed on moistened grain to fatten them for the table. The eggs of the peacock – a rare and much admired bird, bred in the gardens of the rich – were claimed to be highly superior. “Fox-goose” eggs ranked second, and hens’ eggs a distant third. The domestic hen was common in the Mediterranean by the fifth century B.C. and almost every Athenian had one – which may explain the rather poor gastronomic rating of its eggs.

By the third century B.C., Athens had developed the original hors d’oeuvre trolley, an innovation which other Greeks stigmatized as evidence of a miserly disposition. Lynceus, in The Centaur, complained that an Athenian dinner was little short of revolting, especially to a hungry man. “For the cook sets before you a large tray on which are five small plates. One of these holds garlic, another a pair of sea urchins, another a sweet wine sop, another ten cockles, the last a small piece of sturgeon. While I am eating this, another is eating that; and while he is eating that, I have made away with this. What I want, good sir, is both the one and the other, but my wish is impossible. For I have neither five mouths nor five right hands”. Such a layout as that seems to offer variety, but is nothing at all to satisfy the belly.

Satisfaction was a relative term. The Peloponnesian wars of the latter part of the fifth century B.C. had wrought havoc in the Attic countryside. Within the walls of Athens, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes produced works of genius; outside the walls, villages were razed and crops ruined. Recovery was to be, at the least, agonizing, at the worst, impossible. It takes three or four years for a newly planted vine to produce a worthwhile crop, thirty years in the case of the olive. Ultimately, the small peasant sold out to the speculators and left the countryside – as so many peasants in so many countries have done, before and since – for the doubtful haven of the city.

The poet Alexis of Thurii, in the fourth century B.C., described the fare of an impoverished family of five who existed mainly on pulses, greens and turnips, varied with iris rhizomes, beechnut, lupin seeds (reported to be sour but very nutritious), an occasional grasshopper, wild pears, “and that god-given inheritance of our mother country, darling of my heart, a dried fig.” If there was enough food for more than three of the family, it was unusual.

As a rule the other two had to make do  with a mouthful of barley-paste. But though sporadic attempts were made to help the Athenian poor, it was to be left to the Romans to embark on the first massive –  and, in the end self-defeating – social welfare project.

Reay Tannahill















Accustomed as we are to think of the ancient Greeks  – apart from their androcentrism and lamentable treatment of women – as being a civilised people, most of us would be a little startled to hear that raw fermented grain and lentil pastes  comprised (as they also did in Roman times)  the ordinary daily fare of an average person.

Not only that, but to learn from Reay Tannahill about the sheer scarcity of food, which compelled two out of every five family members (and we should have no difficulty whatsoever in surmising that those two would have had to have been women) to go hungry at mealtimes, comes as a bit of a shock.

But then, this meagre and (what might well seem to us) distasteful diet might have been an improvement on the food of what has been referred to by Hesiod, Virgil, Cervantes and others, as the ‘Golden Age’ –  a happy and peaceful time predating civilisation, with all its attendant detriments such as money, war, poverty and servitude – when ‘men’ lived happily on acorns and honey.

This was necessarily a time predating agriculture, but it was a time of settled existence. Ancient though they were, the people of the ‘golden age’ were not the nomads who pre-dated the agriculturalists, and their culture does not resemble that of the of the nomads who raised animals for food, clothes and shelter.

Hunting and gathering is something we associate with the brutishness of Neolithic existence, but again, the golden age was warm –  and it does not seem to have taken place during the ice-encroached millennia endured by our stone-age ancestors. Life, if we are to believe the descriptions handed down to us of this time, was leisurely,  and possibly communal. People cooked their food, sang, danced, painted and composed poetry.

Fermented  lentil pastes of early agricultural times still retain their place in Indian and Ceylonese (Sri-Lankan) cuisine , but only as cooked (on a griddle or deep-fried) food, and they are never eaten raw. We retain our culinary links with our distant ancestors in our barbecues, clam-bakes and ‘luaus’ which probably hark back to the time, when food was cooked over hot coals without benefit of containers, and groups of people ate the common meal together, conversing, telling – or reciting –  stories and making music.

But this  picture, so suited to our dreamy idealisations of an ideal past, may be just the slightest bit out-of-focus.  The discovery of  the corpse of Ötzi the Iceman from 3300 B.C.E, who was found with an arrow lodged in his back, seems to suggest that however far back we go in human history – or prehistory – we are likely to find evidence of homicide and worse.

I found an interesting essay in Robert Graves’s book The Common Asphodel: collected essays on poetry 1922 – 1925, in which he explains that the tubers of the Asphodel were widely eaten in Greece before corn (what we refer to as wheat) was widely grown there. The tubers were roasted in the ashes and eaten with salt, and according to Hesiod, they were  sometimes eaten after being pounded into a mash with figs. Roasted Asphodel seeds were also eaten like corn (wheat) or made into bread.

Asphodels were said to grow in the Elysian fields, where the souls of the just took their post-mortem rest. Perhaps it is due to this sepulchral association that Asphodel is no longer eaten today, or perhaps it is because eating, for most of us, is no longer predominantly a matter of sustenance, but of taste.




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