Blood in food

‘Do not taste dead flesh, nor touch blood’ S.Clementis I Rom.Opera dubia, PG, II, v. 220,175-6 ΙV.

Over the last 40 years, the Western European Christmas culture spread more and more in Greece. One result of this spread is the elimination of local customs, such as the slaughtering of the pig and the use of its blood in various dishes. In the past each family in the villages used to raise a pig which would be slaughtered on November or December, quite often on the last week before Cristmas and in some regions even on Christmas Eve. Some meat was cooked by the villagers during the day of slaugthering, but the most of the pork’s flesh was salted, smoked, pickled in vinegar, or cooked and stored in pig’s fat or in olive oil or it was used in a variety of sausages. Salted bones, lard, fat, jellies which were made with the pork’s head and the feet, etc., were among the most precious winter supplies of a peasant kitchen.One of the worth noticed home preparations are those made with the pig’s blood. The first reference to food made with blood comes from Homer’s Odyssey (Book 18). It is a stomach filled with blood and fat and roasted over a fire. During the ancient Laconian state’s meals people and army ate the Black Broth, a mixture of blood, vinegar and cereal. At ancient classical years the aimatitis hordi – an intestine or caul filled with blood, fat and crashed grains- was very popular. The oldest detailed recipe for a blood sausage, which is found in a compilation of 1th century AD attributed to Roman Apicius, is a rich recipe with no cereal, but chopped hard-boiled egg yolks, pine kernels, onions and leeks. However, the common blood sausages of the time were probably made with cereal, blood and fat.In Byzantium, the ancient aimatitis hordi was called aimatias and had remained so popular that survived up to our days as omathia. Currants and nuts enriched its flavor.

Today the use of blood in the food remains slightly outside the culinary mainstream. Perhaps because the animal blood presupposes direct contact with the animal. However many dishes of medieval or older origin are still found across Greece. Omathies, mathies or aimatίes, boumbari, a saucage of similar philosophy, the 17th century’s Cretan bouldouna or bouldouni, which is an adaption of the Venetian boldon, are preparations based on pig’s blood. Today the replacement of blood with lung and spleen is quite common. The bourdouni, which was also brought by Venetians in Corfu, is made with calf’s blood and pig’s fat. Although the origin of English black pudding, French boudin noir and Venetian boldon might be traced in the ancient Greek blood saucages through Roman cuisine, it is quite fascinating that this Venetian blood sausage returned to the old motherland. Since pig is the main traditional Christmas dish for the most Greek regions, omathies are eaten after the liturgy of Christmas morning, and they are the first feast food after the 40 days fast.

Another interesting dish is found under the name aima, which means blood, or xidato, a word that refers to food pickled or boiled in vinegar. Both names are references to the key ingredients, blood and vinegar. Aima or xidato is the first dish served to the slaughterer and to the neighbours who come to help with the killing.

The reason of dishes based on blood is clear enough. According to the economical rules of rural societies almost everything is eaten. When a pig is killed a large amount of blood becomes available. Blood has a very short life, so people had to find ways to preserve it. Besides, one of the most serious characteristics of eating blood-foods is the ancient idea of totemic Communion. Greeks of very past times used to sacrifice a bull to Dionysus Zagrea- one of the precocious forms of god Dionysus. They believed that eating his raw fleshes would drink the blood of god and take his force. Much later, the Christianism substituted the blood with the wine, and used it as symbol of blood of Christ. Simultaneously, following the Judaic tradition, the Christians prohibited the consumption of animal’s blood because the immortal soul lives in it. The punishment for such signs, according to the 67th rule of the Synod of Troulos, was the aphorism and the lost of eternity. The Byzantine State, connected with the Christian church, imposed severe punishments to those sold or ate blood foods. The 58th Neara, one of the laws of the emperor Leon the Wise, imposed humiliating hair cut, confiscation of property and exile to those who broke the prohibition. However, the tradition was powerful and the Christians did not stop using animal’s blood in certain foods, just as the pagans did.

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4 thoughts on “Blood in food

  1. Thank’s for the very interesting article.
    Just some extra info:
    There is stilla living tradition of pig slaughtering (chirosfagia) in Cyklades, specially in Mykonos and Andros. It is always a very important family feast , giving lots of food products, which is expected from friends and relatives of the farmer’s family. We are doing our own in Mykonos in my family almost every year, as lots of families do.
    Blood use tradition was found only in parts of Syros. This made me think that it was a religious reason that was still existing there, as the strict orthodox tradition was not found in the catholic families.

    Thanks again for your article and lots of wishes for a Happy New Year.

  2. 1) Mr. Rousounelos, you are right, there is still a living tradition of pig slaughtering in Cyklades, although in the most Greek regions choirosfagia have lost the ritual-magic-superstitious characteristics. But this is the subject for a next post.
    Blood use is also found in western Crete, particularly in mountainous villages of Chania, under the name of xidato (vinegared) or xidato aima (blood cooked in vinegar).
    Bourdouni, the sausage from Corfu, is still made, although not very often. Its ingredients are the thickened veal blood, chopped onion, garlic, spices and pork fat. It is eaten deep fried, cut into slices and quenched in vinegar. Sometimes pig blood is used instead of veal blood.
    And indeed there is a serious thought concerning the relation of the existence of blood foods to A) a weak orthodox tradition and a strong catholic element (Cyklades islands) or B) the influence of the Venetian eating habits in the areas which had been conquered by Venice (Crete, Ionian islands).
    Thank you for the meanigful comment. My best wishes for a Happy and Peaceful New Year.

    2) Phil thank you. My wishes for Happy New Year.

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